• James Eichenlaub

The Dance of the Blue Fire

Living in Altoona, you are likely aware of Spook Hollow? It sounds more eerily ominous than it actually is, but our family lived nearby when I was a small child, somewhere just off 4th Street in Juniata. My brother can tell you the address, but the house is long gone and replaced with another. Anyway, when I experienced this event, it caused me to wonder if this might, in fact, be part of how it was given its name.

At the foot of an embankment along the road passing in front of her house, she kept a small garden of tomatoes and other vegetables that Louise, lovingly known to others as Aunt Lou, raised for her and her husband, John.

Their house was a three-story Victorian, but the basement was not underground as a typical Victorian basement because it was built into the hillside. Consequently, much of the foundation was exposed above the surface for the ground, which in effect made the house appear enormously tall to a small boy like myself.

John's and Louise's house was not far from our own. They were friendly neighbors, and Lou just loved children, so she was more than happy to watch over me for the day while mom and dad were busy elsewhere. She was a strict old girl, but she treated me kindly, and I loved her house because it was so clean and well kept. Even now, I would call it typical for the time and the age of its occupants.

Jimbo, or Jimmy as I was called then, would play contentedly for hours in the dirt amid the rows of garden vegetables while Aunt Lou swept the porch and did other chores. She was teaching me how to weed the garden, but it was a hot midsummer day, and with the usual attention span of a toddler, I soon turned to games of fantasy as I crawled on hands and knees between the rows.

"Don't you step my tomatoes down," she would holler to me from the porch.

Despite being shirtless and wearing only underpants and socks beneath my railroad engineer bib overalls, I still felt stifling hot as the summer sun passed directly overhead and began leaning toward the west. Finally, leaving behind yet another unweeded row, I crawled out of the garden and laid my back on the soft, cool grass as I faced that gigantic-looking house.

The sun was so brilliant that I had to shade my eyes as I looked up at the azure blue sky above it, and that is when I noticed that in the distance, just beyond the housetop, the sky was filling with black smoke or maybe dark clouds. As I watched, the blackness crept slowly closer and closer, and as it drew nearer, a sudden gust of cool air swept across the garden, and then another, and another in quick succession.

Unknown to me at the time, a storm was definitely coming. As I continued to surveil the clouds, a sudden bright flash followed immediately by a loud explosion sent me scurrying like a frightened squirrel up the hill and onto the front porch. Dashing across the porch, I let the screened door close sharply behind me with a percussive bang nearly as loud as thunder itself and, at the same time, almost crashing into Aunt Lou, who was then coming to the porch to call me inside.

"Goodness, boy," she said, "you gave me a fright," and I feel quite sure that the startled look on her face closely mirrored my own. She wasn't the only one frightened.

The storm settled in with a lot more thunder, and the rain came down hard for a very long time. As the storm lingered, Aunt Lou made some 'sup' and a sandwich for my dinner as I waited, kneeling in front of the small, gray-hewed television screen. (Sup is what we today call 'soup.')

You may recall the Howdy Doody show with his pal, Buffalo Bob.

"Say kids, what time is it?" Bob would shout. "IT'S HOWDY DOODY TIME," was the reply...and I shouted along with them.

The year was probably around 1955 or 56, and to my knowledge, the Howdy Doody show was the first of the classic children's shows ever to be on television. Also, by this time, Aunt Lou was probably in her late fifties or early sixties.

Their house was adorned with woolen rugs, fine wooden furniture protected by lace doilies, and a dining room that displayed her bone china and depression glass. Not to mention that, as was so aptly put by Willy Wonka, she and her house smelled "like old people...and soap".

When the 'sup' was ready, Lou served it in a glass bowl next to the sandwich on a similar pink depression-glass plate. She sat both on a small footstool that served as my dinner table in front of the television. (Ah! The beginning of the rest of my life - stuck in front of one screen or another).

Aunt Lou then returned to the kitchen from where the smell of freshly brewed coffee emanated as she continued with whatever she was preparing for her and Uncle John when he arrived home from work that evening. If I recall correctly, he too was a railroad worker, like so many others.

The sun began to set before the darkness of the storm began to abate. The downpour changed to a soft, continual soaking rain, and the breeze through the front door screen was much cooler, but oddly the house still felt stuffy and warm when the breeze shifted.

Howdy Doody ended, and another program was already in progress when Aunt Lou returned from the kitchen. Crossing the dining room, a few feet from the spot where I knelt still watching the show, she suddenly stopped and slapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a scream.

Jerking my head around, first to her face, and then back to look behind me to where she fixed her gaze on the screened door, the visage that she saw made the hair on the back of my neck tingle, and as fear flooded my body, I found I was unable to move.

There, directly in front of us, was a rolling ball of blue light that seemed to have attached itself to the screen as if it was trying to push its way through. If it made any sound at all, it was masked by the sound of the television and the falling rain outside, but the sight of it was ominous and chilling as Aunt Lou and I watched it in stark fear. Seemingly stuck there for several seconds like the iridescent eyeball of some wayward alien just staring at us, it sparkled at its edges, and then, without as much as a wave goodbye, faded or just drifted away, I don't recall which. Never to return, it seems.

When it was gone, Aunt Lou fairly dove forward, slamming and locking the front door, and then running at the speed of arthritis, went the kitchen and did the same at the rear door. Our fear and her haste set me to crying, which only added to the cacophony of television, the falling rain, running feet, and doors and windows being slammed and locked, all of which piqued the fear factor to extreme panic, making the matter far worse than it was.

After the house was secured, Aunt Lou returned to the living room, switched off the television, and scooped me up from the floor. She sat in an overstuffed chair with me in her lap, trying to comfort herself and me. Still sobbing in her arms, as time passed, I eventually fell asleep.

The next thing I was aware of was my dad lifting me from the sofa where I was obviously deposited when things calmed a bit. She was still crying, or perhaps crying again, as she stumbled through the explanation of what she saw.

Dad passed me to mom, who held me close against her, patting my back while she and dad continued to talk to Aunt Lou and Uncle John. A calmness came over me, safely in her arms, with my head resting on her shoulder, I again fell fast asleep.

The next morning I awakened in my bed, which is where the saga, for me, ended. The sky was once again as blue as every Pennsylvania summer sky, and I have no recollection of anyone speaking of the incident afterward. My guess is because the only witnesses of what occurred were a three or four-year-old boy and a hysterical older woman. Aunt Lou most likely died believing that a ghost visited us the night we saw the blue fire dance on the screen.

It wasn't until sometime after being accepted by the Navy that I finally learned the truth of what we saw that rainy evening, long after Aunt Lou was gone. You may have heard of Saint Elmo's Fire, a phenomenon seen occasionally during storms when the air is full of moisture and electrical discharges. It is something I have hoped all of my life to see once again, but I am sadly still waiting. Like so many of the realities in our world, it sounds more mythical or ethereal than true, but you won't think so once you've seen it dance,

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