Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Screech Owl

The Screech Owl, a Halloween story
By Sandy Nichols Ward

“What’s that sound?” our mother asked as we walked along in our Halloween costumes. My sister and I were quite young. We were excited to be going Trick-or-Treating. We held tightly to Mommy’s hands as we passed through a dark, wooded section of Nichols Street not far from our home. “Shh! Listen. I think it is a Screech owl,” she continued.

We could hear a ghostly “hoooOOOooo” sound in the distance, and then a descending “hoo-oo-ooo, hoo-oo-ooo, hoo-oo-ooo” whistle somewhat like the whinny of a horse. We were eager to continue down the road and gather candy, but Mommy was much more interested in the sound in the woods. She loved nature and loved teaching us about it. She imitated a Screech owl’s call, and then we heard the distant one again. She led us back towards the sound.

Slowly and cautiously we walked through the dark, focusing on the sound. Closer and closer we came, until we approached a medium-sized fir tree at the edge of our yard. The calls seemed to be coming from high in that tree. When we raised a flashlight into the upper branches, we saw two bright eyes! The eyes were HUGE! Suddenly a big voice boomed out, “You’re stepping on my toes! Don’t shine that flashlight in my eyes!”  We jumped back in horror. A talking tree with silvery eyes was too much for us.

We ran as fast as we could back to the safety of our little house. There we found Daddy standing at the bathroom window looking out towards the tree and talking into a gadget. HE was the voice in the tree!  He had rigged up a system for talking through the tree;  he was a clever electronics engineer. We could see a wire running from the bathroom window towards the tree. He had used metal parts from his hearing aid business to create the “eyes” and face of the tree creature. We had been tricked!

The rush of mixed feelings – fear, relief, annoyance at being fooled by our parents – turned into glee as we witnessed what happened next. Some neighborhood boys approached our yard, hoping for Halloween treats. They heard the owl-like calls from the tree, and they too walked close to investigate. It was a thrill to watch Daddy work his magic on these boys. “Stand back! You’re stepping on my toes!” I’ll never forget the scene of those big brave boys running away from that talking tree! One fellow ran across the yard and climbed up our maple tree as high as he could go.   My sister and I felt much better knowing that we weren’t the only ones scared by that talking tree.

That was a Halloween to remember. Of course we gave treats to the boys after explaining the source of the sound. They then delighted in bringing other friends to our yard to experience the Talking Tree.  None of us saw screech owls that night, but Danvers really did have screech owls. We heard them on other nights. Today, as I write this and listen to sound recordings (easily findable on the Internet),  I am reminded both of the real owls and of the long-ago Halloween trick my parents played on us.

"The Screech Owl: A Halloween Story" was published in the Danvers Herald and posted online Oct 31, 2007.

You can listen to Screech Owl sounds and learn more about them at these sites:

Happy Halloween

Recently I have been writing about my childhood Halloween experiences in Danvers. One of my stories will appear in the Herald this week. Watch for it!

Monday, October 1, 2007


This month's column is about seeing Sputnik with my family in Danvers. See the online version, posted today, or the print version, which will be published on Thursday, October 4 -- the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1.

As I was preparing the column, I spent some time investigating the history and development of Sputnik. I was dismayed to read that Sputnik 1 was too small to be seen with the naked eye. It was only 2 feet in diameter. What we saw, then, was the much larger rocket stage which had gone into orbit with the tiny satellite. Well, our excitement 50 years ago was real. No matter which piece of technology we saw passing high overhead, it was part of the Russian-launched Sputnik program.

Here is the text of my Remembering Danvers column for October 2007:

Watching Sputnik and other space marvels
By Sandy Nichols Ward

I remember lying on the ground and gazing up at the sky in hopes of seeing “Sputnik”, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. I didn’t know what to expect. The idea of a man-made satellite going round and round in the space above us was very new. The fact that our parents invited us to stay out at night for this purpose was exciting. We spread out a blanket on the front lawn of our house in Danvers, and lay down to wait for Sputnik to come.

There was a problem with our first attempt. Too many trees surrounded our yard. We could only see the sky directly above us, not to the horizons. This reduced our chance of seeing Sputnik. So on another evening we climbed up to the top of a big sloped road-cut beside Route 1, a good place to get a full view of the sky and the horizon to the west. We lay on that rather steep slope, on blankets over the lumpy-bumpy surface of grass tufts and gravel: my father, my mother, my sister and I. We could see over Route 1 and the beginning of the New Hampshire-Maine turnpike, as we called Rte 95 then.

That night, that clear October night in 1957, we did see Sputnik! A small point of light like a tiny star passed across the sky. It wasn’t as close or fast as an airplane, but of course it moved more quickly than a star, so we could be quite sure that we were seeing Sputnik. Wow! It arrived at the expected time, on its schedule of circling the Earth every 96 minutes. This was a thrilling moment.

I didn’t understand then what impact Sputnik might have on my life. I was a young teenager, just beginning high school. Russia’s successful launch of this satellite surprised and startled the United States. U.S.-Soviet relations were quite tense in those days, and everything was seen as a competition. Sputnik provided a push for rapid reform of American science education. We had to catch up with the Russians. Two years later I was in science classes that used an experimental new textbook, which I liked. It combined physics and chemistry into one curriculum with innovative hands-on science experiments that were fun to do. The textbook was so new that we got it in paperback installments. We had a feeling of being adventurers into this new way of learning science. My science teacher urged me to study Russian, which I did for several years in college. I also remember my excitement watching, on a college TV in 1962, the launch of John Glenn’s first orbital flight.

Years later, as a wife and new mother, I returned to Danvers to visit my parents in time for the Moon Landing. We sat together in the living room and watched television on July 20, 1969, as astronaut Neil Armstrong took his first step onto the surface of the moon.  My infant son Chris was sleeping in my lap as I witnessed this amazing feat. Neil said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind!” and I suddenly realized that my son would grow up entirely in the Space Age, taking these marvels for granted instead of gathering friends and relatives for a very special TV-viewing party, as we did in Danvers that night. It is now (October 2007) the 50th anniversary of Sputnik and the Space Age.