Little Lights and Little Brothers
We've walked both sides of every street,
through all kinds of windy weather;
but that was never our defeat,
as long as we could walk together.
So there's no need for turning back,
'cause all roads lead to where we stand,
and I believe we've walked them all,
no matter what we may have planned.*
*Lyric from "Crossroads" by Don McLean, from American Pie.©1970, MCA
A number of incidents in my early life seem to involve inexplicable phenomena.
There was a crystalline blue sky late one Sunday morning, when, in the backyard of my parents' home in Batesville, Arkansas I saw a silver "airplane" flying silently over the backyard alongside a regular airplane. The fall wind was extremely cold. I was 16, in the backyard alone, trying to concoct a new imaginary use for a large appliance box. The morning was quiet, with many people in church, though I'd not attended that day. My parents had left earlier in the morning check on their warehouse. My younger sisters Amy and Ann had spent the night with a girlfriend and my older sister Sue, recently married, lived in her home in Pleasant Plains, Arkansas. As for Tim, my brother, he was somewhere in the neighborhood on his bicycle. I was halfway waiting for Tim to come back from wherever he was to help me move the large cardboard box inside the house. I was afraid it might soon get wet when it rained. My parents hadn't wanted it in the house, but I was hoping Tim and I could fold it up so that it could fit into the closet in our bedroom.
Many Sunday mornings were spent that way, with Tim returning from his bike rides around the neighborhood, almost, in retrospect, after a predictable length of time. It was as if he wanted me to know he'd be back and placed a value on me, regardless of where he'd been or what he'd been doing. He liked to ride up on his bike to find me "working" some project we could share for a couple of hours on Sunday mornings. Many times, our project would be designing a costume or device for use by some super hero, especially Flash or Green Lantern. There were to be a number of times when Green Lantern, especially, would be a special connection between Tim and me.
On that brisk, desperately silent Sunday morning of my childhood, with all the pain of the adult years still to come to both of us, I looked up at the sky. I couldn't see well back then, needing glasses but not as yet having them. Two objects appeared: longish, silvery blobs in the sky. I could hear the engine of one airplane. I tried hard but never discerned a second engine sound, even as the second plane gradually drew away from the first, when a second engine should have been distinguishable.
The second "plane," absolutely silent, was sometimes in such close proximity to the first that it could have been being towed. I later wondered if I'd seen a glider, so I asked a couple of people at the time if they'd heard of anyone at the Batesville airport towing a glider or if a glider society was forming in the area. No relatives or anyone with the airport or city government had heard of such a glider tow or glider society .
Not long afterward, I was startled to wakefulness by a powerful thunderclap during an intense spring storm and ran to look out my upstairs bedroom window. Near the window in a crouch, I stared out at the inclement weather, wincing at the pounding rain while opening the window just a crack to hear more clearly.
The soft roar of the rain eased in. Mixed with it was a chugging sound. At the intersection where a dirt road led off the street we lived on, a small pick-up truck was slowly turning, through the driving rain, onto the dirt road. Suddenly, the little truck stopped dead, apparently stalled out in the weather. I could hear the driver grinding the ignition, struggling to get the truck re-started. After a couple of minutes it moved again on down the dirt road. Called "Gaston's Road," it was actually only a long driveway that led to the home of Felix Gaston, a local landowner and chicken farmer.
As the little truck drove out of sight, there was a small light, about the size of a flashlight, lying in the road at the intersection it left behind. It didn't move. I thought perhaps the driver had gotten out of the truck at some point with a flashlight, dropped it, still lit, onto the ground, then forgotten to pick it up in the downpour. But I'd seen the truck from its first approach, when it had stalled out. I didn't recall the driver getting out.
The little light remained in the road. I went back to bed and slept for about two hours, when something again awakened me, perhaps another thunderclap. I looked out my window again. The little light was still there, lying in the road. I looked at it intensely at that point, trying to distinguish details. I couldn't make out any, although the rain was now less intense. The spring night air had gotten colder and I pulled a shirt over me as I stood in the window and reluctantly pulled it back down.
I looked across the bedroom in the diffuse light of a distant streetlight. Over in the bed next to mine, Tim's shoulders were heaving in a deep sleep. He'd returned late after riding his small Honda motorcycle around town, learning his way around on it. In our brief conversation earlier that evening, he'd seemed bewildered that I didn't drive the Chevy II my parents had given me for my upcoming high school graduation. Over ten years old, it ran fairly well most of the time, yet I'd hardly driven it at all as yet, to Tim's chagrin.
"Max, if I had that car, I'd drive to St. Louis every night!" Tim had opined.
Now, some hours later, I thought about awakening him from his deep sleep to help me observe this little light phenomenon and decide what to do about it. I also considered going downstairs and awakening mom and dad to tell them someone had left their flashlight lying on Gaston's Road. But I did neither, feeling sure no one wanted to be bothered at that hour. Since I couldn't accomplish anything by continuing to stare through the rain, slightly chilled, I went back to bed.
I awoke with a start again shortly after daylight and rushed to the window. The storm was over, but the small light was gone. I jumped into my clothes and ran down the street to where it had been. There was no trace of any flashlight. I turned and walked back home at a near-trot and told my mother about the little light. She seemed unimpressed.
"Gaston was probably the truck driver. He dropped his flashlight and came back and got it ," she concluded.
"But you didn't see that truck in the situation I did. The driver didn't get out in that hard rain. He got the truck re-started without having to," I argued hopefully, wistfully.
Meeting me at the front door, Tim had also wanted to know what I'd seen. Unlike my mother, he was curious and intrigued by my description of the little light. After my talk with mother did no good, I asked him to walk back with me, out to where it had been.
As we got to the edge of Hill Street, the street our house was on, Tim finally said "Maybe it was a baby flying saucer." After a moment of awkward silence, he decided to continue. "No, seriously, maybe there's some kind of light phenomenon, like--what's that..."
"Will' o' wisp..."
"No, that other one. The thing that glows in the dark that you were looking for in
those old logs we dragged up from the bayou."
"Oh--you mean Jack O Lantern mushrooms? Those things we saw a picture of in the Encyclopedia Britannica?"
"Yeah. Yeah those. You said you didn't know what those would really look like when they were glowing in the dark."
"Well, the way the encyclopedia described them and the color they were in its picture, they must be orange colored. This thing was white, just like a flashlight."
We walked on together to the intersection of Gaston's Road and Hill Street. We stopped where I said I'd seen the light. We stared at the ground there for a minute.
"Max, I wish I could see it, too. Maybe if we keep watching for it, we could see it together the next time there's a thunderstorm. Remind me to help you look."
Now, all these years later, as I sit in a Little Rock apartment on New Year's Day, 1998, I think back on that day in Batesville, not that many years ago. Tim had been there beside me on Gaston's Road, staring at the ground with me as we tried to fathom yet another mystery of the universe.
I remember the excitement in his face and in his voice, the innocence of him at the age of thirteen. I can feel the sweetness, the trust that only my little brother could have had. At thirteen he felt grown, often acting tough like the boys he hung out with at Junior High. But at that magical moment, he was my little brother and there was nobody on earth more important to him than I was. If I saw a phenomenon, it must be the real thing. In his mind, I was a great scientist, he but my assistant.
In a moment of my own then, I realized again how neat it was to have a little brother. I appreciated his vote of confidence in my amateur scientist exercise. I looked up from the ground at his face, noticing how he still stared at the ground there. I realized then that I had a special responsibility to him.
I remember those scenes of that day, there at Gaston's Road, with wonder and a twinge of sadness for the loss of all that was Tim. Even after all the years of alcohol abuse, broken marriages, wrecked careers, heartbreak, disappointment and ill health that he experienced in the intervening years, the mere sound of his voice at this moment would bring that image from our childhood together back to me.
That sweetness was there in Tim, always. No matter what he did, my memory of him that day will always be that of a big brother realizing yet again how much he loved his little brother. He was my pal, he was on my side, even in my far-out hypothesis about the little light. Although I was run-down for my age and even felt slightly intimidated by some of his tough-acting buddies sometimes, at that moment I felt again the familiar protective feeling I had for him when we'd been younger. I watched as his little head tilted up and down, studying the ground there where I'd seen the light. I couldn't miss the seriousness, sincerity and abiding trust in that face as he struggled to help me find an answer.
I was to learn in later years that ball lightning sometimes appears during thunderstorms and lies or rolls along the ground. I have tried to convince myself that perhaps that was what had laid on the ground there that night. But I've never read an account of ball lightning that lasted for over two hours.(1)
I have other remembrances of weird incidents or dreams from the years our family lived in California. I discussed them with Sue as well as Tim, who was always sent spinning by our tales "from the crypt."
On frequent trips to visit Doug and my dad's parents there in California, for example, I recall our regularly passing by a house with a junky area in the back with what I recalled as a "jet plane tank" in it, along our route to somewhere. Tim, Amy and Ann, all younger than me, weren't reliable witnesses. Amy and Ann seldom in the car on those trips. Tim always sound asleep at the time. As with the little light in Gaston's road some years later, though, Tim always wished he had seen it with me. Now, I wish he had, too.
Though I repeatedly mentioned it to both my parents, my aunts, uncles, grandparents and Sue, all of whom would have been reliable witnesses, none of them could ever remember having seen it. This always seemed odd to me because the "jet plane tank" was so obvious: it always seemed to almost jut into the car window as we'd pass by. In fact, that jutting out quality stuck clearly in my mind. I'd be concerned that dad would round the bend too quickly and the "jet plane tank" would come crashing through the car window. It was that close. Yet my dad, especially, never seemed to recall having seen it at all. What was even odder, and almost a source of anger to me, was that I could never remember to point it out at the time it occurred: only afterward would I ask about it.
Even before this period of time, I can recall a "dream" I had while crossing the desert on a train with my family when I was about 6 or 7. Tim was even younger, a tiny four year old. We both had little cowboy hats with strings attached to hold them on our chins. Tim looked like a baby cowboy. He couldn't say his "r's" yet. He and I ran up and down the aisles of the train near our mother's seat until we got sleepy. Tiny spacemen in silver suits stood beside little rockets about the size of the gas gauges you see by the sides of houses, evidently about to blast off. People of all sizes were then cleared out of the little rocket areas by the crews of little men. Less clear is where this occurred, other than that it was in the desert. I'd prefer to have a clear memory of that event, but I don't.
A more vivid "dream" memory is about "people" around my bed on a stormy night around 1971. After this latter "dream" occurred, I came to feel it was important to recall events of a particular night. I wanted to know what distant, powerful persons thought about me. I couldn't put it out of my mind and an obsessive pattern formed that led me to an emotional break. I felt concerned that events had occurred that I needed to know about, that something unintelligible to me had been said, that there was a factor of unintelligibility to the situation.
Equally unintelligible are the inner workings of the vastly complex human subconscious and,
according to Carl Jung, the even larger Collective unconscious. Missing that little boy, that little
brother who helped me try to fathom an explanation for the little light that day in Batesville, I
hope that he, too, is now in some way a part of that great Collective unconscious.
Gaddis, Vincent. Mysterious Fires and Lights. New York: Dell, 1967. 84-5.
Strieber, Whitley Communion: A True Story. New York: Wilson, 1987. The reader may also wish to refer to this (a work referred to frequently in this book) for more details on experiences paralleling my "dream." Like Gaddis in the above work, Strieber, at least in Communion, if not in his subsequent books, ranges far and wide in searching for explanations for his experiences, including but not exclusive to the idea that they were a product of contact with extraterrestrials.
1. 0 In his book Mysterious Fires and Lights (New York: Dell, 1967), the late Vincent Gaddis notes that even such supposedly "mundane" phenomena as ball lightning and "will o' wisp" are, in fact, largely unexplained--and inexplicable--scientifically: "Will o' the wisps, for example. The two usual definitions found in dictionaries and encyclopedias contradict each other. One tells us they are flitting phosphorescent lights seen at night, usually over damp marshy ground, and are caused by spontaneous combustion of gas from decomposed organic matter. The other says the lights are masses of phosphorescent gas which are blown about by air currents. Spontaneous combustion means fire. Phosphorescent gas would mean cold light.
"Actually physicists who have considered the problem believe both these explanations are ridiculous. Marsh gas (CH4) does not ignite spontaneously. Moreover, gas expands, and if blown about, simply does not remain in a small, compact mass. There is another gas, phosphine (PH3), which will ignite spontaneously and might be produced by decaying organic matter, but even if it were ignited in some mysterious manner in a damp bog, wind and natural expansion would quickly extinguish the flame.
"A will-o'-the wisp, despite the glib explanations of the swamp gas theorists, cannot be reproduced experimentally under either natural or laboratory conditions nor can its spectrum be determined. A phosphorescent gas or vapor is not known to exist, much less occur in a natural state. As for phosphorus, it oxidizes rapidly and is never found in a free state.
"These lights range in color from a yellowish-amber to blue... drift several feet above the ground at speeds up to ten miles an hour, but have been known to remain stationary. As a rule, they are spherical in shape, from several inches to about three feet in diameter, but . . . may assume. . . bizarre shapes. Often they are so bright they illuminate the ground beneath them. Some are transparent, others are opaque. Firing a bullet through them has no effect whatsoever.
"They display puzzling characteristics. Although they appear to drift at random, they avoid objects and often slip away from spectators who attempt to approach them. Sometimes a light will separate into small units and combine again; or t
wo lights will revolve around each other without combining.
"Some of these curious and well-authenticated observations are reported in Scientific American (supplement), May 1920, where it is stated that no satisfactory or even plausible explanation has been given to cover the known phenomena. And this statement remains true today. . ." (84-5). It is quite likely that some will of the wisps are caused by decaying organic matter, says Gaddis; however, he adds, only those appearing over cemeteries could be thus explained: the others remain inexplicable.(85). "Evidence of other sources for. . . will-o'-the-wisps is given in a series of observations by the late Charles Fitzhugh Talman, a meteorologist long associated with the United States Weather Bureau. . .[who] tells us that one summer afternoon two ladies were walking along the edge of a cliff at Ringstead Bay on the south coast of England. . .[I]n the distance sheet lightning occasionally lit the sky. Suddenly they noticed numerous globes of light, the size of billiard balls, surrounding them on all sides... seemingly appear[ing] out of the atmosphere, moving up and down. Some . . . came within inches of the observers, but. . . eluded their grasp. At one time 'thousands apparently enveloped them.' Finally they faded away. . .[S]ultry and charged atmospheric conditions might indicate a possible kinship of these globes with ball lightning." (Gaddis 85)
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