What mystery lights up Marfa’s skies?
November 29, 2015
THE TRUCK DRIVER saw no reason to be frightened. He didn’t believe what he had seen with his own eyes anyway. He poured down a cup of coffee and ordered another, then bought a pack of cigarettes even though he had never smoked before.
“Make the coffee a little stronger this time,” he told the waitress. “I want to taste the grounds.”
“You must have seen the lights,” voiced the Red Ball trucker from the far corner of the little all-night diner on the outskirts of Marfa, Texas.
“I was headed up Highway Sixty-seven, coming out of Presidio.”
The Red Ball trucker nodded. “Maybe, it was a plane.”
“It was flying too damn low,” snapped the driver, who saw no reason to be scared. He sipped on the coffee and chewed on the grounds.
“Maybe it wasn’t flyin’ at all.”
The truck driver knew he didn’t believe his own eyes, and now he wasn’t believing what he was hearing either. He frowned, stuck a cigarette with trembling fingers into his mouth, and struck a match. A gust of hot wind ripped through the front door. The match went out.
“Back in World War number two,” said the Red Ball trucker, “the army had an air base out just east of Marfa. A bomber took off on a training mission one day and never returned.”
He paused. The truck driver reached for another match.
“Some people think those lights out there in the Chinati Mountains are the lights of that bomber still tryin’ to find its way back home,” the Red Ball trucker concluded, his words as emotionless as the clock behind the counter. The clock had struck ten-fourteen years ago and stopped. Time doesn’t mean a lot in Marfa, Texas.
The bomber may still be missing. But the lights, I’m told, were disturbing the holy peace of Marfa long before the army flew into those sun-blistered plains in the first place. They dance in the midnight shadows of the mountains, sometimes white, sometimes blue, sometimes orange. They confuse. They taunt. They are restless, wandering from the Chinatis to the Cienegas to the Dead Horse Mountains..
“They’re just weird,” said Haillie Stillwell, a former justice of the peace in Alpine. “The first time I saw them they scared me to death. They light up and run across the mountains kind of like a grass fire.”
No one has ever explained the unearthly Marfa lights.
Rumor doesn’t have a clue.
Those dashing, daring young pilots who trained at the air base during World War number two did their best to chase the lights down. Fritz Kahl recalled, “I could see them from my plane, a low glow, yellow and red, from the air. They moved around, but they didn’t move a great distance. They don’t chase you, and they’re nothing to be scared of. Maybe the lights are a low-grade form of St. Elmo’s fire or static electricity. I only know that when you approach one of the lights, it disappears. It’s a lot like trying to catch a rainbow.”
Fritz Kahl never caught them. Some pilots would fly over the lights and drop sacks of flour. Later, when daylight covered the land, they found only busted sacks of flour, no trace of the lights at all.
Around Marfa, you still hear the hushed tales of tragedy that many believe, although none can really prove. It all happened so many years ago. Records were classified and simply filed away or thrown away. “Two soldiers went out in a Jeep to try and track the lights down,” I am told, “and they vanished right off the face of the earth. All that was ever found of them was a single wrinkled sock.”‘
Through the years, many with scientific and academic credentials strapped on their names, have stepped forward with official explanations.
“It’s swamp gas.”
The desert has no swamps.
“It’s the moon’s reflection on a vein of mica.”
No large lode of mica has ever been found in the mountains.
“You can only see it after a rain.”
“You can see them best when the country’s bone dry.”
“They’re little volcanoes.”
“They’re gases escaping from the ground.”
“They’re electric jackrabbits.”
“That’s right. When jackrabbits run through luminescent bushes or plants, their fur picks up phosphorous like lint. When you see them running, they’re glowing in the dark.”
The Indians believed that the lights were homes for fallen stars, for those who had died and not yet chosen their final resting place. Mexican settlers looked upon the curious illumination as the lost, wandering spirit of Alsate, the Apache chieftain they had lured out of the Chisos Mountain, then betrayed. Mexican soldiers had killed many of Alsate’s people and had taken the rest as slaves. Now he would haunt them until the day he died, and for all the years thereafter. No one could stop the spirit that stalked the plains.
In a cafe, I hear: “It’s the lantern of an old prospector who trekked this desert for twenty-five years, then finally struck a vein of pure gold. He was in such a hurry to get to town and have the ore assayed that he forgot to mark his trail, and he never found the gold again. He went mad. He roams the foothills with his lantern, searching for the gold he had in his hands before he lost it all.”
On a street corner, I am told, “The Spanish had the Indians dig their gold, then made them carry it out of the mountains. When they could go no farther, the Spanish soldiers killed the Indians and buried them with the treasure. Their ghosts rise out of the ground to dance above the gold that cursed them. If you can find the exact spot of the lights, all you have to do is dig, and you’ll find the gold yourself.”
In an empty diner outside of Marfa, a truck driver understands. His coffee is cold, and the grounds are dry. He has no reason to be scared, he figures. He’s old. He’s tired.
His eyes have lied to him before. He drains his coffee cup, spits out a few grounds that aren’t caught between his teeth, and crushes the cigarette against the stained black jukebox that ran out of songs about the same time he ran out of quarters.
He would like to smoke – he needs a smoke – but, for the life of him, he can’t get the damn thing lit.
My last novel is Night Side of Dark, set in Poland and Germany toward the end of World War II. The only lights in the skies belonged to bombers in those European skies.