By Joe Darby
A couple of weeks ago I reminisced about memories from summers long past, including how I bailed out of a convent window to avoid an unwanted piano lesson and how I — somewhat insanely — sprayed my preschool buddy’s shirtless back with bug killer.
Well, I have a couple more memories that I want to share with you, including a nice recollection that I know all Southerners of a certain age have.
I’m talking about those glorious insects, the fireflies, or as we usually called them, lightening bugs. It may well be that some of you folks who live in more rural areas of Natchitoches Parish still enjoy those little flying lights. But I live in town and before I moved here I lived in larger cities, so fireflies haven’t really been part of my life for a good while.
In fact the last time I saw them on a regular basis was when I would have an overnight visit with my sister Patsy, who lived in the country about 25 miles north of Baton Rouge. I could sit on her front porch and watch the delightful little bugs flit about.
But my dear sister has been gone for more than 10 years now and I haven’t spent a night at her house for even longer than that.
So my main memories of fireflies are from when I was a youngster in Baton Rouge, when they were still common in the summer night air, flashing their little greenish-yellow lights that were turned on for a second or two. They would hide somewhere during the day and at heavy dusk would swarm out in our yards and streets, a constantly moving panoply of floating lights that were a wonder to behold.
What was happening was that the boy bugs were looking for girlfriends to perpetuate the species and their lights were to let the girl bugs know, “Here I am. I am a great looking firefly with a fine bright light and I want to get married and have children.” Or something like that.
The slow flying little critters had no bite or sting so it was easy for us kids to capture them in a glass jar. It wasn’t much trouble to get a whole jar full. We’d secure them with the jar-top punched full of small holes with an ice pick to let air in. Soon we’d have our very own glowing magic lantern. Alas, when we woke up the next morning, the poor little things would all be dead in the bottom of the jar.
It looks like their demise was inevitable. If kids didn’t catch them, the mosquito spray would get them in the end.
Now I’d like to switch from a nice serene memory to one of the more terrifying incidents of my life. One hot summer day when I was very young, Grampa Armstrong, a great old character who was born in New Orleans in 1880, went out to the chicken coop in his back yard and he asked me if I wanted to come along. Well of course I did.
His wire-fenced chicken yard was adjacent to his work shed, a somewhat dark but fascinating place that held all sorts of amazing implements inside. I know a Cracker Barrel restaurant would love to have some of the tools and whatnot that Grampa had in his shed.
Anyway, what Grampa didn’t tell me that day was that he was getting ready to kill a chicken for Sunday dinner. I could not have been more than four, so you can imagine my reaction to what happened next. Grampa took the squawking fowl, placed her head on a tree stump and chopped it right off.
That was shock enough to me, but when he put the body down, what did it do but run straight toward me. She was coming at me darned fast, with blood spurting from her headless neck. What could a lad do but scream, turn and run as fast as he could. As I approached the back porch I glanced back over my shoulder to see if she was gaining on me. As it turned out, the chicken was finally on the ground, twitching out her last bits of life. And there I was, well equipped for weeks of nightmares about being chased by bloody, headless chickens.
Grampa, of course, laughed and asked, “What’s the matter, son?” As if he didn’t know.
Then there’s the memory of — the First Real Kiss!
I was about 11 or 12 when a new family moved into the neighborhood a couple of streets away. They had lots of kids, some older and some younger than me, and one summer day they had a party so I went over.
They were a friendly bunch, particularly one very friendly little blonde — an “older woman” who must have been about 13. She even had makeup on and, boy was she cool. To make a long story short, she and I ended up sitting on her back steps and she taught me the fine art of kissing. I was a most eager pupil.
But time had gone by and as dark approached (with me wondering if kissing school was going to go to another level and what I should be doing with my hands), my worrywart Mother marched into the yard, noted that I’d been gone for hours, demanded to know what I’d been doing and ordered me home straightaway.
Well, you can imagine my embarrassment. Kissing school was over, my new girlfriend looked upon me as just a child and my social life for that summer ended very abruptly. I never had the guts to go to the girl’s house again to try to persuade her I was in fact worthy of her attention.
So that was a rough experience. But I must say, it wasn’t nearly as bad as being chased by a headless chicken.