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It was the mid-1950s when my cousins and I discovered the lightning bugs that brought enchantment when we needed it most, after our granddad, H.L. “Livvy” Meador, had recently been boosted to heaven off a Buick’s big bumper as he walked home across Buckner Boulevard one night after church. His death left our grandmother, Ella (“Nonnie”), a lonely widow and cast her daughters in a support orbit along with all of us cousins.
We visited her every night.
In late spring and summer, with no air conditioning, we stayed outside, leaping with the lightning bugs that glimmered through Nonnie’s spacious Dallas yard, their blinking radar butts of amber and green a wondrous delight. We captured them by the dozens in Ball canning jars, ice pick holes poked in the top for air. When the night got cool, Nonnie would go to bed, and we’d head home, but a ritual had begun that still holds wonder.
Powered by silent wings, the wafting lantern bodies of flying beetles are mesmerizing. Lightning bugs don’t bite, sting, smell or sound. All they do in April, May and June is flash a mating ritual come-hither code. They even have the innate good manners to fly low and slow, so any kid can catch one.
Nonnie’s daughters, Nell and Eula Mae (my mother), eventually converted the houses on Grandfather Meador’s acre into a kindergarten and private first grade called Little Folks School. In a backyard cottage we learned to read aloud in unison, with Nell as our teacher. Often she admonished me, with uneven success, “Bill, pay attention.”
Youngster days now distant in my life’s rearview mirror, I’m returned several decades later to Nonnie’s yard, now my own residence. Paying attention is what I have set out to do recently, and this is my 21st evening to commune with the lightning bugs. They fly around the old merry-go-round and flit among fruitful pear trees that Livvy Meador planted in 1947.
A wonky navigator, the lightning bug bumps into things sideways, and it seldom lands on what it hits. Bottom-heavy with bioluminescence (using a chemical called luciferase), it resembles a small honeybee. When its light switches on, its flight trajectory seems to shift upward. When it senses you approaching, it moves away, slowly—sort of a lumbering light melody in the dark. Imagine a lightning bug version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, minus its frenetic sense—more of a Nyquil feel, draping a curtain of dusk in which to make an escape.
Their time is short-lived over the summer’s arc, but if you pay attention in the season, you’ll spot these monarchs of the night.
Keep a Ball jar handy.
Bill Sanderson is a Dallas freelance writer and author of A Journey of Faith and Friendship: Pleasant Mound Methodists. He is now writing a history of Dallas’ historic Longhorn Ballroom.