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xx Wednesday, October 29, 1997

A strange glow has kept people guessing for decades

 HORNET, Mo. (AP) -- On those moonless Missouri nights when it gets darker than dark -- darker, some would say, than the inside of a cow -- things can get pretty spooky along a rugged stretch of road.

 That's when the Spooklight is likely to make its appearance.

 On some nights it might rise slowly out of nowhere to illuminate a broad swatch of farmland. On others it might simply waltz up East Highway 50 from Oklahoma, dancing across the gravel road that doubles as the state line.

 Or it could just run straight at you, vanishing at the last second, then reappearing a heartbeat later, as it sneaks up from behind to levitate around your shoulders.

 Whatever it is, just about everyone to be found along this stretch of rolling hills and farms, where the landmarks have names like Lost Creek and Teepee Reservation, has a Spooklight story to tell.

 "It's kind of a legend around here, and it's been forever that people have gone out to look for it," says Suzanne J. Wilson, a local writer. "I've only seen it in the distance ... but I've seen it.'

 Noel Grisham, who lives a mile or so off Spooklight Road, thinks maybe he's seen it, too. But he's more skeptical.

 "It could be a flashlight for all I know," he says.

 "But when the weather's nice and you're sitting out in the yard at night, you'll get five or 10 people a week pulling up hollering at you," Grisham says, "They'll holler, 'Is this where Spooklight is? We want to see Spooklight."'

 So it doesn't really matter whether the folks around here believe. Whatever it is, it's their Spooklight, the one that entranced their grandparents, long before the tourists. And they're proud of it.

 "I don't really know what it is and I hope they never find out. It would spoil the mystery," says Joe Smith, a gregarious man who is president of the Bank of Quapaw, just across the state line in Oklahoma.

 Having spent all of his 74 years here, Smith is a Spooklight authority of sorts. So he knows that each fall, when the Halloween jack-o-lanterns start adorning doorsteps, the Spooklight calls will roll in.

 "One year we had a TV station come down, had one of those big trucks with lights and makeup in it," he recalls laughing. "I felt like we really hit the big time."

 June Smith is the senior reference librarian at the Joplin Public Library, 20 miles to the northwest. Like so many others, she has her own Spooklight theory.

 "I've always figured it was an accumulation of gases, and you saw it when the time was right," she said. "Nobody has ever really figured out the reason for it. ... During World War II, the Army Corps of Engineers even had people down here looking."

 It was around that time that Mrs. Smith was transformed from Spooklight skeptic to Spooklight believer. She was getting ready to return home with her 2-year-old daughter and friends after a fruitless night of Spooklight watching.

 "We had two carloads down there and we hadn't seen anything," she says now. "And I thought, well, I don't believe it anyway. And then here it came down the road.

 "It looked like the size of a basketball, and as it came toward you, it got larger. By the time it got to the second car it almost exploded. It was the size of the second car."

 Joe Smith's old friend, Lloyd "Dutch" Bielke, told him how he saw it one night, maybe 90 years ago, when he was out in his buggy with his wife-to-be. It came up so fast that it spooked the horses.

 Dutch is dead now and 14-year-old Shannon Townsend lives in the house where Dutch's grandson, Ralph Bielke, is said to have seen the Spooklight five times in 10 years. It was there that Shannon's brother recently photographed the Spooklight.

 The picture looks like ... well, it looks like a white light hovering just off the ground. Whether it's fog or a flash bouncing back at the camera is hard to say.

 Shannon didn't believe him, even after he showed her the picture. But then her father told her he saw it, too. She slept right through it.

 Does she believe it now?

 "Yeah. A little bit."

 John W. Northrip, a professor of physics and astronomy at Southwest Missouri State University, doesn't believe it -- not at all.

 Over three years in the early 1970s, Northrip and some of his students employed lasers, walkie talkies and other gadgets to unravel the mystery.

 It was not long after the Apollo moon landing, Northrip recalls, and everyone's head seemed to be tilted toward the heavens in those days, looking for strange stuff. Where 50 people might show up on a given night to see Spooklight now, 400 would show up then.

 Northrip was among them. He says his investigators proved that rising heat from surrounding hills was carrying light from a nearby highway and giving it its Spooklight appearance, making it dance and hover.

 He simply discounts stories that Spooklight existed 100 years ago,

 "I come from the Ozarks," Northrip says, "so I'm used to the idea that where there is a phenomenon like this, that stories have a tendency to grow like this."

 Maybe it's the Ozark romantic in him, but Northrip doesn't denounce all of the Spooklight legend.

 "For those who have had it come up and had it sit right on the fender of their car," he says, chuckling, "I don't know. There is no scientific explanation for that kind of thing."


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