Casting a New Light

Remember the orders from mom, “When the street lights come on I want you home.” Or in our house it was the dreaded, “When the street lights come on its time to come in and get a bath and go to bed.” It wasn’t the bath part I hated so much as the bedtime. I always felt I was missing out on something going to bed that early. In the winter months it meant I was missing the latest episode of “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” in the summer, it was late night popcorn with its tempting aroma coming like incense up through the cold air vent at the corner of my bed.

Street lights, which were so much a part of anyone’s life who spent time outside after dark, have gone the way of chimneys, rotary-dial phones hanging on the kitchen wall with cords long enough to reach to the farthest downstairs room and TV antennas that graced the roofs of every house in the neighborhood.

The lights disappeared and we probably didn’t even notice because they are still here, just in a new package.

Instead of the soft yellowish-brown glow of light that complimented even the most threating neighborhoods, now we have harsh almost daytime lighting. Every flaw is revealed and much of the daytime ugliness that we wished to block out is now spotlighted front and center. The new light is white, cold and cast hard edged shadows unlike the amber light which softened features and diffused the shadows of the big elm trees which stood on our terrace. The light sketched a pattern across the lawn picking out spots of light to illuminate in little circles following the patterns of the leaves.

The shadows cast by the modern LED lights, whether street lights or car headlamps look more like ink stamps with defined edges with beginnings and endings. The old lights shadows faded away with no clear borders until the next one picked up the message and carried it on up the road.

The amber light could change the color of your clothes. Maybe you went outside after supper with a red shirt on but when the street lights came on you were the kid with orange shirt. Or it was possible for your blue jeans to turn a mysterious shade of purple that you kind of liked but would never wear in the light of day.

The old lights had bulbs. Big orbs that hung like tear drops from dainty skirts with fluted edges. Circling the elements was often a cloud of insects which danced in unison, sometimes kicking out one of the partners and then quickly letting them back in. Occasionally a Luna moth would appear in the crowd. It looked as out of place as a hawk joining a flock of sparrows. The moth would glide in and out of the amber, its green shade being converted to blue.

On foggy or rain soaked nights each intersection looked as if someone set yellow cones under each light with the tips reaching up to the top of the poles. Cars and walkers would pass through the cones and then disappear as if by magic until they reappeared in the next pyramid of light.

Street lights were something you played under, met your buddies by, stuck firecrackers in the cracks of the wood and nobody yelled at you and tacked yard sale signs and hand lettered lemonade signs to their splinted poles. Staples and thumb tacks from past events reached as high as the longest arm in the neighborhood. They were the neighborhood bulletin board and neighborhood watch combined into one constant you could count on.

There were those times growing up in Nebraska and they were frequent during the summer storm season, when the life blood to the poles was cut. The neighborhood went black and the world became just a little scary. It’s like when you call your parents and all you get is a ringing and no answer when you know someone should be there. Your mind begins to wonder and you see all types of disasters and monsters lurking. But, when they answer the phone and the power comes back on, you realize how much you missed them.

Many nights we sat out on the curb under the glow of the corner’s lamp. We solved the world’s problems or tried to figure out what might happen on the next episode of “Dark Shadows” all the while doodling in the sand left over from winter street maintenance. There were usually a few bikes belonging to kids from other corners thrown on the lawn or maybe someone joined the conversation late and decided the bicycle saddle was more conformable as they sat above us rocking back and forth on the asphalt. One by one the caucus would get smaller as one more reported for soap, suds and tub.

When winter came the snow was blown as a soft blanket wrapping around the base of the pole. The light from the corner beacon took on a new life. Reflecting off ever surface, shadows were eliminated and the neighborhood was painted in pale ochre. The colored light snuck around corners like a cautious cat softly stepping towards it target. From the blending of the color of light from the street lamps and the falling snow the sky over the town turned purple giving your eyes a new palate of colors to explore.

Today’s white light seems to make the winter nights just a little bit colder. The invitation isn’t there to venture out for an illuminated walk following tire tracks in the fresh snow like it was with the warm yellow glow.

The old lights came on slow like the night did when you were waiting for the lightning bugs to start flashing. The filament in the bulb would begin to glow and you knew the hours of play were being counted down. Slowly the light would invaded the approaching dark and games of catch or pick-up ball games were over and potentially more mischievous activities began to take their place. Today’s lights flash on resembling Dad’s old flash bulbs on his camera catching us all off guard. And, they go off just as quick with no warning.

Wouldn’t it be a terrible thing if sunrise and sunset was an instantaneous event?

There are many things of the night that are still the same. Fireflies have not gone LED yet and evening campfires will still light up the backyard with a glow that attracts kids and adults like the moths around the street lamps. As a personal protest to the changing color of light, I keep amber lights on the porch which paints our house and yard as far as the light will stretch with memories of nights and colors of days behind us.

I guess, seeing things in a different light, is all part of growing up.

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