And then the lightning bugs showed up.
I don’t remember why I was in the field that evening. I did a lot of wandering by myself in those days. I was still using drugs, but I had stopped enjoying them. I had had some scary encounters on acid, some terrifying encounters. I think this may have been not long before the worst one, the one that scared me back from the abyss. I’m not sure. I was living on the lake then. That was when the scariest, last acid trip, the big one, happened. Whether this was before or after that, I don’t know.
I do know it was getting dusky and I was alone near where the interstate highway was being built.
Darkness was approaching and I was not sure I could find my way back across a barbed-wire fence and a creek. Not in real darkness. There may have been cows too, which scared me a little at the time, since I am a as much of a city boy as northeast Tennessee could produce at the time. I think the thing that scared me most was the falling light and approaching darkness, and fear itself.
The world was a fearful place to me in those days, full of rough textures and people and creatures that meant me harm. I feared for my soul and my sanity. I did not have a good grasp on either one. Being alone in the dark didn’t help.
I think I reviewed my options. I could go to the right, to the raw expanse of red clay where the interstate is now, but that would have involved a long slog through mud. I could go left and head straight for the narrow dirt road, and take my chances with the barbed wire on the bank and the creek. I could go back the way I had come, and hope I blundered into a good place to cross again. Or I could keep going the way I was facing and follow the creek down the valley toward the lake. But that was the unknown. The creek dropped a long way before it got to the lake. There was a waterfall down there somewhere, and it was getting dark.
It was spring, warm, pleasant, but I was frozen where I was. I looked one way and it looked bad, then another way and it looked worse. Meanwhile, the sky got darker.
Was I afraid of barbed wire? Tearing my clothes or my skin? Not if push came to shove, I don’t think, and I wasn’t afraid of getting my feet wet either. I probably was wearing half-boots with lugged soles, dressy for what they were, but they would have protected my feet. I was afraid of snakes, still am, but I had not seen any. I think I was mostly just letting my fear — fear of the devil, fear of the unknown, fear of darkness or my own weakness, fear of being aware that I could not take care of myself — or all of the above— run away with me. Fear ran me then. Controlled me.
I can’t remember if I prayed. I was running from God then and had been for a while, trying to deny reality, trying to pretend, trying to build a worldview on snippets from songs. “Who’s trying to say that he’s just in-between, the night isn’t black if you know that it’s green” was one slack lifeline I borrowed from Buffalo Springfield. “He’s courageous enough to be skeered, but he’s too humble to win,” sang Judee Sill. I could go on. When you’re drowning, you grasp at straws. I was and I did. Sometimes they kept me afloat for a bit.
I don’t think I prayed though. I wasn’t ready for that. When I finally did pray, in the middle of the worst acid experience of my life, I was so drugged out it took me a long time to realize I had prayed a three-word, desperate prayer. This event and that one were close to the same time, I think, but I think the big one was a bit later. Or not. I’m not sure. My head was bad. This time, I think God just tapped me on the shoulder to remind me he was there.
He did it by arranging for the field to be filled with lightning bugs. I had not noticed. I did not realize the lightning bugs were there, each of them a small miracle, until they all—simultaneously—lit up. When it happened, the light almost knocked me to my knees. I mean literally. The burst of lightning bug light just about knocked me down.
That mass flash was the only one. From then on it was just firefly business as usual. One here, one there, many there and there and everywhere, seemingly at random.
They kept blinking just enough for me to remember they were there. Because the burst of light had banished my fear. Had taken the weight off of my chest. Had let me know I was not alone. If God had said, “Relax, I’ve got this,” in an audible voice, I don’t know if it would have had more effect than the lightning bugs.