Friday, July 18, 2014

Northern Lights and the 40-year-old virgin

This column appeared in the Issaquah Press.


The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

                     --Robert Service


I was the only one in the Providence Point pool that morning. There had been an exercise class, but it had cleared out. Large glass windows dominate one end of the pool and the sun was beginning its trek across the morning sky.

While floating on my back, I looked at the ceiling, only to be surprised by streaks of dancing light weaving and bobbing about. The sun was being reflected off the undulating water.  

Except for the lack of pastel colors, I could have been seeing a mini-performance of the Northern Lights. Soon I was day dreaming about one of my many experiences with the Aurora Borealis, which I consider to be among the great wonders of nature.

It happened January 2, 1977. I was travelling across the Yukon Territory in a Volkswagen micro-bus with my wife and 8-year-old son. We were headed for New York and on to Europe.

We were driving 24 hours a day, and I took the night shift. It was about 2 a.m. and at least 50 degrees below zero, as the Northern Lights danced about in such splendor that I had to pull over and watch. Under such conditions, the Aurora Borealis looks like huge curtains of pastel colored lights weaving and dancing across the sky. I have seen this dazzling sight many times, but never like this particular night. In my experience, the colder it is and the further away from city lights, the better the display.

A few days later, with this experience still fresh in my mind, I was sitting next to a middle aged stranger on a train in Switzerland. I inquired as to his work, and he told me he was a Ph.D. scientist. So, I asked in what area of study. “The Aurora Borealis,” he responded.

Thinking back on what I had just witnessed, I asked if he had ever seen them. “No,” he replied. So sad, I thought; kind of like a 40-year-old virgin totally conversant in the details of “The Joy of Sex” or the “Kama Sutra.”

There is also a greatly subdued display of the Northern Lights for more southerly folk. I was driving with my wife from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Eureka Springs. I saw a faint glow in the distance and said, “see that light, that’s the Northern Lights.”

“You can’t see them down here,” she said.

The next morning the headline in the Little Rock Democrat Gazette read “Northern Lights Visible in Arkansas.” I recognized them in their drastically reduced form from having seen them as a boy in Washington.

The lights on the pool ceiling stirred the memory. However, unlike the lights in the sky, I discovered I could influence them by the amount of turbulence I created or prevented on the water.



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