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Hale-Bopp Letters

Exciting correspondence following Greg Frost's Ansible 117 reminiscences!

Marc Ortlieb wrote:

While not doubting Gregory Frost's words, it does worry me that he says 'Charles Shramek and I went to high school together. We occasionally cooked up batches of helium....'

Now, unless they had a cold-fusion reactor working in their back yard, cooking up helium is not an easy thing to do. I gather it has to be extracted from natural gas using fairly sophisticated techniques.

Hydrogen is easy enough to 'cook up' – a friend and I found aluminium and sodium hydroxide solution generated adequate quantities for filling balloons.

Mistaking hydrogen for helium is almost as bad a scientific mistake as finding UFOs behind comets and could be just as fatal, on a one-to-one basis.

Greg Frost replied:

Hasn't he seen The Saint? Now we all have cold fusion. And it lives inside Elizabeth Shue's bra. Doesn't get better than that.

On sober reflection he rephrased this:

Apologies for the idiot gaffe in my reminiscence about Shramek. Yep, it was indeed hydrogen and not helium we were cooking up in the garage, no matter what The Saint suggests. It lit up real good. Wish I could give a prize for the winner who caught this, but unfortunately it wasn't a trick question. Too many years since high school chemistry, and too many lighter-than-air brain cells. Oh, the humanity.

Charles Miller had a different view of Shramek:

I'm a life-long resident of Houston, Texas, and an avid listener to radio station KLOL (101 FM), one of the most powerful radio broadcasts on the Gulf Coast.

Over the years, I have interacted with KLOL on different levels – both as a listener, and as a prize-winning script writer. This interaction is primarily with the station's irreverent drive time comedy duo, Stevens & Pruitt (who have won the Silver Cup away from Howard Stern, Ron&Ron and Imus for drive-time programming on many occasions).

Chuck Shramek, as I have known him, is a jovial news anchor for the Stevens&Pruitt comedy team, and in fact does a one-hour warm-up for their show each weekday morning, starting at 5:00am (CST). He chatters and jibes with these profane jokemeisters throughout their 4-hour show, and continues to contribute to station engineering and news reportage after the comedy slot wraps up at 10:00am.

Shramek is (or was) a good-humored guy, with a taste for pranks and joking on the air. He married and divorced one of the other deejays at KLOL, and continued to work side-by-side with her – if that is not a testament to good humor, I don't know what is.

Be it known that KLOL is the sister station (in the same building) of Houston news radio KTRH (740 AM), which coincidentally is the only station in town that broadcasts the infamous Art Bell: Coast To Coast and Art Bell: Dreamland syndicated programs.... The point is that Chuck Shramek is (or was) an avid listener to Art Bell as he went about his station duties, preparing for work on the Stevens&Pruitt show. The juxtaposition of listening to 4 hours of Art Bell's bizarre format while preparing for a bawdy 4-hour comedy slot is an apparent dead giveaway that Chuck was never serious about his Hale-Bopp photographs. However ...

Chuck is a fairly serious amateur astronomer, with several thousand dollars worth of electronic imaging telescopy and tracking software. If there was a serious side to Chuck, his astronomy was it. I believe that he tracked and photographed Hale-Bopp from his patio, and did so with a sincere (if amateurish) dedication.

He procured some good shots of Hale-Bopp, as a matter of fact, for an amateur working several months in advance of naked-eye observation. I believe he was very serious when he submitted his photos to Art Bell (who initiated this whole controversy, as much as Art has tried to absolve himself from blame), but Chuck admitted some things back in November that lead me to believe he also erred seriously.

For one thing, he admitted he 'played around' with exposure settings to get an optimum image. That his images were composites, for another thing. And, most damning, that he had 'enhanced' the images in digital photo editing software. These were offhand comments on his part, but they spurred me to obtain his 'Hale-Bopp & Companion' image and scrutinize it under my own photo-editing software.

Sure as hell, there is a distinct rectangular area around the 'companion' object that has been digitally 'light-blasted'.... This is the rectangle of a common marquee tool, with a 'Brightness & Contrast' adjustment. Anyone who looks at the original image with adjusted color index (say, 2 or 3 colors) can see the rectangle plain as day. It's obvious that Chuck was trying to light-amplify the 'companion' (SAO 141094), to get a better look at it. His mistake was poor interpretation, and releasing the retouched image to a crank such as Art Bell.

Now, I do not think this was a hoax. Stupidity, maybe, on Chuck's part.... Ineptitude certainly.... Chuck was swiftly denounced by Alan Hale, which was a major blow to Chuck's love of astronomy. For Chuck Shramek, Alan Hale was a hero, in a way – and suddenly, his hero was basically calling him an idiot.

The international ridicule heaped on Chuck of course affected his job and personal relations at KLOL. He began taking leaves of absence to escape the phone calls and e-mail. Then, following the macabre Heaven's Gate suicides, Chuck began receiving death threats from people who blame him for starting the Hale-Bopp 'companion' story.

As nearly as I recall, Chuck, in his naivete, handed a bad picture to the wrong person and said 'What IS this?' Everything after that cascaded into a comedy of errors at the hands of Art Bell and his eccentric guests.... If I have a criticism of Chuck Shramek, it's not that he is a 'hoaxter extraordinaire'; rather, it is that he did not follow the scientific method in his observations and treatment of his observations.

Charles Miller also added a cruel footnote:

Incidentally, I contacted Chuck Shramek and asked him about Greg Frost (supposedly his old high school chum).

Chuck responded succinctly a while later, after searching his memory: 'Thanks, I only vaguely remember Frost and he's a geek..'

Greg Frost was philosophical:

Gee, and I remember him so fondly.

But bears no grudge:

[T]he Skeptical Inquirer is putting together an issue on the Hale-Bopp phenomenon. While they may use an article by me along the lines of what you have posted, I feel they definitely should see Mr. Miller's take on what has happened. SI likes to deal with facts, not fantasy. The best I can do, obviously, is talk about a guy I knew and admired in high school (and apparently it was a one way friendship). Miller obviously knows Chuck now, and knows how this has affected him – as he clearly outlines in his reply. I want to send it on to SI, but only with his permission. I think it would give Shramek a fair hearing he deserves. They might want to print it. They might want to interview him – I can't say. You're welcome to send this along verbatim if you like.

And you're right – for awhile this is obviously going to be a big deal (although hopefully not for as long as the National Inquirer will pick the bones of the murdered 6-year-old model, JonBenet.)