Recalling St. Elmo's Fire

Back in the Summer of 1981, when I was 18 years old, I was headed home from a beach party late at night (or, rather, early in the morning) - motoring my way north from Dennisport up Main Street into South Dennis village. At the time I was driving a temperamental '67 Mustang, windows down, radio going, as I passed the Town Offices and rambled over the old railroad tracks that crossed the road there in those days ...the tracks have since been removed. Anyway, it was late and the sky foretold of an approaching electrical storm. It was a magical night - earlier there had been a lunar eclipse, or at least, that's how I remember the sequence of events now 25 years removed from that memorable evening.

Just as I crossed the tracks I hit the brakes and glided to a crawl and then a dead stop. Looking up ahead I saw the most remarkable thing in the sky. Then I realized that it wasn't in the sky, but rather hovering atop a nearby telephone pole. It was a light - sort of blue-green in color - just sitting atop the pole. I turned off the radio - there was no sound, except the very distant, faint kettle drums of thunder. Staring for a few moments, alone on Main Street of the sleeping village, not another car in sight, I realized that what I was seeing ahead of me was St. Elmo's Fire. I had never seen it before ... and have not seen it since.

At the time, my awareness of St. Elmo's Fire came from Moby Dick, when Captain Ahab appears to conjure up the light while sailing aboard the Pequod in a storm. It is strange that I should witness this odd light while in such an old sea captains' village as South Dennis - a light her former resident mariners no doubt saw upon their many briny travels. The light's relationship to things nautical is well documented and, in fact, the "fire" is named for an Italian bishop named Elmo, or Erasmus, who is considered the patron saint of mariners. Its presence was considered good luck, as if St. Elmo himself was watching out over the voyage.

Webster defines St. Elmo's Fire as "a flaming phenomenon sometimes seen in stormy weather at prominent points on an airplane or ship and on land that is of the nature of a brush discharge of electricity." For more information on St. Elmo's Fire, inquire at the reference desk of your local library ... reference librarians live to research just this sort of stuff! It'll really make their day!

Incidentally, Webster defines the word temperamental as follows: "marked by excessive sensitivity and impulsive changes of mood: High-strung, Unpredictable" which perfectly describes my old Mustang, which seemed to spend more time in the local garage than on the road!

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