Last night I was driving along County Line Road between Grand Saline and Fruitvale. As I drove through the low-lying area at the bottom of “thrill hill,” under the canopy of trees whose branches extend across the entire span of the old oil top road, and mingle with their cousins on the opposite side, and filter out most of the last rays of the evening sun, creating a premature twilight, I saw a sight I hadn’t seen since I was a boy—fireflies—lightning bugs as we used to call them. There were hundreds of them twinkling along the roadside like a miniature meteor shower suspended just at eye level. I slowed to a stop and watched for a moment as they performed their magical choreography timed perfectly to the symphony of humming cicadas and chirping toads augmented from time to time by the tympanic obbligato croak of a bull frog nearby. I quietly watched and listened, careful not to let my presence interrupt their rhythm and harmony, and I was drawn back to my childhood, and to a time before the rush of reality pushed these special moments out of reach.
My family moved to Grand Saline when I was nine years old. It was the summer between my third and fourth grade years in school. When we first arrived we moved in with my great-grandmother and her sister, my great-great aunt. Their small bungalow-style house at the intersection of Florence and High Streets had been my mother’s childhood home as well. It was nothing grand; in fact, when it was built in the early 1900’s it served as the servants’ quarters for a large home next door. That house, a mansion by all accounts, had long since come down, but my family home was still there. The house had two large porches. The front porch was covered and had a brick flower box on the side where my grandmother once grown flowers, but age and years of disrepair made growing anything more than weeds a nearly impossible task. One Halloween, my sister and I managed to accidentally grow pumpkin vine there when the seeds and innards of our Jack-O-Lanterns were swept into it when we cleaned the porch. But, most of the time its single function was to provide a desert landscape where my plastic army men fought the WWII North African campaign all over again.
During that first summer, and most of the summers we lived there, we would sit on the porch in the late afternoon and evening. Back in those days we didn’t have computers or iPads or smartphones. Back then we didn’t even have cable TV, so our entertainment was whatever make-believe we could come up with beneath the shade of the dozens of towering oak trees in our front yard. Those summer evenings were spent playing ball or Cowboys and Indians or swinging on the swing set or exploring the mystical worlds we conjured up while my family sat and talked about the day’s events and enjoyed the cool of the evening. Sometimes friends of my grandmother and aunt’s would stop by unexpectedly, and my grandmother would pull me away to go get an extra chair from the kitchen so that they would have a place to sit. I especially enjoyed visits from Mrs. Starkey, a close family friend and former teacher, who would walk down from her house just a few doors away. Mrs. Starkey had traveled all over the world and I loved hearing her tell about those trips to Paris, or Rome, or cruises to the Caribbean Islands. It was a much simpler time and the things we did for fun were much simpler, too.
Each night, as the sun sank lower on the horizon, the fireflies would take flight. My sister and I would run all over the yard trying, mostly in vain, to catch one with the mason jars my grandmother gave us. Every once in a great while one or both of us would get lucky and snag one of the enchanting insects and quickly twist the lid on the jar as tight as we could. Then my grandmother would take her old ice pick and punch a few holes in the lid to provide air. Then we would wait….and wait….and wait for our captives to perform in their tiny transparent dungeon just as they had in the freedom of the open air. If we were lucky they would blink once or twice more before they died. I remember the overwhelming disappointment when my new “pet” didn’t come through like I’d hoped. But, somehow I overcame the loss, and the next night my sister and I would be in the front yard on the hunt once again.
It always amazes me that something as simple seeing some flying insects on the side of the road can cause such a flood of memories, but it did. Those memories of my childhood in Grand Saline were memories of a time when my world and the people in it were very different than they are today. Besides the insect stalking adventures in the front yard, seeing those fireflies brought back memories of riding my bike down High Street past the Darby’s, the Stewart’s, the Anderson’s and stopping to play on the playground at the Old Elementary School; then on past the Mayfield’s and the Jarvis’s to the Old Gym where kids would gather to play football or baseball on the big field. The early dying light reminded me of autumn when the days got shorter and cooler and Friday nights meant heading up to Persons Stadium to watch the high school football games. I remembered Christmas time when nearly every house on our street was covered in lights, and springtime when we would sit on the porch and watch thunderstorms roll in. I was reminded of all the things that made my childhood good and happy.
I’m not sure where all that time went. It seems like just yesterday, but it wasn’t. That was 35 years ago now and I’m a different person. We’re all different people. I suppose change is inevitable, but seeing those little “lightning bugs” last night sure made me long for the way things were back in the day when catching one of them was a moment of wild excitement.