Editor’s note: This story was cross-posted from Bill Vaughn’s site, Dark Acres (www.darkacres.com)
People from Washington to Montana reported seeing a huge blue fireball light up the sky at around 6:30 a.m. on February 19. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the streak of light was a meteor, which apparently caused no damage when it hit the middle of nowhere near State Route 26 in Adams County, Washington.
Although spectacular and spooky, celestial fireworks like this one are not uncommon. They’ve been recorded on stone, tapestry and paper for thousands of years. It’s only a matter of time until a piece of the space junk that causes these pyrotechnics wipes us out, a fate we’ve worked so hard to earn.
My most memorable fireball sighting was on the afternoon of August 10, 1972, a calm, clear and hot day—a dog day, a perfect day to fish. For me, it would turn out to be the crowning day of a memorable year.
First, I’d been caught up in the drugs, high drama and copious sex of the antiwar movement. Then, maybe as punishment, the army drafted me. However, a couple days before I was supposed to report to Fort Lewis, Washington, for boot camp I was informed that my government didn’t want to use me for cannon fodder after all because Richard Nixon had decided to turn over the war to the Vietnamese. My reaction to this official caprice was to immediately drop out of the University of Montana, which I had attended indifferently for four years—or was it five?—only because my enrollment there shielded me from the draft.
I was working for the last underground newspaper in America, and couldn’t afford a truck. So my fishing trips were less expeditionary than those of most anglers. I was living with two other wastrels in a shabby rented house on the banks of Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula, Montana, a short distance from this sweet, cold stream’s confluence with the Clark Fork River. So there was lots of good fishing literally a stone’s throw away.
My best friend at the time, a Jewish communist from Baltimore named Harmon Henkin, was an accomplished fly fisherman who would publish several highly regarded books about the subject. Just the night before, he’d walked into the house bearing an enormous brown trout he’d caught at the mouth of the Rattlesnake on some bristly little fly he’d invented, and tied himself. You might ask, how big was this trout? And I would answer: We found the stub of a cigar in its stomach.
When I saw this lunker my heart sank. That’s because all summer long I’d been feeding Wonder Bread and grasshoppers to a wild brown trout that looked very much like this behemoth. My Moby Dick emerged every afternoon from under the little East Front Street bridge to take my treats, as trusting as a park squirrel. Watching Henkin drive off in his Volvo to share this feast with his wife, I felt vaguely cheated.
But the next afternoon, when I went down to the creek with a crust of bread and tossed it in, my fish darted from under the bridge, and took the offering with a vicious slap of water. It was now or never, I thought.
I went back to my room and retrieved the springy little fly rod I’d picked up for a few dollars second-hand. Then, thinking again, I put it away and grabbed a spin-casting pole instead, leveling with myself about my ability to cast a fly precisely where I wanted it to go. I found a small, single hook, tied it to the line and weighted the line with a bit of lead shot.
In the bramble of weeds that passed as our garden I caught an enormous grasshopper, and impaled it on the hook. Then, after slowly edging toward the creek, I saw that the fish, facing upstream in the fast, cool current, was still waiting for another treat. Maybe the water was distorting his size, like a magnifying glass, but he seemed even bigger than Henkin’s fish. I was giddy now, anxious for the trout dinner that would earn me monster points with my roomies. I might even invite a girl I was trying to impress to this dinner. But more than that, I wanted Henkin to see what I’d caught.
The grasshopper landed with a little splash and quickly drifted downstream toward the exact spot where Moby Dick was lurking.
Then the heavens exploded.
I grew up around Air Force bases and I’ve heard sonic booms many times. But nothing as deep and as resounding as this one. In an instant the fish ran back under the bridge. He was permanently spooked. I’d never see him again.
The great hunk of rock, glowing and hissing and trailing smoke, passed directly over my head, from south to north, and sailed out of sight behind Mount Jumbo.
Gaping at the place where it had gone I wondered: What just happened here? Am I hallucinating? Was this an illusion, some kicking-in of a random bit of mescaline or LSD that had lodged in a remote back alley of my brain?
But as I would learn, the thing I had seen was real.
Thousands of people from Utah to Canada had witnessed what would be called The Great Daylight Fireball of 1972. There were hundreds of pictures taken of the thing, and a pair of home movies, and it was tracked using infrared sensors aboard an Air Force satellite.
Scientists inferring from the temperature of the ball and its 900-mile trajectory from Utah to Alberta calculated that it passed over Montana at an altitude of less than 35 miles, was between ten and thirty feet in diameter, and weighed at least 4,000 tons, big enough to obliterate a Denver-sized city with a force equal to Little Boy and Fat Man, the uranium and plutonium bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Because no trace of the beast has ever been found, and because no sonic booms were heard as it sailed across Canada, astrophysicists now believe its low angle of descent allowed it to skip off the earth’s atmosphere like a flat stone on a still lake. One scientist predicted that the fireball would return in 1997, but no one saw it.
In 1972 the earth dodged a bullet. My fish dodged a bullet. And I dodged two bullets. From then on just standing by a stream would always seem a little bit like winning a prize.