“Where Have All the Fireflies Gone?”

Long time passing …

Mike McGrath trademark attribution

Those of us who have achieved a certain age remember Summer and Fall in ways that no longer exist.

Collecting empty soda (pop) bottles to take back to the store for the deposit. (Two cents for a regular empty; a nickel for a quart size: two of them and you could buy a comic book!) Luckily, we had a small Acme (we called it “Ackame”) supermarket nearby (the size of a large convenience store today, but with a deli counter), because the people who ran the mom-and-pop corner stores kept explaining to us that they couldn’t return more bottles than they had ordered.

But the mom-and-pop stores were otherwise purveyors of seasonal magic. You could buy punks, sparklers, and snowballs (“shaved ice” today; I craved wild cherry syrup as the completely artificial flavor of my choice, but it made you look like you were wearing lipstick, so I always settled for root beer).

Our house was illuminated brighter than the Disneyland Electrical Parade.

Note on punks: No, you could not buy (or even rent) Johnny Rotten or one of the Ramones, but you could buy things we called “punks” (the universally accepted name). They were sort of like little cattails (the plant, not the back-of-the-cat part) that you lit when the skeeters came out to play. The surprisingly pleasant-smelling smoke helped keep the blood suckers at bay—at least until you stuck your punks in the lawn and started chasing down lightning bugs.

Every kid had an empty mayonnaise jar with holes punched in the lid and a bed of fresh grass clippings in the bottom at the ready, and as soon as the sun began to set, we ran around like dervishes, catching them mid-flight until we had a jar of wonder: a magical lantern containing dozens of the World’s Favorite Insect, all flashing in random order. By nine o’clock or so, most houses had one of these magic lanterns on their stoop, keeping company with the punks and a snowball or “wadder” ice.

Yes, nostalgia has dimmed my memory of the hot and humid evenings we had to endure before air-conditioning became de regular and the mosquito bites that had us awake and scratching while twisting in our sweat-soaked sheets, but that’s how the game is supposed to be played: you romanticize the good parts and forget the awful realities of a late Summer night in the city. Science Fiction writer Alfred Bester called this the Haze of Memory, and it has served me—and my storytelling well—for many years.

Note: Although my tiny bedroom had no a/c, it did have an enormous metal fan mounted into the spot usually occupied by the bottom sash of the window. It sounded like an 18-wheeler slipping into second gear and was, I now suspect, mounted backwards, so it sucked in the hot air from the outside until around 2 a.m. when it got a little bit cooler out, but I was unconscious with heatstroke well before that.

But from mid-Summer through Fall, we had our iridescent insects to keep us happy before it got dark and we were forced to “go to bed” in our super-heated prison cells. (I know that “iridescent” isn’t the right word, but I love the alliteration there. “Bio-luminescent” just isn’t the same.)

We didn’t need calendars to warn us of the approach of Fall, which was—and is—the most wonderful season of the year. We knew by the rapidly diminishing numbers of our beloved Pennsylvania Fireflies (Photuris pennsylvanica) that Summer was coming to an end, which was mostly fine for us (see sweaty sheets and superheated bedrooms, above) except that it signaled the return to school, where we would once again be at the mercy of Sister Mary Discipline, Sister John Wayne, and Sister Charles Bronson.

Plus no lightning bugs until next year—oh, the suffering!

Now that we have been paroled from St. Ignatius of Perpetual Sorrow and have become gardeners, Fall is all charm: still harvesting tomatoes and peppers, savoring the last ears of sweet corn because out-of-season food wasn’t flown/trucked in or biologically cloned back then. It was really out of season! Sweet corn at Christmas?! Even the Rockefellers couldn’t pull that off. No, it was time for beets (I’m a fool for beets), apples, salad greens, and pumpkins!

… And the promise that come next Summer, we would again be released for bad behavior. I once tunneled my way out of a schoolroom when the elderly nun in charge foolishly put me in the back row. And she had poor eyesight. So I, in my absolute boredom, started pushing a pencil point into the back wall until, after a month or so, I had created a hole big enough for me to stick my hand through and pass notes to strangers on the other side.

But the nun in that room COULD see, and I was arrested in JUG (Justice Under God) and held in the convent until my father could arrive to either bail me out or vote for life in prison. He was incredulous regarding the story of my Great Escape and asked to see the evidence. He tried hard—and he could put on a great poker face—but the gaping maw behind where I sat was too much for him and he convulsed in laughter, to the great displeasure of Mother Superior, for whom this was Very Serious Business!

He assured her that he would come in on the weekend to seal the escape route with spackle and fresh paint and took me home. I expected to be knee-deep in manure and finally asked, “What’s my punishment?” He could NOT stop laughing, but finally held it together long enough to say, “Forget it. Just don’t do it again.”

But at school I had been pegged as “a bold article! As bold as brazen brass” by the prison guards and my jailers made sure I never had fun again …

… until Summer, when The Red Cross sent blankets and chocolate and demanded our release until the days started getting shorter again, sending us back into the world of punks, wadder ice, and lightning bugs.

My children enjoyed the same Summertime wonders, as our house in the woods was illuminated on Summer nights brighter than the Disneyland Electrical Parade. I enjoyed watching them immensely, and I even found punks in an ancient corner store on a trip to Philly. We had a/c, so the Summer nights were much less treacherous; however, we welcomed Fall so that we could open the windows (“windas”) and experience the most delicious air of the year.

The kids grew up and moved away, and I guess I kind of took those wonderful Summer and Fall evenings for granted. I did continue to buy snowballs (now called “Hawaiian Shaved Ice” and five bucks a pop instead of a nickel), but I still won’t wear the Summertime lipstick and continue to settle for root beer. I haven’t looked for punks in decades, and every time I take a soda bottle back to the store, they call the police.

Then I noticed something missing: where were the lightning bugs??? It takes a while to notice absence instead of presence, but I suddenly realized that I hadn’t seen any lightning bugs the past few Summers. Then I began to see articles confirming my sad observation: many areas were seeing a decrease in their numbers. In some places, they just seemed to vanish. The blame fell on climate change, pesticide use, and loss of habitat: the usual suspects.

But I knew that I was far from innocent in this matter! All those Summer nights imprisoning the winged wonders had taken its toll—and then I had recruited my children to follow my life of crime! Some protector of nature I was. Oh, the shame! (This is what Catholic School does to your brain: guilt! All kinds of guilt!)

But then I took off my hair shirt and realized that these years had been marked by long dry spells, and lightning bugs breed in damp grassy areas, where their larval form (the glowworm; honest!) eats slugs and other soft-bodied pests. Come to think of it, I hadn’t been troubled by slugs (once my arch enemy) during those years as well.

And so I felt sad when a record-breaking drought settled on our area early in the Summer. It did not rain for a good (or bad) six weeks at my house. But then, as all farmers expect, we got hammered by constant rain and thunderstorms, including a six-incher overnight at my house.

Sigh. At least I wouldn’t have to get up at 7 a.m. to water (avoiding the heat when watering is not wise).

Then something miraculous happened. The first night I thought my old eyes had seen a combination floater/flasher; just once and that was it. The next night, I saw a few more and began to get hopeful. But then, the night after a Biblical deluge, they were back! In the trees (the males) and on the ground (the females) flashing away: not as many as the old days, but a display you could watch for hours. (And NO, I didn’t try to catch any!)

And now as Summer wanes and the sun sets earlier and the nights are becoming noticeably cooler, I go to bed peacefully and dream of lightning bugs to come.

This article was published originally in 2023, in GreenPrints Issue #135.


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