It was early in the evening of June 9th, 2022. I’m going to have to mark it in my journal so I don’t forget. I’d just spent the day working in the yard and doing everything possible to make it look presentable for another week. The truth is, no matter how much you mow, how much you edge, or how many weeds and dandelions you pull from the earth, you’ll inevitably have three to five days respite before the process will need to be repeated. Nature waits for no man.
As twilight was settling in, I slowly pushed my green John Deere lawn mower back into its usual place in the garage. Residual grass clippings, which had been pasted to the chassis of the machine for most of the afternoon, now began falling onto the concrete floor in small bushy clumps. By that point I was too lazy and in no mood to even think about sweeping them up. I was much too tired and they would have to wait until morning. Despite the thought of having to clean up the excess grass and being completely drained from today’s labor, the smell of sweat and gasoline that permeated my senses gave me a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.
I went inside, grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and walked out on to the patio to admire my handiwork. As the first drams of alcohol hit the back of my throat, I could already feel the weight of the day leaving my shoulders. Tomorrow there would be sore muscles and excessive sunburn, but for now it was time sit at the patio table and enjoy the warm summer breeze that had picked up as the day was drawing to a close.
That’s when I saw them for the first time this year – June 9th, 2022.
I believe the correct term for them is Photuris lucicrescens. Some others might use the word “fireflies” in their vernacular, but here in the Northeast portion of the country, we refer to them as lightning bugs. A bug that even the person with a severe case of insectophobia will usually find attractive. Sure, the butterfly is beautiful and the ladybug is often considered a symbol of good luck, but as far as I’m concerned, nothing compares to the majesty of the lightning bug, and I’ll be happy to tell you why.
You see, there are certain things in life that remind you of the different seasons of the year. We all know that when crisp leaves begin to fall from the branches of trees, autumn is here. The first snowflake that appears in the cold, milky sky means winter is on its way, and when flowers begin to spring up from their deep sleep, we know that spring has indeed sprung. But when we see the first lightning bug of the year, it’s magical. Like welcoming home an old friend. One who’s been gone for months and has now suddenly come back with word that summer is finally here.
Long before I became experienced in the art of the lawn mow, my early summer evenings as a child were spent catching these illuminated creatures. Nothing could compare to spending an entire day swimming with friends from the neighborhood and then seeing how many of these flying creatures we could catch as dusk settled in.
If I close my eyes now, I can still picture it. Me, running barefoot through the dark back yards of my neighborhood, wearing nothing but shorts and a tank top. My youthful skin glistening with chlorine-riddled sweat, the smell of crisp honeysuckle in the air, and without a single care in the world except for the task at hand. Summer had just begun and the arrival of the first yellow bus calling children back to school was a long way away. It was pure freedom.
There was always a feeling of wonder after you’d caught one of God’s miracles of childhood. Then, as you slowly open your cupped hand, you watch its blinking body escape your palm and climb to the highest point of your extended index finger, where it would spread its wings and fly off into the night.
Sometimes my friends and I would poke holes into the lid of an empty mayonnaise jar and fill it long blades of freshly cut grass to contain our electric treasures. Then we’d all take turns marching through the yard with our makeshift lantern. When the lightning bugs became lethargic from being trapped inside of our glass house, we’d release them back into the sky to rejoin their winged friends.
The most fun of all though was during what I liked to call the “magic hour.” This was usually around 9 p.m. and right before my parents would call me in for the evening. You’d notice the frenzied firestorm of lights in the yard as the lighting bugs danced in unison to nature’s song, but soon one bug would seem to burn bigger and brighter than the rest. It was the granddaddy of all lightning bugs making an appearance.
Granddaddy was the coolest bug of all and, as you might imagine, was almost impossible to catch. Every time he’d land on a bush and you’d get close enough to grab him, he’d take off and hover just out of reach above your head. It was as if he knew the measurement of his assailant. I’m sure he was thinking, “Ok, this kid is four feet eight inches tall, so let’s hover six feet five inches off the ground.” But if you were lucky enough to capture a granddaddy when he let down his guard, you were always the winner of the evening’s festivities. It was childhood summer at its finest.
I’d just finished my beer when the real firestorm of lights began. It was just as I remember from childhood but something I hadn’t so much as thought about for at least forty summers.
Then it happened.
There, out of the corner of my eye, I saw granddaddy flying slightly above my head. I stood up and used my now adult-sized hand to make a grab for him. Still smart as ever, he calculated the precise distance of my five feet eight-inch frame and rose just high enough to be out of my reach.
I sat back down in my chair and smiled. The adult duties of lawn mowing vanished and I continued to think about those carefree summer nights of childhood. Then I wondered how there could possibly be any interest in watching television or playing video games during this magical time of year.
Especially when there’s so much entertainment right in our own backyards.