“All the other colors are just colors, but purple seems to have a soul — when you look at it, it’s looking back at you.” —Terri Guillemets

With last month’s transition back to standard time, I was making my zero dark thirty early bird morning commute to the office when I was unexpectedly bathed in an eerie and other-worldly yet pleasantly soothing purple light in downtown Sayner.

At first I wasn’t sure if I should scan the sky for nefarious journalist-abducting alien spacecraft, check the calendar to see if it was still Halloween, look for Barney the Purple Dinosaur, or ask Siri if it was the release anniversary of Prince’s American rock musical drama “Purple Rain.”

And given last week’s column on time traveling, I wondered for a moment whether I had perhaps driven through a temporal space-time rift on Highway 155 and time traveled back to the psychedelic, fluorescent and quintessentially groovy blacklight-postered 1970s of my youth. I half expected underground comix movement cartoonist R. Crumb’s confidently strutting “Mr. Natural” character to appear in all his day-glo blacklight glory along the side of the highway, encouraging me to “Keep On Truckin’” my way to the office.

At the very least, basking under the lustrous ultraviolet glow, I felt like breaking out in a chorus of folk and blues singer Maria Muldaur’s 1973 one-hit wonder, “Midnight at the Oasis.”

Excited at the prospect of being 49 years early for work, I was hoping to spend a decadent Bill Murray-esque ‘70s day making good on the $1.79 all-you-can-eat fish fry at the iconic Brown Derby, catching the risqué Skip Wagner musical variety show at the Northernaire, and loading up my futuristic 2015 Ford Escape with a carload of $1.39-a-pound steaks, 39-cent Jane Parker Spanish Bar Cakes and 88-cent Gettelman six-packs at the Eagle River A&P. After that, maybe I’d tap my inner entrepreneur and go into business selling an eclectic mix of kitschy 70s staples — tie-died T-shirts, bell-bottom jeans, platform shoes, eight-track tapes, pet rocks, mood rings, blacklight posters and Wacky Packages consumer product parody trading cards.

Sadly, as it turned out, I wasn’t suddenly back in the ‘70s.

Upon closer examination, still firmly grounded in 2021 reality, the lush indigo beam from atop pole 410832L75 turned out not to be the implementation of anti-road rage or light pollution reduction initiatives, a nod to the conflicted purple state of Wisconsin’s political demographics, or a belated awareness ribbon campaign for the victims of Sept. 11, but rather the simple case of a rogue LED street light gone awry.

As it turns out, the ethereal Sayner streetlight that made me do a double take is not a one-off outlier. Online research at the office quickly uncovered spectral shift reports of purple LED streetlights popping up in a growing list of states, as well as north of the border in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

The thousands of purple streetlights dotting the U.S. in an inexorable march across the nation have raised both citizen eyebrows and questions this year, spurring print, radio and TV news coverage across the country — Eau Claire in January; Greenville, S.C., in March; Charlotte, N.C., in April; Wichita, Kan., in May; Lansing, Mich., in June; Davenport, Iowa, in July; Winston-Salem, Va., in August; Lincoln, Neb., and Milwaukee in September; Cincinnati, Springfield, Ill., and Tampa, Fla., in October; Baltimore and Bowling Green, Ky., in November; and Green Bay, Ashwaubenon, Bellevue and Allouez in December.

The internet, being what it is, turned up hits for “purple street light conspiracies,” including an alleged black light sorting of the glowing-veined COVID-19 vaccinated from the unvaxxed.

It sounds tinfoil hat until you read mainstream internet articles like the April 2021 smartcitiesworld.com post “Can smart lampposts help stop the spread of Covid-19,” or bloomberg.com’s pre-pandemic March 2018 post “The Shadowy Side of LED Streetlights.” It makes me want to grab for the box of heavy duty aluminum foil and craft myself a jaunty fedora.

But swapping out headgear for my omnipresent baseball hat, a conversation with Wisconsin Public Service spokesman Matt Cullen turned up a simpler and more plausible explanation behind the wonky LED street lights.

Calling it a “sporadic” issue in the company’s central and northeastern Wisconsin service area, Cullen said the defective purple LED streetlights affect “less than 1%” of WPS-owned street lighting.

“We have seen that issue and we are aware of it,” said Cullen. “While the color of the street lights is different, there are no other issues with the brightness or the performance of the lights other than that difference in color. It’s my understanding that there is an issue with the phosphor coating surrounding the LED device that produces the light. That coating converts the natural color of the LED light, which is blue, to a white color that you would normally see with the street lights. The issue is that coating has worn away, or is wearing away, and that is why you are seeing that purple or bluish color that is coming from those defective streetlights.”

Sadly, like most novelties, the purple LED streetlights are inevitably destined to be a flash in the pan.

“We have been working to replace any lights that have experienced this issue,” said Cullen. “As customers have reported that issue to us we have been replacing them, which has been covered under warranty. We encourage customers, that if they notice this issue with a streetlight that does belong to Wisconsin Public Service, one that we own or maintain, that they reach out and contact us so that we can replace those lights that are having an issue with a new light.”

So much for purple rain or, in this winter season, purple snow.

I guess it’ll be a white Christmas in downtown Sayner.