The dark always welcome visit

Published 9:15 am Friday, March 1, 2013

by James D. ‘Archie’ Howell

Darkness is not to be feared; it is a natural occurrence.

I feel the dark around me. It is not an enemy; it enfolds me in its arms and heightens my senses. Sounds, subdued by light, are sharp in stillness.

I stand and stare into the fullness of night. I feel the closeness; I see the dark. Stars signal the direction of heaven; my feet find earth.

I walk slowly, deliberately, step following step past the spruce tree, between the hedges and out our front yard. I turn toward my brother’s house; I go visit him and his new wife now and then. She’s always welcoming and seems to genuinely enjoy some company — even if it’s a kid like me. I stay for an hour or so and retrace my steps home.

Above my head, massing in the blackness, are billions of stars. I can identify the Milky Way, but I don’t know individual stars. I think I can locate the Big Dipper, but it’s a thought without confidence.

I only know the name from my siblings’ chatter. The night sky is a comfort, and my lantern glows warmly; it all seems to fit somehow.

It’s a break from the routine of our house.

I make a lantern, of sorts, from a tin can and a candle. I fold the opened end back until it’s straight up and down; then I cut a rough hole into the side of the can opposite the lid, about half way down.

Through this hole I stick a candle; we usually have a small supply of candles for one use or another. I can hold the completed lantern horizontally, light the candle and have a functional light source that is resistant to light winds and will not burn my hand.

I saw the idea in a magazine and immediately recognized the value of an inexpensive light source to a child like me. Flashlights require batteries and are beyond my budget; this is easily constructed and candles are cheap.

I use the lantern to investigate dark corners of our yard and areas beyond the reach of our household lights. I walk back field paths, intentionally seeking to illuminate the secrets of the dark. My family is generous with candles.

Police vehicles have a spotlight mounted on the driver’s side door frame; law enforcement can light up dark places while driving or sitting still. I like that.

Some local people have a spotlight mounted on their personal cars; I’ve never seen one mounted on a pickup truck. Stories circulate that those lights are sometimes used to spot deer at night. The animals, blinded by sudden brightness, stand still and can easily be killed. I think that’s a cowardly act.

My family hunts deer on a routine basis in season; venison, sometimes made into sausage, supplements other meats on our table. Nobody uses a spotlight.

Visiting coon hunters introduce us to carbide lamps. The lamps use a valve system to drip water onto calcium carbide, resulting in acetylene gas that is vented through a small orifice on a reflecting dish.

The gas is lit with a spark from a flint, just like a cigarette lighter. My brother has a five-cell flashlight, also used for hunting; it’s the brightest available.

I am permitted to build small fires in our front yard, in an out-of-the-way spot and boil eggs in a tin can. I love to stare into the flames and imagine what is beyond the circle of light. The eggs are just an excuse for firelight; it’s never done during the day.

Tree shadows dance into the dark. House lights are dimmed in the after supper quiet. My spirit moves to another place and time, returning only to the call of my parents at bedtime.

I’m an hour toward Seattle from Anchorage, a little after level off, at cruising altitude. I catch a glimmer out my window. It’s just a hint of light, not brilliant. I lower the cockpit instrument lights to a level just bright enough to read with difficulty. Slowly my eyes adjust to the darkness, and with the adjustment I perceive color.

Blues, greens, darker shades of each and some very light green, tending toward yellow, reach across the midnight sky, growing, shrinking, swirling, blending, in a dance older than civilization. I stare, enchanted, and am once again walking in the dark, staring at the heavens, a dim light in my hand.

I am home.

JAMES D. ‘ARCHIE’ HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at