On the 4th of July in 1971 my friends John Gilmore, Mark McLaughlin, and Tommie Jordan and I left from the South Shore of Boston for holiday in Maine. We stopped at my grandmother’s cabin on Watchic Pond for a swim and Italian sandwiches. After watching fireworks over the Presumpscot River we headed north for Bar Harbor in my 1968 VW Beetle.
By the Turnpike the trip was about two hours, but we chose the scenic coastal road. I-95 was boring from Presque Isle to Miami, while US 1 wandered through sleeping towns and harbors. That route was better suited for hippies and we listened to the Jefferson Airplane through Brunswick, Bath, and Wicassett.
Someplace outside of Camden John pointed to the sky.
“Check that out.”
“What is that?” Tommie asked from the rear seat and the cranked open the sunroof.
The sky shimmered with an unearthly light and John said, “I knew that weed was strong, but not this strong.”
“That’s not a hallucination. It’s the Aurora Borealis.” Mark declared with debatable authority. He worked as a mechanic at a Wollaston garage. His universe was bigger than I had imagined for a high school drop-out.
“How would you know?” John demanded before puffing on the bong. He was attending Quincy Community College to be a paramedic.
“Because I have a Boy Scout merit badge in astronomy.” His statement had no boast to it.
“Well, la-dee-dah.” John and Mark were childhood friends. Sometimes they were rivals.
“The aurora occur over the poles after a charged particles from the sun collide with atoms in the upper atmosphere riding the Earth magnetic fields.”
“They taught you that in Boy Scouts?” I was a Star Scout with merit badges in marksmanship and canoeing.
“No, I was into the Space Race. I read everything about the stars. I went to the planetarium at the Museum or Science and watched every launch from Cape Canaveral. The Algonquins called the northern lights the ‘dance of the spirits’.”
“Damn, you are an expert.” John passed the bong to his longtime friend and I pulled over to the side of the road.
“I saw them once as a child.” They had lit up the night sky above the Blue Hills.
“I’ve never seen them.” Mark’s eyes were spellbound by the spectacle overhead.
The four of us got out of the VW and lay on the dewy grass.
The celestial phenomena sashayed across the sky as iridescent curtains blowing in the wind. The light show lasted about twenty minutes and disappeared like a mirage into the cosmos.
“The Aurora Borealis,” John remarked in awe.
“Aurora was the goddess of dawn.” I had read Bullfinch’s Mythology in high school.
“I was sort of like dawn at night.” Tommy spoke for the first time that evening. He was a hockey player for a Maine prep school. Last season a college scout recruited him to play at an Ivy League college. His grades were horrible, but his scoring led the league.
“That blew my mind.” John stood up and wiped the damp grass from his clothing.
“More than Jimi Hendrix’s at the Garden?” It had been one of his last shows. We had seen him together.
“Not better. Different.” Tommie looked us in the eyes. “But better the same way Jimi was the best.”
“Excuse while I touch the sky.” John grasped the air with his hands.
We returned to the car and continued north. Few cars rode US 1. Most tourists were in bed at the numerous motels along the road. John put ARE YOU EXPERIENCED on the tape player and Mark stuck his head out the sunroof hoping for another sign from the heavens, becsaue once was not enough.