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We weren’t cruel and inhumane-we were curious children of the fifties looking for entertainment  on warm, humid summer nights right before the sun went down in the waning dusk of the day. Most nights we hunted for lightning bugs illuminated in all their wonder as they flew across the invisible borders between houses crisscrossing from front to back as we chased them mercilessly. We caught them in our hands and carefully placed them in glass jars for safe (??) keeping. We held magic and wonder in our hands as we watched the intermittent twinkling light that leaked between our tightly closed fingers.

But before the chase, our first challenge was finding jars with matching lids. Mother was anything but organized, and we often searched the discarded trash, the kitchen cabinets and under the sink to find a jar. When that search revealed no finds we looked in the refrigerator for that jar of jelly or mayonnaise that was nearly empty. We tried not to get caught taking jars out of the refrigerator, but we were probably not as successful at that chicanery as we thought.  The lingering smell of mayonnaise in a recently washed out jar was a telltale sign that we had pilfered a jar still containing food. The smell was probably a bit of a put off for the captured creatures as well, but we did not care what lightning bugs thought, and besides, they might even have liked their odoriferous prison!

After finding just the right jar, we punched holes in the metal lid. We, meaning Daddy. He was the keeper of the knives and other sharp instruments so he was the one who  carefully positioned the knife on the lid, placing the palm of his hand on the top of the knife handle and pounded one hand with the other. He usually punched four or five holes in the lid, which generally allowed enough oxygen to enter the glass-enclosed space to keep the bugs alive. Then, we were ready to hunt.

It wasn’t difficult to track or trap the bugs because there was an abundant supply on those summer nights. After sunset, they swarmed our back yard, which was adjacent to the forbidden cornfields-property of the local state mental hospital. Oh, I forgot to mention. Our property backed up to the state mental hospital-referred to as Woodmere Asylum in the old days. Definitely more about that later.

We ran through the neighbors’ front and back yards with our small hands poised to capture the bugs as they lit our way through the darkness. Our child’s play was about competition in the end, as we always wanted to know who caught the most bugs.  Sometimes the competition was just between Sissy and me and at other times, there was a crowd of kids running through the neighborhood. Three girls lived two doors down, another two girls and a boy lived further down the street, and five boys lived right next door. With all of us involved in the sport, the cacophony of noise we created, punctuated the darkness which surrounded us on our search.

Once we captured the bugs, there was little left to do. We watched the creatures “turn on-turn off” in their temporary homes and when we tired of the light show, we released them into the night. We never considered the physical or psychological harm imposed on our captives, and we considered the adventure humane, because in the end, we always gave them their freedom. It was an early version of catch and release.

Woodmere Asylum

As they flew from their glass prisons, the twinkling lights moved into the distance. They floated above the flowers and vegetables of the garden like crown jewels, and moved quickly away from our property disappearing into the forbidden cornfields. It was a fantastical adventure. In our uneducated knowledge of lightning bugs, we imagined that perhaps their minds altered during captivity and they traveled through those cornfields and into the world of the almost forgotten inmates of the asylum, joining them in their fantasies and hallucinations. Childish thoughts or imaginations gone wild.  We’ll never know. The lightning bugs carried their secrets with them as they joined the other captives who were jarred in Indiana.