‘Nightlights’ of our youth found outside


When we were kids growing up in the country, it didn’t take much to keep us occupied. But when it got dark outside, we took solace in one care-free form of entertainment.

If you ever got bored on a summer evening (namely, when there was nothing good to watch on any of the three channels on the black-and-white TV), there were many other things you could do to help pass the time.

Not too long after the sun set, taking with it the uncomfortable hot temperatures of the day, a few dots of light start to appear in the sky — both near and far.

Back home, we called those “dots of light,” which were actually little luminous flying creatures, either “lightning bugs” or “fire flies.” We really didn’t care what they were called, these little guys were amazing to watch. They captivated our imaginations.

“How do they do that?” was a frequently-asked question among us kids. While we searched for answers to that question, we also searched for lightning bugs.

(Upon further review, the firefly/lightning bug controversy continues to rage in some circles. As it turns out, these fellows are technically neither flies nor bugs. They are, in fact, beetles of the Lampyridae family. Maybe that will settle that Great Debate.)

But once the at-a-distance curiosity of the flashing insects died down — which could usually vary from just a few minutes to more than an hour, depending on what other distractions were available to us, we’d start chasing after these flies (er, beetles), trying to catch as many as we could and put them in glass jars for further “observation.”

(Note: Just in case anyone from PETA is reading this, we poked holes in the lids to let the fireflies breathe. Also, after we’d lost interest in this activity, around the time the popcorn was ready, we opened the jars and made sure our little friends flew away, back to their homes.)

Early in the summer sea-son, we were usually slow in the skills involved with catching these little “friends.” But with a few minutes of practice, we would start catching these guys with some amount of acumen.

After knocking off some of the winter rust, we were able to start filling up the jars and, therefore, being rewarded with excellent examples of animal-powered lanterns.

We were able to “lead” the flies for a couple of feet, keeping unwritten mental notes on how far they could travel after they’d extinguished their heatless flames. It was kind of like using “The Force” without having to learn your father was Darth Vader.

(Did you know that nearly 100 percent of the energy used by the firefly is converted into light? By contrast, only about 10 percent of the energy needed to power incandescent bulbs actually produces the light while 90 percent of the energy is expelled as heat.)

As young people, we never questioned whether or not the fireflies enjoyed our “catch-and-release” game; it never really occurred to us.

Did they like being pursued? Or, would they rather have been chasing us, instead?

On the surface, this may be a deep question, compounded with many philosophical inroads that add to whatever confusion might be generated.

As I look back to those simple days (er, nights) when we relied on simple things to keep us simply occupied, I don’t think the fireflies cared that much, either way.

I can only assume the lightning bug liked the attention, or else, why would they show up the next night, and the next, and the next?

Well, if you’ll excuse me, it’s getting dark outside and the little lights are starting to flash at me.

Oh, wait, where did I put that Mason jar with the holes in the lid?