It turns out there are over 2000 species of lightning bugs, beetles that produce yellow, green or pale red light. As I remember it, those in central Kansas flashed yellow.
Palco was a tiny town in the ‘50s. Not as tiny as it is now, but even then it was pretty darned small. We lived there because Sinclair Oil – and Conoco, as I recall, and maybe others – had production in a shallow field in that part of north central Kansas. In those days, my dad was a pumper for Sinclair.
In tiny towns 60 years ago, there wasn’t much to do that didn’t involve friends and neighbors. Even television involved “company” because not every family had one and the experience was best when shared. Certainly that was true for my family.
Mom and Dad had a circle of good friends that included probably eight or ten couples – maybe it was only five or six – and a set of very best friends that included two other couples – and, of course, the kids. Between the three families of best friends there were nine kids and they, by default, were our best friends.
In the summer of ‘56 or ‘57 – likely it was ‘56 – I was old enough to tuck some memories into an accessible part of my hippocampus. I wasn’t old enough, though, to be aware of that moment and how it would become part of me.
Summer. Warm and, in the little park that sided a draw and a sometimes-creek, humid. Maybe it was a church picnic; perhaps it was just us and that extended circle of close friends, eight or ten couples – maybe only five or six – and the associated kids. It was evening and in Kansas, says my mental scrapbook, summer evenings were just right for picnics.
Hot dogs, of course, and hamburgers. Surely there were marshmallows roasted on slender, green switches.
A truck with a load of watermelons stopped on the road bordering the park and the dads pooled their pocket change and from the farmer bought enough yellow-meated watermelons to satisfy the lot of us.
And there were fireflies. Lightning bugs. Thousands (as I recall, there may have been millions) of fireflies. The wooded copse where we gathered was alight with their luminescence.
Warm, encircled by friends and family, illuminated by millions – maybe tens of millions – of fireflies.
That’s the way I remember it.
Some years back, She Who Generally Know Best and I swung through Palco on the tail end of a motorcycle trip, not too far off the homeward path Garmin had selected for us. I hoped to find the little square house where Mom, Dad, the Tennysons and the Berlands gathered after dinner for cards and coffee and cigarettes. I hoped to find the small hill on the oiled street where the Mowry boys (older but no more daring, surely) built a ramp – where my brother and I would pedal as fast as we could on our brakeless bicycles and fearlessly fly off that ramp, fly as far as we could ever imagine... maybe three feet. Or two.
But the square, green house with its asbestos shingles and steep roof was not a structure to outlast the decades. It was gone and, if we had actually found the right street, even the Mowry house was gone.
Through the magic of Facebook, I’ve kept up with Tennyson “kids” and the Berland offspring. None of them are in Palco, though a couple are fairly close. Like the Woodalls and most of Palco, they’ve scattered. Not many families left there... seventy-five or a hundred, I’d guess.
I hope they have picnics in the summer. And I hope they still have fireflies.
Bill Woodall and SWGKB are former publishers of the News Herald. He’s lived a lot of places and they all had fireflies. But no place has as many as Palco, Kansas.