Zip! Crack! Blake looked up into the sky to see a fabulous thunderstorm heading in their direction. The rain had begun ten minutes ago at a slow drizzle and it had succeeded in making his boots stick a split second in the new mud on the trail each time he lifted his foot. He found the thunderstorm fascinating, since they were rare in California. The other boys in the troop were trudging forward as if this were an everyday occurrence. He kept his eyes focused on the sky, only occasionally glancing down to the path to make sure he didn’t fall on his face. This was exactly why he had saved his money for the last year to go on this Boy Scout camp in the Midwest. He wanted new adventures, new experiences and new merit badges to add to his sash.
This hike was meant to help him discover new flora and fauna to put in his notebook. With that in mind, he once again focused his attention to the brush and ground around him. Off to one side was something he had not seen before. He called to his buddies, yelling he’d be right there, and knelt on the ground next to the specimen to sketch it into his book so he could look up the name later. He heard another crack and glanced over in its direction. There was an old church hidden just behind the trail. He made a quick detour and scampered over to the church.
Blake stopped quickly in his tracks. What was that he was seeing right in front of him? There, at the top of the roof of the dilapidated church was fiery blue balls hovering and shooting off into the sky. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. No, it wasn’t his imagination. There, not 200 feet in front of him, he could clearly see swirling blue balls of fiery light in the air. As they swirled, they would hiss and swirl off into the night sky. He slumped down in the grass, unable to make his legs pull him either closer or away from this sight. Within minutes the visions were gone. The only thing replacing it was a swirling wind as the incoming storm continued to pass overhead.
Blake regained his wits and picked up his backpack. Now, on this hiking trip, he had something he was dying to share with the other scouts.
Blake caught up with his fellow scouts and blurted out breathlessly, “Guys, guys! I saw some fiery balls in the sky. Back there! Really! You just have to see it!”
The other scouts looked at him with unbelieving eyes. Suddenly the downpour became harder, causing the scouts to scatter for protection from the trees. After everyone dug into their backpacks to find their rain ponchos, they gathered around the scoutmaster for further instruction.
“Scouts, looking at the map, there is a shortcut back to the cabins a short distance ahead. The storm came in a littler earlier than expected tonight – probably due to the increased wind speeds. Let’s hike double-time back to camp. Stephen, you take the lead,” Scoutmaster Clark said with authority.
Blake held back a slight frown as he was forced to trudge through the storm instead of sharing his fiery ball experience with his fellow scouts. He would have to let them know all about it tonight. With each slurp of his boots in the mud he began to doubt his own eyes even more. Surely there was no logical explanation for what he saw.
Back at the campsite there was a flurry of activity as everyone was bracing for the storm. The tents were stressing against the wind with the stakes straining under the upward pressure. The rain was coming in torrents now, causing a low howling noise as it blew through the trees. The nightly campfire was canceled and all scouts were sent to their tents. Once inside, Blake looked around under the halo of the electric lantern to see his tent mates burrowing inside their sleeping bags. The pinging of the rain on the tent roof sounded more like a hail storm than just rain. His fellow scouts pretended to be brave, but he did notice them moving their sleeping bags a little closer to the center of the tent.
“Hey guys, do you want to hear about my eerie sighting of floating fire balls tonight?” Blake asked excitedly.
“Oh Blake, we’re not in the mood for ghost stories when the wind is howling and we think our tent might blow away. Let’s just go to sleep!” Ralph, a fellow scout complained.
“But it was true! I saw floating blue fiery balls over the old church on the trail. It was amazing! Can we check it out tomorrow?” Blake found he was trying to convince the group that his experience was true, when he was even unsure himself. Maybe a day of exploring it again tomorrow would help him decide what had happened.
“Okay, Blake. If it will get you to be quiet, we’ll check it out tomorrow. Good night!” Doug, a fellow camper, exclaimed as he turned away from them to burrow his head in his sleeping bag.
The next day his fellow scouts had forgotten all about their promise to go visit the church. What’s even worse is that when he reminded them, they laughed at him and began to call him by the nickname “Fireball.”
Oh well, he thought. Tonight they’ll see what I mean.
After cleaning up their dinner meal, the scoutmaster talked about their nightly hike. The boys wanted to do a little climbing up near the caves, but Blake kept insisting that they revisit the old church. Finally, because they were worried about the caves being slick due to the recent rain, they decided to take the hike they had not finished the night before. Satisfied that he could see the occurrence once more, Blake slipped a camera into his backpack and joined the hiking pack with a pleased grin.
The weather was overcast with an occasional sprinkle of rain. They donned their rain ponchos once again and marched on. Finally, they were near the area where the church had been sighted. Blake moved to the front of the patrol and searched for clues where the church could be found. He saw a chapel spire sticking up over the trees and he led the group to the church. There, in front of them was a run-down church, now abandoned, that had to be at least 80 years old. The windows were boarded up, there was a large cross of beams nailed over the front door, and the shutters were askew. The chapel spire rose up a good 20 feet over the roof, probably containing steps to the bell tower on the top landing. Above that was a large metal steeple that had a cross on the top.
Blake reached into his backpack for his camera and turned towards the church. The other scouts looked at him expectantly, then started to taunt him, “We don’t see any FIERY, BLUE BALLS, Blake… Where are they, huh, huh? …I can’t believe you made us take this hike again to just see this old church. We’re WAITING, Blake.” They chuckled a little but Blake knew they weren’t trying to be mean. They were just disappointed that they couldn’t go to the cave tonight.
Blake glanced around again and again, but the fiery blue balls were nowhere to be found. He shrugged and waved for the scouts to continue on their hike. Disappointed, he put his chin against his chest looking at the ground. He was afraid to look the other boys in the eyes because he felt like a fool. The rest of the hike was uneventful and Blake was happy to participate in the campfire skits and then return to his tent. He pulled out his notebook and recorded his observations about what he had seen the night before. He even drew some pictures to remind him what they looked like later.
The next morning the scouts were all excited because there was a well-known local Indian, Chief Wise Owl that was coming to camp. They had all heard of the tales he could tell and they looked forward to the revelations. Rumor had it that he would pick one scout to be the spirit guide for the camp based upon his read on the scout’s commitment to the scouts and the environment. It was an honor, and the scout chosen was given a special spirit stick that could be used in their home troop.
At the sound of the horn, the scouts scurried to the flagpole, quickly grabbing the best spots on the logs so they could get a good view of their visitor. Chief Wise Owl arrived in full costume, causing the boys to chatter incessantly. The Scoutmaster held up his three fingers, signaling silence, and the boys respectfully fell quiet.
“Good morning, Scouts. I am here to tell you stories of the Earth and how you must be in touch with the Earth to notice its magic,” Chief Wise Owl began with an authoritative air. For the next half hour he told of animals that had become people and the mysteries of the Earth that had been revealed. The boys sat with mouths open, soaking in the information the Chief was relaying.
“What have you noticed during your time here boys?” the Chief asked, compelling the boys to answer with the wave of his fingers. One by one the boys told of the rain, the forest and the animals they had observed.
Blake felt his face get hotter and hotter as it appeared clear to him that he would have to speak soon. What would he say?
Finally Wise Owl looked squarely at Blake and put his arms out to the side, palms facing sideways. Everyone became eerily quiet, wondering why Chief Wise Owl had interrupted the rhythm of the sharing to stare down this one scout.
As if drawn into Chief Wise Owl’s gaze, Blake felt his nervousness slip away. It was as if only he and Chief Wise Owl were the only ones in the gathering place.
“I see you have something to share, my son,” Chief Wise Owl began. “Tell us about your dealings with the Earth.”
With that, Blake felt as if he was in a spinning tunnel with the staring eyes of the other scouts surrounding him. He took a deep breath, wiped his hands on his pants, and began: “Just two nights ago, right in the middle of a thunderstorm, I saw the most AMAZING thing – I saw spinning balls of blue in the sky. They hovered, hissed and then shot off into the night. It occurred over the old church steeple on the hill.” He ended with a quick intake of air as he awaited the response from Chief Wise Owl. There were snickers and held back laughter from the other scouts as their disbelief was evident on their faces.
“Young scout, you have witnessed a very rare event indeed,” Chief Wise Owl spoke with great reverence. “You have seen what is called St. Elmo’s Fire – fiery balls of light dancing above places like church spires. It is caused by a build-up of static electricity which heats up the air and turns it to plasma. Like lightning, St. Elmo’s Fire is a gap in electrical charge called plasma, or ionized air that emits a glow. But while lightening is the movement of electricity from a charged cloud to the ground, St. Elmo’s Fire is the shooting of these electrons into the air as the imbalance in electrical charge causes molecules to tear apart. Yes, Blake. That is why you heard a hissing sound.”
He continued, “It only occurs during a thunderstorm which creates an electrically charged atmosphere. The phenomenon that causes St. Elmo’s Fire is a dramatic difference in charge between the air and a charged object, like your tall steeple of the church. When the voltage gets high enough, the charged object will discharge its electrical energy. When the air molecules tear apart, they emit light that sometimes lasts several minutes, creating a constant glow. The glow is blue because different gasses glow different colors when they become plasmas. Earth’s atmosphere has nitrogen and oxygen in it, which, when combined, glows blue.”
The scouts were completely still as they let this information sink in. There was a rare occurrence of St. Elmo’s fire on their campsite and someone had seen it! This was no legend, but a rare scientific observation! Within minutes, Blake had been transformed from crazy scout to admired scout. They shifted their eyes disbelievingly back from Chief Wise Owl to Blake.
Chief Wise Owl continued, “The Earth has chosen you scout, to witness its wonders. You were open enough to see the special gifts it had to offer. As such, I have chosen YOU as the camp’s Spirit Guide. Share your experiences and help others to see the things offered here.”
With that, Chief Wise Owl handed Blake the Spirit Stick and Blake accepted it with a wide grin. The scouts gave a loud thunder of applause and congratulatory shouts and ran towards Blake to see the Spirit Stick.
Blake received much more than the Spirit Stick that day. He learned to appreciate the Earth and all it had to offer. He also was given the gift of leadership. From that day forward, he was a beacon of light to fellow scouts, urging them to keep both their eyes and spirits open.