The firmament is full of sun driven phenomena: inspiring sunrises, romantic sunsets, sun dogs, northern lights, brilliant Venus leading the sun across the sky at dawn, or chasing it at dusk.

There’s an unusual one I’ve seen only a few times: airplane contrails casting shadows onto clouds. Usually it’s from a fairly high-altitude flight: the sun is high, and the lower-level clouds are thin. The sun shines upon the contrail, and its shadow falls on the clouds below. If the clouds are translucent enough then the shadow is noticeable.


There is a rare twist to the geometry that can make this contrail-shadowing rather spooky. It happens once in a great while, when the sky is very clear; when a plane leaves a stable long-lasting contrail; and when the sun is very low, near the horizon – even a tad below. And two more important coincident parameters: the plane is flying directly away from the sun, and well above the plane, perhaps at 40,000 feet, there’s a faint veil of clouds, nearly imperceptible from the ground except for this phenomenon. [1]

Friday night, it was late,
I was walking you home
We got down to the gate and I was dreaming of the night
Would it turn out right?
How to tell you girl,
I want to build my world around you.
Tell you that it’s true.
I want to make you understand I’m talkin’ about a lifetime plan.


Hope this gives you the idea.

With this rare conjunction, the contrail shadow appears directly in front of the plane.  To an observer on the ground, it looks as if the path ahead of the plane — that is the path it is about to follow — has been painted as a straight line across the sky, showing where the plane is heading.  [My feeble sketch attempt here].  Like a runway in the sky, showing the plane where to go. Beckoning. Come, follow me.

I’ve only seen this “path ahead” shadow twice.  The first time – just after dawn at a high school cross-county track meet in 2008 – it took me a couple minutes to figure out what was causing this amazing sight. A plane precisely following a line that lay many miles ahead of it. I was amazed. I guess I’m weird, because no one else seemed to care.  Well, there was a running event going on.

I’ve witnessed this extraordinary concurrence of parameters only once since.  This optical treat, contrails showing where the plane is about to go, seems rather magical.  [I’ve seen the Northern Lights three  times.  Unforgettable, and each was different.]

Summer of 1978. Or more accurately: the spring. I had just completed 8 semesters at Arkansas State University, in Jonesboro. Yet, I didn’t have quite enough credits to graduate with an engineering degree, despite taking super heavy loads of 19 credits the previous two semesters. This while working half-time at the City Engineering department.

There’s a backstory to my belated graduation; it has nothing to do with partying or girls. No, it was because I had so little confidence in myself in freshman year that I took light class loads, including a wasted math semester in what amounted to “remedial math for engineers.” [2] The longer story is maybe for another essay.

That’s the way it began,

we were hand in hand
Glenn Miller’s Band was better than before.
We yelled and screamed for more.
And the Porter tunes (Night and Day)
Made us dance across the room.
It ended all too soon.
And on the way back home I promised you’d never be alone.

That’s the way it began, Glenn Miller’s band was better than before

So, 1978, I took a Maymester and a June summer session – cramming two courses into 3 weeks in the merry month of May, then a couple more in jolly June.

I clearly remember two songs from that summer. Songs that touched me sentimentally. Both came out in June and charted through the rest of the year. Despite being super busy I caught them while studying in my non-air-conditioned dorm room.  One song was the Commodores’ “Three Times a Lady”, composed and sung by Lionel Ritchie. A smash hit, it reached #1 on Billboard top 100 for several weeks, also hitting #1 on R&B charts, soul and even country charts.  It also topped charts in Canada, Australia and the UK.  It cracked the top 10 for the year, ending at #10.  It’s a touching song of praise for a special woman, sung as a type of reminiscing about, and relishing, a long life of respect — together.

And the Porter tunes (Cole Porter)

The second song, literally and appropriately namedReminiscing”, was by the Australian group “Little River Band.”  It wasn’t nearly the smash hit as “Three Times”, but certainly was a hit for a while, peaking at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. It ended at #65 for the year, 1978.  So, not super popular, although you still hear this sentimental soft pop song in shopping areas and waiting rooms. [lyrics here: 3 times a Lady and Reminiscing].

Both songs set remarkably similar moods and perspective.  Basically, a very lucky guy, looking back a long life that he was lucky to share with a very special woman. My interpretation of Reminiscing is even more romantic: a guy also looking back at his younger self; and that younger self is imagining himself in the future, visualizing himself as a much older man who’s able to reminisce about a long life with that woman, and – indeed – reminiscing about the very moment he was in.  At least that’s always been my take. That was kind of what I desired.  Looking forward, pursuing a good path, and imagining myself looking back at that life, too.

I’m not just a sentimental romantic fool, I’m sentimental about a lot of older culture as well. Two of my favorite movies are Casablanca (1943) and the Wizard of Oz (1939). Maybe I was born a few decades too late (but I’d sure miss the internet)

Hurry, don’t be late,
I can hardly wait.
I said to myself when we’re old.
We’ll go dancing in the dark,
Walking through the park
and reminiscing.


Now that I’m in those golden years, at nearly 40 years of marriage, with grown kids and grandchildren, I suppose I have finally earned the right to some reminiscing.

The high-level contrails are certainly metaphoric for me. 1978 to ‘82 was morning, with dreams of following a path clearly laid out.  (“Go west young man!” [3]) After a few false trails —and after moving west — finally, I met Audrey (Three Times a Lady) and soon enough we set out — together — along the path we saw ahead. Or so we thought. 

Friday night, it was late,
I was walking you home,
We got down to the gate
and I was dreaming of the night.
Would it turn out right? …
Now as the years roll on,
Each time we hear our favorite
The memories come along.
Older times we’re missing
Spending the hours reminiscing.

Contrails, and the path their shadows lay out, don’t last very long.  Circumstances inevitably change or dissolve them;  the weather changes: tumult and twists and turbulence. Clouds  – sometimes puffy, sometimes dark – come and go; the sun angle changes, winds are moody and shifty. The path that seemed so clear … just … fades … away.

Still we persist onward, looking for landmarks we’d heard of, trying to stay the course, or at least head in the right general direction, with the principles that got you so far.  Together.

Now we approach the end of the day. The sun is setting. The shadow phenomenon can also occur – in reverse.  Instead of showing the path ahead, the shadow shows the path completed.  Farther to the east, across the firmament, behind the plane, the trail and shadows begin to break up; views of the earlier path are vague and fading.  Yet, at the end of the day, a contrail shadow is not needed to see the path. The contrail itself – not a ghostly shadow – traces the past. Not too far behind, though, across the sky, even the longest contrails fade.

Hurry. Don’t be late,
I can hardly wait.
I said to myself when we’re old.
We’ll go dancing in the dark,
Walking through the park
and reminiscing.

It’s better to reminisce while trails and shadows are still perceptible. I can see: It’s been a very good flight.  We set a good course, we’ve muddled through disturbances, done the best possible, followed a good path, and had a most enjoyable flight.  Together.

While reminiscing we’re chasing the sun to the horizon – and beyond.  Together.  I’m a lucky man.

Joe Girard © 2022

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[1] I believe these are called cirrostratus clouds nebulosus.

[2] In sophomore year I was fortunate to have a math professor who got me back on track, and even ahead of schedule. I used his office hours liberally. I sometimes met a young high school student waiting patiently outside his office in the late afternoon. That boy was the professor’s stepson.  And that “boy” is now my brother-in-law.  Sometimes it’s a very small world indeed.

[3] Go west young man. Phrase attributed to Horace Greeley, who promoted westward settlement (Greeley Colorado is named for him), although he never went west himself.  Famous newspaper man, one term congressman, ran for president in 1872, lost to Grant, and passed away weeks later (61) … just one month after his wife had also passed away.

Contrail shadow below trail; taken just after noon near Gravina, Italy. Sun is above and to right of jet plane, casting shadow on thin clouds below.

Sun dogs

Crepuscular Rays at sunset

4 thoughts on “Reminiscing”

  1. Mary Schweitzer

    Interesting and sentimental. Thanks for sharing your knowledge about contrails and tenderness about Audrey.

    Happy New Year!

    1. Joe Post Author

      Contrails are much more complicated than this… and these days … quite controversial.
      I have a rather curious mind, and a soft sentimental romantic heart. Sometimes it all comes together and I have to share
      Be well Mary
      Happy New Year

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