Dry and clear, not too humid, cool enough, it was a good night for teenage boys to go camping. My cousin, Smitty, a friend Jeff, and I set out from Columbia, MS, to Red Bluff that November afternoon in 1957.
It was rather adventurous, considering President Eisenhower’s comments on U. S. space exploration and the recent movie, War of the Worlds, which depicted a Martian invasion of Earth.
After driving uphill for some time, we reached Red Bluff, a favorite place for exploration and climbing. We parked the car at an abrupt overlook beside the road. A multi-colored series of bluffs loomed in ancient splendor over the piney woods and swamps of Pearl River.
We set up camp a hundred feet from the precipice, in a clump of pines. Even the gritty bacon and burned eggs we ate tasted good that evening. We had no need for a tent; we merely laid our bedrolls on piles of pine straw we’d gathered, with plans to relocate to the car in the unlikely event of rain. Although Red Bluff is a remote part of the piney area of Mississippi, it was well-known and frequently visited. That night, however, we were the only campers in the area, and we savored the solitude.
After our meal, we lay around the campfire, watching flames dance about the glowing embers. The wood hissed and popped as a galaxy of sparks drifted up and winked into oblivion. The campfire cast a faint, flickering glow that antimated nearby trees and rocks with dancing patterns of light and shadow. Beyond the area illuminated by the fire, a black curtain shut out the rest of the world, and we agreed it was a good night to be at Red Bluff.
Our campfire chat ranged from people we knew to ghost stories we’d been told about the Red Bluff area. Jeff, an extremely emotional fellow, was glad when the ghost stories were done. Finally our chatter lapsed into long periods of silence and mere drowsing.
It was then that we began to have concerns about our safety. Although very few of the indigenous animals represented a threat to humans, some large cats had been seen in the area from time to time. Jeff didn’t have to explain his reasons for wanting to sit in the car. And so we moved, intending to stay only until our anxieties were quelled.
I was talking about one of our friends when a brilliant light almost blinded me. Smitty and Jeff turned to the light, and Jeff raised his hand to hush us. The light grew rapidly brighter, and we watched a fiery, multicolored object with a long green tail streak across the sky–so bright that the environs of Red Bluff became as day. The object appeared to descend in the nearby woods, but there was no way to tell if it was a hundred yards or a hundred miles away since we had no idea as to the object’s dimensions or elevation. Jeff, fidgeted in the back, became hysterical and began gnawing his hands as well as the back of the front seat. His sobs became so frantic I was more disturbed about him than what we had seen. He fought me for the keys to the car. Knowing he was in no condition to drive, I shook him and told him that I’d drive. I was in no mood to remain there myself, but when I started to retrieve our camping gear, both Smitty and Jeff overruled me and demanded we leave right then.
I hopped behind the steering wheel and sped away. As soon as we were moving Jeff calmed down, and we began to discuss what we had seen. We began by imagining the worst: Our nation’s efforts to get into space antagonized an alien race and they were sending a message soon after the president spoke.
Then we considered it may have been a meteor, but it was too bright and too perfectly timed with the recent announcements of stories about space for that to seem likely.
We also speculated that it might be an unusual flare or rocket of some type fired by bootleggers to frighten us away from a cache of liquor. Even this did not seem plausible, for we couldn’t imagine that they would store liquor so close to a place frequented by daytime explorers.
We came to no firm conclusions, but just talking about the night’s event calmed us enough to return for our camping gear. Back at the Red Bluff campsite, nothing at all seemed unusual. To have light for our endeavors, we rebuilt up the fire. So warming and reassuring was the fire that we abandoned thoughts of leaving before morning. We fried some potatoes and bacon, and drank soft drinks from the ice chest. Before long, we were confident, affable, and quite drowsy again.
The next day we returned to Columbia and stopped by the local police station. We found out that President Eisenhower’s earlier appearance on TV showed a scale model of the Jupiter missile nosecone which had been launched and recovered from space in August. This was an early step in satellite launching and space exploration. We also learned that a meteor of unusual brightness did indeed streak across the sky in our area. It impacted over a hundred and fifty miles away into the swampy area of Marsh Island off the coast of Louisiana. The shock wave from its impact shattered windows and tremors were reported for a radius of 30 miles. The meteor flame was clearly seen from Alabama to Texas, and there were stories that the light was seen as far away as California.
Understandably, Red Bluff is a place of teen adventure in my memory, and on occasions I still dream about climbing down and around its convolutions while the sun warms my back.
James Lynn Smith was once editor and contributor for The Flow. His fiction won a first prize in Calliope (Calliopeontheweb.org) and other stories were published in Emerald Coast Review and The Legend, a periodical of the West Florida Literary Foundation. He is active in a writer’s critique group, and has five videos posted on Vimeo.com. Visit Smith’s website at www.StoryLandscapes.net
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