posted 15 August 2003

From the draft for an autobiographical essay (to appear 2004)

The 1955 Spooklight Expedition was over a long November weekend; no adults, just 16-year-old guys out to solve a mystery.  This 1997 Associated Press story explains the continuing attraction of the place: 

HORNET, Mo. (AP) – On those moonless Missouri nights when it gets darker than dark – darker, some would say, than the inside of a cow – things can get pretty spooky along a rugged stretch of road.

    That's when the Spooklight is likely to make its appearance.

    On some nights it might rise slowly out of nowhere to illuminate a broad swatch of farmland.  On others it might simply waltz up East Highway 50 from Oklahoma, dancing across the gravel road that doubles as the state line.

    Or it could just run straight at you, vanishing at the last second, then reappearing a heartbeat later, as it sneaks up from behind to levitate around your shoulders.

    Whatever it is, just about everyone along this stretch of rolling hills and farms has a Spooklight story to tell.

 What the AP reporter fails to mention is that this road is also the local lover’s lane.  Teenaged boys love to take teenaged girls to scary movies (they cling, wonderfully), and we suspected the spooklight might have been conveniently exaggerated for such reasons.  We were the ghost busters, a noble calling.

       The first night, we didn’t see much until pockets of fog began to form near our observation post.  When a car, bouncing up the series of small hills, briefly illuminated one nearby fog patch and then another, it looked like the flitting-around version of the spooklight.  None of the girls we knew would have been fooled for a minute but, with a willing suspension of disbelief, it was a lively ghost.

       The spooklight was more commonly seen in the distance, when looking west down the long straight country road, which went rolling slowly downhill over a half-dozen hilltops to a minor river, with a long flat stretch farther to the west.  On that distant plain was the famous Route 66 (since demoted to Highway 50).  A long straight stretch of that highway aligns with the east-west spooklight road, suggesting that the spooklight is only the distant headlights from the eastbound traffic.  But line-of-sight posed a problem; the topographic maps made it look as it the intervening hilltops would block the headlights.

       The next night was clearer, and we got the telescope in place well before sunset.  As dusk faded, we saw a spooklight emerge, straight down the road, hovering somewhat above the still-backlit intervening hilltops, fluctuating in intensity and often disappearing.  Our scout car drove miles west toward the spooklight, shining signal lights back in our direction at each hilltop.  No fog that night, so it looked as if there were two versions of the spooklight.

       Over the two-way radio came word that our scouts could easily see the lights on Route 66 across the river, and from the hilltop where we could see them.  And through our high-power reflecting telescope, we could now separate the spooklight into some component parts:  a vertical string of blurry lights surrounded by a luminous fringe, like the moon has on a humid night.  When our scouts reported eight cars on Route 66, we could see eight spots within the shimmering spooklight.  When they saw three, we saw three.  And so it went all evening.  We even saw brake lights flashing at one point.  When the spooklight seemed to loom larger for a few minutes, it was only because there was a long line of cars waiting to pass a slow-moving truck, many miles to the west.

        Authoritative maps could be wrong!  (Valuable lesson, that.)  We could indeed see all of the way west from the spooklight road in Missouri to Route 66 in Oklahoma, thanks to our elevated location and the straight line of sight from clearing for the road.  In the daytime, this view is hidden by the horizon haze and humidity.  Though the spooklight is said to date back to before cars were invented, fires in the flatland should produce a similar spooklight – and fire is still used to clear the fields for the next planting.

       Young Scientists 2, Ghosts 0.  Our ghost-busting expedition was written up in the Kansas City Star as a nice feature with photographs.  (Needless to say, as you can verify by searching for “Missouri Spooklight” on the web, a good ghost story never dies, no matter how often it is disproved – there are too many reasons to keep it going.  Indeed, the web has only spread its fame and ice cream vendors will surely converge on the scene and form a Spooklight Chamber of Commerce.)



William H. Calvin 
it's an image, you need to type it, not copy it (spam...)       
 University of Washington



Search for the "Why and How" of Eerie Ozark Lights.

Kansas City Star, November 3, 1955, p.14.
A SCIENTIFIC safari in quest of the explanation of the weird luminescent balls that cavort down in the Ozark "Spook Light" territory left here early today loaded with measuring, recording and communications paraphernalia. The dry test run being made by four members of the 8-man party (left picture) will become the real thing tonight when they tackle the mystery that has baffled theorists since F. W. (Bill) Mizer sighted the first light fifteen miles southwest of Joplin, Mo., on the Missouri-Oklahoma state line in 1903. The young Investigators are all students at Shawnee Mission high school. Checking part of the equipment shortly before jumping off from the home of John DuBois, 2200 Tomahawk road, Mission Hills, are (left to right) Albert (Al) Yeomans and his brother, Simpson (Sim) Yeomans, 3019 West Seventy-second street terrace, Prairie Village; DuBois and Bill Calvin, 5306 Mission road, Fairway. In the right picture, the other four members of the expedition load the rented trailer in which much of the gear will be transported. They are (left to right) Larry Seaman 207 East Ninety-fifth street, Lenexa; Bob Keeley, 5307 Lamar street, Mission; Mike O'Keefe, 4804 West Seventy-second street, Prairie Village, and Phil Hennessey, 7807 West Sixtieth street, Johnson county. All are juniors at the high school except Seaman, who is a senior.
     DuBois and Calvin decided to grapple with the mystery of the lights after reading a newspaper feature article in The Star October 2. They organized the venture and spent last month assembling their equipment and selecting the other members of the party, each with a specific function to perform during the investigations.
     DuBois will serve as electronics engineer and photographer; Calvin as photographer; O'Keefe and Seaman, both radio hams, will supervise operation of the two mobile radio and telephone systems; the Yeoman twins will manage the outdoor campsite area in the heart of "Spook Light" land, and Keeley and Hennessey will serve as camp cooks and perform the heavy labor connected with the project. Calvin explained theories which will be tested during the investigation. It is possible, he explained, that the main light which is most often observed is light from motor car headlamps or the near-by town of Quapaw, Ok., refracted over the hills by air layers of varying densities. The other lights, less-easily explained ones, may be caused by atmospheric electricity or by the ignition of mine gasses in the air. The area is in an extensive lead and zinc mining field. The high school students have a holiday today and tomorrow because of a 2-day teachers' convention now in session. They will keep in touch with their parents through ham radio operators here and will return Sunday afternoon, possibly with new theories or proof concerning No. 1 tourist attraction of the Ozarks "those crazy jumping balls of fire"
-(Kansas City Star photographs).

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A Brain for All Seasons, 2002
A Brain for All Seasons

Lingua ex Machina:  Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (Calvin & Bickerton, 2000)
Lingua ex Machina

The Cerebral Code:  Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (1996)
The Cerebral Code

How Brains Think:  Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now (1996)
How Brains Think

Conversations with Neil's Brain:  The Neural Nature of Thought and Language (Calvin & Ojemann, 1994)
Conversations with
Neil's Brain

The River That Flows Uphill
The River That
Flows Uphill


The Throwing Madonna:  Essays on the Brain
The Throwing Madonna

copyright ©2003 by William H. Calvin

William H. Calvin
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