FOXFIRE is the local name most given to this stuff. WEBSTER'S LEXICON DICTIONARY defines it as, "The phosphorescent light emitted by decaying timber infested with certain fungal growths; a fungus which causes decaying timber to emit such light."
All this is well and good, if the characters in this story had ever bothered to read a dictionary, or a book for that matter. Such are the ingredients for urban legends, although this "LEGEND" happened in the woods, miles from anywhere.
Off to the side of a dirt road named PIKE ROAD, in the rural, far reaches of HEARD COUNTY, GEORGIA, the groundwork for our tale unfolds. Sometime around 1960, the stage was set; someone, either poachers or moonshiners, had hung a braided steel cable from the limb of a large oak tree. Nearby some discarded wood lay, decaying and fermenting into the ingredients needed for the swamp gas that was to appear years later.
There is no clear beginning to the sightings of the SWAMP GAS CREATURE'. It was, in all probability, first discovered and dismissed, by area "coon" hunters. This is a Southern sport and tradition that can only be conducted after dark. Many a young child earned his manhood on his first coon hunt. For you see, coon hunting in my youth was a reason for men to get together: to hunt, drink, and play practical jokes on the innocent boys that went along for the excitement.
I would not be surprised to learn that 'THE LIGHT' had been known for many years by the hunters and was probably one of the many scary tricks that was played on the first timers.
What is known by me is that sometime after 1962, guys started taking their dates to see "THE LIGHT" in an effort to get hugged closely by the frightened girls. I say, after 1962, because that is the year that CLAUDINE CLARK released her hit single, PARTY LIGHTS, the song that was often sung when the mysterious light of Heard County was mentioned.
Well as most innocent things usually begin, it was guys scaring their dates, as already mentioned. Then along comes the macho factor, with young men daring others to go up to the tree, etc. Young men, who by the way, carried guns (this, after all was in the 60's before gun control or registration) and moonshine, that was easier to get than whiskey. A bad trio; guns, alcohol, and fear!
Let me stop here to set the stage for one would see when visiting the "THE LIGHT" on the perfect night. I do not remember all the science behind why it worked, but several things had to come together to make this a remarkable site. One that would even make the hair on the back of the head of an informed person rise.
First, as mentioned at the beginning, decaying wood with the proper fungus had to be present.
Second, the proximity of the oak tree, oak having the best ability to attract electrons; stand next to one with "cloud lightning" around and see for yourself.
Third, the steel cable and however close to the ground it was.
Fourth, the humidity, air pressure, or whatever meteorological elements had to come together to make the "creature" come to life.
This usually happened after midnight in the summer time. I always thought that was because it took a long time for the ground to cool off and the conditions to get right.
When everything finally converged, this is what you would see; the strange formation of a pale green light or vapor at the source of the decaying wood. It would travel over the ground to the nearby oak tree (being attracted to it to be more exact), up the tree, out on the limb, and down the wire. There it would quickly dissipate while a new batch was formed and repeated the route. This would continue until conditions of the weather changed and it would suddenly stop, usually only lasting for a few minutes on the nights that it happened at all.
Like most things in life, waiting for an event to happen, whether it be good or bad, causes much anxiety. This was certainly the case when this was thought to be "supernatural". Also at this time I need to tell you that the people sitting on the hoods of their cars, drinking homemade courage, carrying guns, and without the benefit of science or common sense, are to be feared. I mean what person in their right mind would think you could shoot and kill a light, no matter what caliber weapon you used. In my opinion, the tire pressure of their pick up trucks was usually higher that the I.Q.'s of these gun totin', shine drinkin', morons waiting on the "boogy man"!
And as would happen, the crowd would usually start to gather early, with some alcohol being consumed, followed by who has the best gun (war stories abound at such gatherings--I call them pissing contests). The mostly abandoned girls would turn to talking amongst themselves, with someone tuning in a car radio the local rock 'n roll station. The neglected girls would dance with themselves in the beam of the car headlights. Then some guy would get interested and cut-in to dance with a girl, most often the wrong girl. Then nature takes over and the when the boyfriend sees a guy with his girl, his manhood is threatened and the laws of red-neck love dictate that said boyfriend start a fight. After that the only lights seen that night are blue and attached to the Sheriff's car.
By the time I became aware of this weekly event, the crowds had grown to be rather large by Heard County standards. I do seem to recall seeing as many as 100 or so cars/trucks/pulpwood trucks stretched along that dirt road. I don't recall that many cars at our home football games and we drew the crowds back then. I guess it depends on what you have to offer the people as to whether you can get their interests.
Well, like I have said in the past, you throw a few rednecks in the stew and it will go sour quick. The Saturday Night Event (and for some reason only Saturday) soon evolved into a reason to go out on a dirt road to drink and start a fight.
Sheriff Virgil Bledsoe was as fine a sheriff and gentleman as you would ever want to meet. He knew that there was not much to keep people entertained back in those days and a little drinking and a couple of licks passed didn't amount to much. But remember I said that there were rednecks in the woodpile, and their sole purpose in life is to screw up everything for everybody else. So when there started to be gunfire at nearly every gathering, the sheriff had enough.
He ordered a local pulpwood crew to go out and cut down the 'TREE" and everything within 100 feet around it. I don't know if the sheriff knew who owned the land or even cared. He meant to put a stop to the disorderly conduct before someone got hurt. That was pretty much how things were handled back in that day.
A short time after that, someone came in and "clear-cut" the property, meaning that they cut down everything, plowed up the stumps, and had tree planters come in and replant everything. Well this plowing action naturally disrupted the swamp gas, never to rise again in that location.
I remember some 15 years later when I went to work for Franklin Police Department, I asked Sheriff Bledsoe about the LIGHT and he still cussed "them stupid s.o.b.'s".
THE LIGHT IS GONE--BUT NOT THE MEMORIES!