Childhood Phenomena

I grew up in Northern Idaho where you hear about the aurora borealis, also called the Northern Lights.  This visual phenomenon occurs in the night sky and looks like shimmering curtains of yellows, pinks, greens or blues.  Science explains this as space dust burning up as it enters earth’s outer atmosphere.  For many years I wanted to see this colorful display but believed that it was something only seen much further north.

At night when the sky of Northern Idaho was free of clouds, there was so much light pouring down it was hard to believe it came from millions of light years away.  If I walked a familiar path I could turn off my flashlight and make my way by the stars shining overhead, but I wasn’t always this comfortable walking in the dark.

In 1972, my parents moved our family from the busy urbanity of the San Francisco Bay Area into the wilds of rural Idaho where my mother was raised, thirteen miles from the nearest population of Sandpoint.  Our family had purchased fifty acres of partially wooded land from my grandfather with the intention to build a new home.  At first, this property seemed a natural wonderland and Mum encouraged us to explore with only cursory warnings.

One bright sunny summer day my sister and I were blithely following my two older brothers as we ventured into this new environment.  The forest was green and cool, with birds singing in the trees. Suddenly the hum of papery thin wings rose around us and one hundred angry insects descended, poking my sister, Sana, only steps ahead of me, with their stingers and raising welts on her arms and face.  She brushed them off but the pain was overwhelming. I barely understood what was happening myself but my brother Michael rushed up to rescued her, bravely running over and dragging her out of the swarming bugs and down the road to home.

I didn’t really trust the woods after that.  If my sister could step on a hornet nest, what terrible thing could happen to me?   When my other brother Jeff encountered a badger while playing at a favorite bank of sand, I vowed never to enter the woods by myself.  I had seen and heard enough about the dangers lurking beyond that curtain of trees.  Besides, I preferred the safety of the car and the house.  Unfortunately my parents would disallow me any notion of personal safety when they chose where the family home was going to be built, at the most thickly forested center of our property.

Once work began on the house, it did become easier for me to enter the woods.  Dad cleared a road to the site where a basement was dug and the concrete was poured into forms.  After the floor and walls were built my parents spent that winter completing the inside with the help of my older brothers.  My sister and I spent the time in the relative safety of the basement, huddled next to a space heater trying to keep warm bored with nothing to do.

Soon there was a new path to the mobile home where we lived during the house construction.  Along the path were several old stumps and downed trees covered with moss, lichens and small woodland plants.  Walking down this path every day seeing these various microcosms, I began to invent stories about them.  In my mind they were small alien cities, inhabited by sprites or air breathing “sea monkeys.” 

One spring in order to accommodate my grandmother’s move from California, my parents had us boys sleep in a small travel trailer parked across the road from the larger mobile home. Unlike the painted yellow metal siding on the mobile home, the travel trailer was clad in silver aluminum siding and looked a little like someone’s idea of a space ship. Each night I walked through the front yard of trees, into the car park and across the road to the travel trailer.  Crossing the gravel road I would always look up to the vast Milky Way above wondering, if the sky was so infinite, why were humans seemingly the only intelligent life form?

This was a familiar idea espoused by fictional television shows I watched avidly through my childhood like “Star Trek” and the “Twilight Zone”.  One summer I saw a television movie special dramatizing the story of Betty and Barney Hill.  A famous account in the nineteen sixties, the Hills revealed under hypnosis that they were contacted by aliens from outer space.  This TV movie featured re-enactments of their abduction including some very spooky aliens with clear bubble-like eyes.  The imagery was compelling and terrified me although I tried to convince myself that it was all fiction. But fears develop from all sorts of childhood worries and aliments and I was not entirely convinced this story wasn't true.

For example, I suffered from occasional bouts of tinnitus or ringing in my ears, usually when I was walking home alone from the school bus stop.  After the raucous bus ride, the whisper of the wind through the grass and the crunch of my footsteps was a relief for my ears.  When I’d hear faint electronic sounds, seemingly for no reason, I imagined they were telepathic broadcasts by aliens and not just dust in my ear canal as my father insisted.  The ringing only happened when I was by myself, so it was doubtful to my young mind that my father really knew what caused it.

If I’d been inadvertently listening in on these telepathic broadcasts, it followed that the space aliens might eventually find this out and come after me. This information from a fertile young mind changed my nightly walks across the road to my bed in the travel trailer. Now, having the idea of alien abductors placed so dramatically in my mind I would nervously look up for strange lights in the sky.  Were they watching me?  How organized were they?  Were they working with the government?

It didn't help that my grandmother told me she believed in aliens when I asked her about it. She swore that she'd seen lights in the sky moving at impossible speeds. I began to read everything I could get my hands on about alien abductions and so-called "U.F.O.s", but the books always ended speculating on the possibility of fraud and emphasizing the government's denial of any such things existing. So, was the television movie truth or fiction?

One particularly bright and starry, yet moon-less night I discovered I couldn’t cross the road to get to my bed in the travel trailer.  My fear of abduction was so palpable my heart began pounding in my ears and I was weak with fright.  I could not shake the notion aliens were about to land right that moment and abduct me. I walked to the edge of the trees in the front yard, but could not walk out under the open sky of the parking area.  Shaking and trembling, the image of the alien’s lidless and bulbous eyes haunting me, I raced back to the safety of our mobile home.

“I thought you were going to bed?” My father said from the living room couch, seeing me burst in through the front door.

Hanging onto the comforting familiarity of the doorknob, I looked at my dad, not knowing how to begin. My fear was real but the warm rational light inside our home was melting its cold forbidding grip on my heart. I knew he wouldn’t believe my story of being abducted by aliens, but I couldn’t lie about this.

“I’m afraid of the aliens abducting me,” I blurted out.

This brought an immediate chuckle from him, but stating the truth revealed the ridiculousness of my statement.  I couldn’t hide from the fact that I was being silly and letting my fear run away with my imagination, like cruel mocking playmates might run away from me suddenly on the school playground with no other reason than to see me react. With a hug and some reassurance that I was safe from harm and an admonition that my brothers were already safe in their beds, my Dad sent me back to cross the road by myself. 

It wasn't easy but somehow I found the courage my father insisted I had, once I'd walked out from under the protective cover of trees into the parking area. Poised for a moment at the edge of the dark dirt road, with the sound of grasshoppers singing in the grass, I almost lost hope. The rasping in the grass could be the voices of aliens whispering to each other beside the road. Bolting across the road I ran to the travel trailer where warm yellow light poured out of the back windows. My brothers were talking before turning off the light, not ever suspecting their little brother was frightened of alien abduction and finding a great comfort in their presence. For the following two weeks each time I crossed the road, I would tell myself as sternly as possible that my fear was only fantasy.  I was not going to be abducted.

After that ordeal I found it much easier walking around the woods by myself. In fact with my new found courage, I began to walk through parts of the forest I’d never been in before. My family's fifty acre estate stretched from Pend Orielle riverfront right up to the main county road and there was plenty of variation in the landscape to explore. The access road framed only one side of the property and the heavily forested part revealed many natural wonders hidden away in its domain.

Once I discovered an old algae encrusted deer carcass, so old that only the rib cage and some of the coat remained and oddly smelling more like decaying leaves than the sweet sickly smell of something dead.  Another time I came across some very fresh bear spoor in the middle of a clearing, riddled with blackberry seeds.  Thankfully I never ran into the bear face to face.

Eventually after years of exploring I encountered something that to this day makes me question my own memory of it. On one hand, I imagined I encountered something truly supernatural and unexplainable, but on the other I can't say that my senses weren't playing tricks on my mind at the time, just as my fear and imagination had deceived my own sense of safety and comfort.  Perhaps what I really encountered was a true sense of myself and an understanding of my place in this universe, but I'll let you decide.

One late May afternoon, I was walking home after school through a familiar part of the forest taking a short cut from my usual path.  The sky was bright and the woods smelled cool and fresh from rain earlier in the day. An underlying musty spice of growing fungus on decaying wood tickled my nose as I pushed through the ferny thickets.  The air was so still you had to stand quietly before you could hear the faint rush of wind in the tree tops or cars on the highway far away across the river.

My Adidas were soaked through from the damp undergrowth and I was having to bend low to clear low branches from catching at my school backpack with the appliquéd felt frog my mother had sewed on the flap.  As I stood up in one clearing I heard a noise like someone breaking a branch. Turning towards the sound, I saw something I cannot explain to this day.

Within a patch of sun shining through the trees, I saw a man leaping through the air towards me.  He was tall with freckles, curly red hair and a beatific smile, but wearing a brightly variegated dress in red, orange and blue with long sleeves and no collar.  He was wearing heavy work boots and around his neck and on his wrists were jingling strings of beads sparkling in the light. 

Then as suddenly as he'd appeared, he vanished.  There was no one in that clearing with me but the trees, the sunlight streaming down and the plants growing quietly around me.

I waited, expecting to see something that made more sense, like a bird or animal crashing through the undergrowth but there was no more sound. As if in a cone of silence I called out, hoping I could scare whatever I really saw out of the underbrush but there was only more silence.  I began to reason, perhaps my brothers or my sister were  playing a trick on me as they often did, so I called again, but there was no snickering in the bushes or anything to tell that I was not alone in the woods. Eventually I gave up and went home.

Many years later, I did see aurora borealis faintly glimmering about the mountains far to the north while driving home with my mother late one night. Somehow they didn’t seem so special any more. Very pretty and faintly lighting up the sky, but not really much different than clouds at sunset or stars circling around the north star.  Another time over the mountains to the east, I saw odd pink lights with long white tails reaching up into the atmosphere, moving slowly south in the twilight, so far away that they couldn’t possibly be airplanes.  The news reported it was an unusual meteor shower high in the atmosphere that had caused the lights. They had been viewed from as far away as Maine. 

Another summer for an entire week there were several meteor showers in succession that lit up the entire sky unlike anything I'd seen before.  Radiating lines of clear white light, not unlike the curtain folds of the the Northern Lights, filled the sky cascading from directly above all the way to the horizon. At the apex of this great curtain of light there was a small dark circular void that looked like the pupil of a huge eye.  Everywhere you walked it would follow directly above like the eye of God.