Something weird happened on March 13, 1997, in the dark skies over central Arizona.
From about 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., hundreds of people, including airline pilots, military officials and state troopers as well as ordinary citizens, watched an eerie display of lights dance and streak across the heavens.
The "Phoenix Lights" were seen along a 300-mile corridor from the Nevada-Arizona state line through Prescott and Phoenix to the edge of Tucson. Dozens of amateur photographers recorded the sightings, which were eventually shown on television around the world."Arizona invaded by UFOs," screamed one British newspaper.
Police stations and military bases throughout the state were inundated by calls and visits from terrified citizens demanding an explanation. Was the Air Force testing some new jet or laser? Or was Arizona being invaded by beings from another world?
Eighteen months later, authorities are still baffled -- and a little embarrassed -- by the strange event. Most military and government leaders refuse to discuss the sightings or attribute them to causes ranging from low-flying aircraft to weather-related phenomena.
Others, however, aren't so sure. A few even claim the strange lights might have been UFO-related and have charged the government with a cover-up.
One such official is Frances Emma Barwood, a spunky Phoenix city councilwoman who spent months trying to pry the truth from the government. Rebuffed at every turn, she finally decided to take her quest to a higher level by running for secretary of state of Arizona.
"The issue is not whether or not they were flying saucers," said Mrs. Barwood, whose platform includes a serious probe into the Phoenix Lights. "The issue is why the government refuses to tell the American public what, exactly, those lights were."
Mrs. Barwood promises to get to the bottom of the mystery if elected.
There are two questions Mrs. Barwood would like to have answered about the Phoenix Lights: What were they? And why won't the government tell what they were?
"In my estimation," Mrs. Barwood said in an interview with Fate magazine, "they were one of three things: Military, hoax or unknown. Now, if they really were military there would not be so many contradictory reports as to what they were. Depending on which report you read, they could be anything from laser lights to hang gliders, from hot air balloons to flares released down in Yuma!
"But if it was a hoax, she said, "it was a dandy, for it covered over 400 miles in scope. And, if it was a hoax, why isn't anyone taking credit for it and why don't they reproduce it?"
Finally, she added, "If it is unknown then we should be allowed to be aware of the fact."
What if it was a military maneuver that's being kept quiet for national security?
"Well, if it was a secret military maneuver, flying over the sixth-largest city in the nation was not a particularly bright idea," Mrs. Barwood said.
"If the lights were anything else, from an Iraqi invasion to an extraterrestrial visitor, the government needs to let us know if for no other reason than to prevent our imaginations from running rampant."
She added, "From what I have learned about this in the last year or so, things like this have been going on all over the world and have been for some time."
Why doesn't the government share more with the public?
"Again, I believe it's for one of two reasons. They know what the lights were, but for some reason they don't want anyone else to know. Or, either they don't know what they were or they don't have any control over them."
Mrs. Barwood vowed that as secretary of state she would unmask the truth and inform her constituents. She has already sent Sen. John McCain of Arizona two letters requesting information about the sighting, "but in both instances they got bogged down in bureaucratic red tape.
"They were bounced from agency to agency, and eventually were simply left unanswered."
Mrs. Barwood's national exposure got a big boost when talk show host Art Bell invited her on his program to talk about the Phoenix Lights.
That brought snickers and ridicule from political opponents, but Mrs. Barwood vows to continue her crusade for the truth.
"The fact is, I want the truth about those lights and am not letting the issue float on a sea of empathy where it will be ignored until it is eventually forgotten."
Syndicated writer Randall Floyd lives in Augusta.