Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

July 21, 2013

Mystery, enchantment and danger underscore summers of long ago


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — Thunder crackles in the distance as the humidity swells around me. Through the window I see a flash of lightning. Beads of perspiration begin to dot my forehead despite the ice cold bottled water in hand and air conditioner humming in the background.

It’s mid-summer in southern West Virginia, and the mercury is rising. It’s not as hot as it gets in the Plains and deep Southwest, but it is hot enough to bother those accustomed to three-feet of snow in the winter and sub-zero temperatures.

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The temps may be high and the humidity even higher, but it’s still my favorite time of the year. Summer means freedom, bare feet and lightning bugs.

Yes, I have a thing about lightning bugs.

As a child, I watched them in awe, placed them in mason jars to create makeshift, country-kid “lanterns” and rescued them when they stole into the house under the windowsill. As an adult, I still watch them with fascination, marveling at the yellow-green disks that dot the landscape at dusk.

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It’s late afternoon and I arrive home a tad bit earlier than usual. I wake the babies — two yellow Labs and a slobbery, Neapolitan mastiff — from their beds in the air-conditioned den. Soon, after all chores are completed, we are on the back porch reveling in summer’s pre-evening glory.

Rocking gently in the porch swing, I realize it’s a perfect time for a game of lawn darts.

As the youngest child in a family of five kids, I grew up in an environment of so-called dangerous games. BB guns and slingshots were our daily companions. We rode full-speed on go-carts and swung high on grapevines above ravines. We lived life to the fullest, never giving a thought to the consequences of our daredevil actions.

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Playing lawn darts, a game now outlawed due to its dangerous weaponry, was one of our favorite summer pastimes. Initially, we would play by the rules, but all too soon it would morph into intense sibling rivalry.

Safe targets then ignored, darts would be thrown in the direction of siblings. There was no intent to seriously injure — just maybe scare each other a bit. Within minutes, chaos would ensue. Wrestling holds. Faces rubbed in mud. Long hair tied in knots.

Ultimately, crocodile tears in front of Mom or Dad would end the game.

With this history, it’s no wonder the box of darts is now gathering dust in an attic corner.

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It’s the early 1970s, and the five of us are preparing for a day of exploring. I am pre-kindergarten; my two brothers and two sisters are much older and wiser. As the baby of the bunch I am not normally a part of secret escapades. But on this day I have been invited to join in.

Lined up like soldiers we prepare to leave the yard for a jaunt into the hardwood forest, but an impromptu appearance by Mom on the back porch makes us pause. She tells us to stay away from the caves. We nod our heads in solemn acknowledgment.

Little does she know the caves, the grand and glorious “ice caves,” were the destination of the day.

We dubbed them the ice caves because snow and ice could be found in corners and crevices even in mid-July. They are located barely 100 yards from the house, and their deep recesses and dark ravines transmit an aura of enchanted mystery and storybook wonders.

My siblings had explored the caves often, but I had only heard tales of winding caverns and deep rooms underground. On this day, however, I would see the caves firsthand. I would become part of a brother-sister pact.

Ignoring Mom’s warning, we head into the woods and straight to the underground cavern. I marvel at the giant, underground room after a tricky crawl through a not-so-big hole. Due to my age I am not allowed to venture more than a few feet from the entrance, but it is still an incredible day. I watch my siblings explore the cavern and, later, we eat lukewarm pork and beans warmed by a campfire.

We arrive home late in the evening — grubby and tired. Fireflies light the sky as we trudge through the yard and onto the back porch.

Mom never asks where we had been. I think she already knew.

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It was a long day at work, and as I finish up the day’s chores the dog’s are underfoot. I glance out a back window and see the yard and forest beyond. Like memories of go-carts and thrilling games of lawn darts, the ice caves beckon. They call for a return to childhood — to the simpler, easier days of youth.

Darkening skies and distant thunder tell me the trek isn’t possible this evening.

But, I vow, sooner rather than later I will make the hike to the caves. I will once again explore their underground mysteries, and marvel at the snow in July.

And maybe, just maybe, I will dust off the box of lawn darts in the attic. It’s been too long since we’ve had an animated game.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.