Looking back over the slow passage of years, it’s clear to me that the sighting of one tiny red light shining in the night sky was a major event in my life.
Also looking back, I realize I was probably right in keeping this mostly to myself. It’s one of those stories you don’t relate to strangers during casual conversation. One of the stories that will get you eye-rolls, guarded whispers behind your back, and maybe even a place in line at the unemployment insurance office. It’s also a story that begs to be told.
It was the winter of 1973 – 74. I was almost thirteen years old and a few months from finishing grade seven. I had a really cool, scientifically-minded teacher that year who invited his class to school one evening to look at the sky through his new telescope. We saw the craters on the moon and the rings on Saturn, and galaxies that looked like stars with the naked eye but grew to fuzzy blobs of light in the telescope. We tried to spot the passing comet Kohoutek – which was actually the goal of the whole outing – but we never did.
Walking home that evening with my eyes glued on the clear winter sky, however, I saw something curious: a simple, pale red light moving slowly overhead. At first I thought it was a plane, but there was no sound and it seemed too high for that. I realized it was a satellite. That wasn’t curious at all; even back in the seventies there were lots of them up there, bringing us cable television and who knew what else.
Reaching my front yard, I saw another light moving in the sky. For some reason, this one seemed different from the satellite. It was brilliant red and advancing slowly but steadily across the sky high above the roof over my house, from front to back.
I raced into the house, letting the door slam behind me. For some reason, it was immensely important to me that I not be alone in observing this object.
“Mom! Mom, come with me, you have to see this!” I remember yelling as I ran through the house. This wasn’t like me, at all.
I dragged my poor, bewildered mother by the hand down our back stairs and out the door to the middle of the back yard. I pointed to the red light, over our heads now but travelling resolutely through the sky in a perfectly straight line. I was afraid she would say she didn’t see anything unusual, but she saw it, all right.
We wondered aloud if it might be an airplane, and we agreed that it didn’t seem to be. It was a single red light; no starboard green light could be seen.
We were still standing there gaping at the object when the impossible happened: the red light suddenly stopped high above the house behind ours.
That made us suspect it might be a helicopter, although there was no sound, no strobe lights. And living near a naval base as we did, we’d seen hundreds of helicopters.
By then my mother, who hadn’t had time to grab a coat, was freezing.
We hurried back into the house. I flung my coat on the floor and sat down at the kitchen table to stare at the hovering light through the window with the kitchen lights turned off.
Mom got out the binoculars and we took turns looking at the object but even with them, all we could see was a tiny, bright red light.
We gazed at the light for something like five minutes. Then, without warning, it shot off at right angles from its original direction. There was no gradual acceleration. It was just hanging there on a background of stars in the black sky, and then it was zipping away. In a matter of seconds, it had disappeared.
My mom and I sat there for a moment with our mouths hanging open. We both knew that had not been any helicopter. Mom had the idea we should report the sighting to someone.
But who do you call when you’ve just seen an impossible red light in the night sky? The police? Fire department? Military?
I called the local observatory and described what I’d seen in a bogus calm voice. Inside, I was shaking as the importance of the situation sunk in.
The unimpressed man who answered the telephone told me I’d most likely seen a weather balloon.
I wondered if he thought I was an idiot, or maybe making it all up.
“It wasn’t a weather balloon,” I argued, my excitement overriding my general shyness. “I’ve seen those before, even handled them for a Girl Guide badge. They don’t move like this thing did, and they don’t glow brilliant red at night.”
Next he suggested that if it wasn’t a balloon, it must have been a bird. Maybe a flock of birds.
Obviously, he did think I was an idiot.
I realized he didn’t know what I was talking about – or what it could have been. My heart began to pound. I didn’t sound so calm now, even to my own ears. “It wasn’t a flock of birds. My mom saw it, too. She’s the one who told me to call you.”
The man gave a little sigh and told me rather impatiently to hold the line.
He left me hanging on the phone. I wondered if he’d gone to check out the telescope or radar or some technologically superior equipment that would give me an answer. I wondered if he would come back at all.
When finally he returned, he told me with renewed certainty in his voice that in fact, I must have seen the planet Venus. A lot of people made that mistake, he explained.
“Venus? Really?” I knew Venus looked like a big star, only it didn’t twinkle. It was up there above the house across the road from ours, and I was pretty sure it hadn’t gone anywhere. “It wasn’t Venus.”
He hung up or I did – I didn’t really notice.
I rushed straight to the front door and peered outside, just to be certain. Venus was shining faithfully right where it was supposed to be, bright white and totally not moving.
In the days to come I told neighbours and friends at school about seeing a UFO.
“That’s what a UFO is, isn’t it? An ‘unidentified flying object’? Doesn’t that describe perfectly what my mom and I saw? I mean, what could it have been?”
Each enthusiastic account was greeted by smiles and nods and uncomfortable comments about my overactive imagination or my sorry desire for attention. My mom got the same reactions, and we soon stopped telling our story.
But something had definitely changed.
I realized that grown-ups didn’t know everything about everything, and that when they didn’t know, they didn’t always want to admit it. My mind opened to the possibility that there was more to the world – and maybe the universe – than what they were teaching us in school.
I never saw the red light again, but that experience sparked a life-long interest in UFOs and other unexplained phenomena. I remember that night as if it were yesterday. It was the night I stopped blindly accepting other people’s answers at face value – no matter what the question – and started searching for answers of my own.
Forty years later, I continue to search.
By Donna Marie West