I cannot remember just how many nights I’ve spent out of doors as a child. The many evenings I spent prowling around my yard and neighborhood when the day was done and the sun had retired for the night.
Day was my time to be in school, so out of doors was relegated to recess and running to or from the bus stop. I spent more time outside than in because outside was freedom.
I was free to explore. To be The Shadow or the Incredible Hulk. To be Evil Knievel or Starsky and Hutch. Well, not Starsky and Hutch. More likely Huggy Bear.
At any rate I had a world to explore and the only one responsible to me was me. Homework done, I could have the run of the neighborhood. I would ride my new 10 speed all over creation. From my home to the park. Or perhaps even to the tree covered dirt bike trails not designed for my ride, but I rode them anyway.
I’d take the roads up Grandview to Ditch Rd and then up another street to my secret trail. Hilly. Covered by trees and shrubs. Behind it all was a waterway. Creek or river. Didn’t matter. I heard it. I saw it. And I loved it.
I would sometimes meet up with others I didn’t know. We would have impromptu races around the interwoven routes in that small patch of heaven. The sun couldn’t see me, but every leaf knew my name and when the wind blew I heard them all whisper to me in a glorious chorus.
Later I would return to my yard. Sweaty and chest heaving with exertion. I didn’t yet have glasses so nothing escaped my attention. The graveled edge of my driveway that housed the Lindy 2 camper and the garage that had our Snapper riding mower. That mower had given me and my grandfather many rides both around the grassy yard and up the street. Often to cut someone else’s lawn in an effort to make some spare change for Bazooka Joe gum or another issue of the Amazing Spider-Man.
But the maple tree in the front yard didn’t hold me long. I ran into my backyard. There was the fruit kingdom. Trees and arbors abounded. I had two or three apple trees, a cherry tree, even a pear tree. Then the grape arbor. And all conspired with my mother to make jelly, wine and preserves for cold winters or breakfasts yet to come. In the foreground was my sand box. The many adventures I had there would’ve made George Lucas jealous. I carried into and lost more action figures in that pit; even though it was only three or four feet square. I’ll never again see my Luke Skywalker or Hammerhead or GI Joe action figures. But I will never forget their permanently cupped hands ready to clutch a light saber or a blaster or a high powered and completely implausible high caliber weapon.
As night fell and my mother knew I was home she would wisely ask me in for dinner. Usually there was bounty from the garden my grandparents lovingly tended to and I wouldn’t admit to liking. I enjoyed pulling the weeds and tilling the soil. It was only thirty or forty yards long and maybe three or four meters wide. But it held such wonders. Okra. Kale. Corn. Beans. Chili Peppers. Squash. Cucumbers. I was amazed at how things were born of soil and yet were edible if cared for properly.
Then the show would begin. The main reason I stayed out after dark.
The lightening bugs.
I felt then as I do now that they were there as earth bound guides to the stars. I couldn’t be in the sky, but the sky sent them to me so that I could be part of it. Even with my limits. My arms were far too short to box with God and I certainly couldn’t reach the heavens. Since I couldn’t dance and play with my stars, my stars said “…let us send our little ones to him. And we will all dance together in the some way…”
My lightning bugs and I had an agreement. That so long as I released them we could play. I’d have a jar. Or I’d have my hands. They would float to me slowly enough that I could catch them and better see the light that they kept within. I don’t really care what science says in answer to bioluminescence and all those words of higher education. I knew they were magic. That is all. Anything that could fly, live, play with a little boy, and glow was nothing short of magic. They showed me where the borders of my yard were and they taught me how to handle life carefully. Be gentle. Do not be so rough. Life is precious and precarious. I didn’t need to feel the sting of death from a lost friend or family member, through I did soon enough. I learned that death is coming for all of us whether we bring it upon ourselves or it is out of our control and usually it happened because of simple curiosity or negligence.
My lightning bugs decedents may never forgive me for the many great uncles I caused the premature passing of. But it is with great sorrow I look about me now. In a new latitude. Far from home. And still I search for my old friends.
To no avail.
It has been a long time since seeing my old friends. Once I was sure I saw a few in a field recently. But no. I was mistaken. Have they gone forever? I hope not.
Recently, I saw a moving van encouraging folk to relocate from my home state. On the side was a giant depiction in all it’s anatomical correctness my old friends. Instantly I was teleported back to the late 1970’s and images of summers returned to me.
I do not recall lightning bugs looking like that. My memory is that they didn’t have legs quite that long and a thorax (if that’s what it’s supposed to be called) that misshapen. I recall Tylenol shaped bodies with subtly flexible butts under inflexible shells that protected many wings. Not at all like the ghastly creature before me on the van.
I reflexively closed my eyes.
My memory must remain unsullied. I want to remember my childhood the way I want to remember it.
And I did.