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October 8, 2008 > The Hour of Lightning Bugs

The Hour of Lightning Bugs

By Ken Yoder Reed

Perhaps it was the free Apple iPod I won at the drawing that afternoon. Or maybe it was the hors d'ouevres to die for at the Semicon West President's Reception-lamb 'lollipops,' potstickers, a plate of Brie, Greek olives and roasted red peppers and zucchini strips to go with the free beer and red wine. Or maybe it was just getting out of my boring, cobwebby second floor office for an evening to meet semiconductor industry businessmen in San Francisco-Chinese, Japanese, Swiss, American business people, each pushing his/her namecard at me while I pushed back with mine.

Whatever the reason, I was in a romantic funk as I drove home from San Francisco the other night. The road east on Two-Thirty-Seven at 8:45 in mid-July was a drive through the Magic Hour. The sun had dropped into the Pacific long ago and light was fading inch by inch. The sharp edge of the Milpitas Mountain went fuzzy and blue. The sky first dyed peach, then blue-orange and finally blue-gunmetal. The skeletons of the new office structures rising on the old Alviso landfill lounged like silhouetted dinosaurs who'd been zapped by falling meteorites and their bones picked by the landfill gulls.

The Hour of Lightning Bugs. That's it, I thought. The magical forty-five minutes of shifting dying light melding with deepening shadows when, over the lawn of our Pennsylvania home, the little critters mysteriously appeared. Us kids couldn't see their bodies and so we had no idea where they were until the itsy-bitsy orange torches in their tails lit and died almost immediately, like glowing sparks off a campfire. But we chased them, anyway, trying to get to them before the light faded so we could grab them, swatting with our cupped hands, and drop them into a quart Mason jar with a lid nail-punched full of airholes.

At first it was just a few pinpricks of light but shortly, the whole lawn, and beyond the harvested barley field, and to the right, over the tea-heads in the meadow, in all directions, they twinkled. Ten years later, in Japan, when I went to evening O Bon festivals and saw all the paper lanterns, strings of them swaying in the breeze over the heads of festival-goers, I got the same feeling.

The Magic Hour, an hour pregnant with meaning and possibility. We were young. We were only children. And our lives felt that way too-pregnant with meaning and unending bright possibilities.

It's only now, when I'm an old man, more or less, that I hardly ever feel that way anymore and when I do, I dismiss it. I've got to take out the trash. Need to go to the homeowners' meeting. Perhaps we should take a quickie walk around the block and get back by 8:55 so we can see if there's anything good on TV starting at nine. So we can watch for sixty minutes before we limp up the stairs and set the alarm again for five-thirty so I can get to the lap pool before it's crowded. Oh, and I should kiss you before I turn out the light. Keeps the marriage alive.

Gawd! Where did the fun in life go to? Is life really only this brutally prosaic sixty-seconds ticking, sixty minute, twenty-four hour Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday-thank God it's the weekend so we can sleep in tomorrow? And always the bills. Always new names on the Family & Friends Prayer List with thyroid operations coming up, a new tumor on the kidney, a new throbbing under the breastbone that could know! And A's marriage falling apart and M's unloving, uncaring, cold and unfeeling voice on the phone, even though she's my sister.

Is this where life eventually winds down to for all of us? Dregs-there's an apt word. The bitter floaters at the bottom of the coffee pot. The murky sludge in the last two tablespoons of the cider jug.

So I got playful tonight. I told Patti about the Hour of the Lightning Bugs and when she said I needed to be romantic more often I said:
'Correctomundo? Did you make that up?'
'It's a California-ism. Like Tar-ZHAY, for the department store. Or-dervies or horse-doovers for the snacks.'
'Who says it that way?'
'See! The little boy in me came out to play!'

And that started her laughing and I felt the years drop off me like dandruff flakes.

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