Almost forty years ago, my brother and I were returning to our parents’ house after some hours spent with friends playing Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, we were Early American Geeks.
It was late in the fall, and it must have been about 3 a.m. — I was driving north on Highway 111 and we passed field after field of vegetables, alfalfa and sleeping cows. Neither of us had said anything for miles, not exactly sleepy but getting mentally ready to go to sleep.
The fields were dark and the stars were bright, the air had the clarity that it only gets in that season and at that time of night. It must have been a new moon with no large glowing orb or crescent shining overhead. In the silence and darkness, we kept our thoughts to ourselves.
Suddenly, white hot light stabbed the sky from the edges of a field we were passing. Arrays of massive strobes as big as refrigerators on every side of the field poured out energy in one synchronized pulse, as if the night were God’s camera and it came equipped with flash bulbs. The light reached horizon to horizon for only an instant, bright as day, sudden as lightning but without a sound. A moment later, the night returned and silent armadas of stars sailed an inky sea above us again.
I knew what had happened and paid no attention. Don at only sixteen had never been up so late traveling on country roads in our part of the world before so he had never seen anything like that sudden brilliance. I guess he waited a three beat for me to make some comment but I didn’t, probably thinking about something else. After a long quiet moment, he gasped, “What the fuck was that?”
“A duck light,” I said. Farmers use strobes like that to scare off migrating ducks from landing in their fields on winter nights but I didn’t explain and he didn’t ask. Simple when you know what it is.
I drove on and neither of us said anything more. A few minutes later, I parked beside our parents’ house and we carefully and quietly went around to the back. I stood at the top of the steps using my keys to unlock the door when Don nudged me.
I half-turned toward him as he asked in a strangled whisper, “All that — just to light a duck?”