Kitsch It Goodbye

Pavilion’s closing makes way for a new kind of Myrtle Beach

MYRTLE BEACH — A riot of neon color bounces off the humid summer evening sky above the Pavilion, this din of overwhelming overstimulation where everyone and everything screams, “Notice me!”

We are moths here: The brightest light wins the aimless affection of our schizophrenic attention span.

The audacious weight guessers within the amusement park and the clack! clack! of air hockey inside the arcade speak a unique dialogue.

Outside the entrance, along the Strip, airbrushes swoosh out a spray of bright pink and baby blue: “I Trashed (blank, blank) Hotel Summer 2006!”

The guy with abs especially sculpted for this weekend revs his lime-green Kawasaki on Ocean Boulevard, a Pied Piper’s song beckoning a young woman to hop on back and cruise the Strip.

For so long, this has been the center of gravity of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina’s cubic zirconia jewel of the vacationing working class.

It’s changing, Myrtle Beach is. Marching forward, perhaps. For better or for worse, depending on our point of view and the history we bring with us.

Owners Burroughs & Chapin will close the Pavilion at the end of September after 58 years of operation. The closing symbolizes Myrtle Beach’s transformation from redneck Riviera into a more diverse and sophisticated vacation destination.

Left in the darkness, in a way, are our children and our children’s children and the children we once were.

Left behind are memories of Myrtle Beach’s only monument to its history, galvanized by roller coasters and summertime flings and funnel cakes and pinball machines and shag dances.

***

Cassandra Graham has made a supply run to her car, with her 2-year-old son, Justin, asleep in her arms. There are two more hours left in this day trip to the Pavilion her family took from their home in Kingstree.

Beginning at age 13, the 38-year-old mother spent her summer afternoons at the Pavilion while waiting on the bus to Kingstree after a day’s work at a motel. “We’d sit down at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and wander around the Pavilion until the bus came,” she says. “It’s just not going to be the same.”

She fills the parking meter and heads back in.

Across Ocean Boulevard on the boardwalk overlooking the beach, Todd Presser rests on a bench with his 10-year-old son, Derek.

They’ve bought the commemorative “Farewell Season” cup. Derek has consumed the Pavilion for the day (or it has consumed him). He comes every day during the week his family vacations here. The sounds of arcade games mix with the ocean breeze in a smooth cocktail of beachiness.

The handles to the wooden, pinball-like baseball games that are a staple of the Pavilion and the arcades that have mimicked it are worn from years of fathers sweating tirelessly to win a prize for their little ones.

The magic number to score a prize is 28 runs, as it has been for decades.

“I used to play those same baseball games he’s playing,” says Presser, 41, who has come from Kentucky to Myrtle Beach from childhood through fatherhood. “That’s why I bring him here now. It’s a landmark for me. This is my childhood.”

A rain shower sets in. The beachgoers wading in the Atlantic bring their wet, rolled-up jeans inland to the Pavilion. This is where they’ve always fled to.

***

“It hurts so bad to see them closing it down,” says Brenda Johnson of Ware Shoals, who took her children to the Pavilion years ago and will take her 2-year-old grandson, Jonathan, one last time this Labor Day. “It’s like losing a part of our family. I looked forward to seeing my grandchildren get to play there.”

Myrtle Beach is not much for history. What little it has had in slightly more than 100 years of existence has been razed and replaced by the bigger and the better ó paving the way for 13 million visitors each year.

The last icon that came close to representing Myrtle Beach ó the Ocean Forest Hotel ó was torn down in 1974. The hotel was the creation of Greenville textile magnate John Woodside, who in 1926 bought miles of beachfront property in a grand design for an upscale Myrtle Beach.

Woodside lost his beachfront land (to current owner of the 11-acre Pavilion, Burroughs & Chapin) and his hotel along with his entire fortune in the 1929 stock market crash.

The textile mills played a crucial role in the development of Myrtle Beach as a blue-collar playground, says Walter Edgar, a South Carolina historian and author.

The mills would shut down for weeks at a time during the summer and workers would head to the beach.

A number of mills bought places for their workers to stay (Spring Mills’ Springmaid Beach resort still exists). And at the center of all this respite for hard manual labor was the Pavilion.

The first Pavilion building ó an annex of Myrtle Beach’s first hotel, the Seaside Inn (now demolished) ó burned in 1920 and was replaced in 1925 by another wooden building, which also burned.

The current Pavilion building ó oceanfront on Ocean Boulevard and Eighth and Ninth avenues north ó was erected in 1948. Its World War II-like, reinforced concrete structure helped it withstand Hurricane Hazel in 1954, when most of Myrtle Beach was destroyed.

The Pavilion building and its music and dance club played an important role in the development of music culture in South Carolina. Generations have danced the shag to beach music at the Magic Attic and later rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop when it became simply the Attic.

In 1948, Burroughs & Chapin ó still today the owner of thousands of acres of land along Myrtle Beach and the pre-eminent force in shaping the area ó cut a deal with the Husted brothers’ traveling carnival to stay put, and the Pavilion Amusement Park was born.

“Come nighttime, you’d drift down to the Pavilion,” says Joe Chambers, of Pelzer, who recalls how keeping his baby sister while his brothers wandered the Pavilion actually helped him meet more girls.

Later, as a young adult in the early 1970s, he played drums in the Royal Scotsmen Band at the Magic Attic (which back then, he says, seemed to Carolina musicians to be almost as big a deal as playing Madison Square Garden).

“Everybody would get so involved in the rides and having so much fun that it was easy to make a friend,” he says. “Some of those rides like The Scrambler would sling you around, and if you could get a girl on that ride, you could get close to them and have an excuse for it.”

***

No longer.

“Time has sort of passed the Pavilion by,” says Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. “When the Pavilion opened, Elvis was a teenager and Lucille Ball was a new TV star. Today’s generation looks for more than roller coasters and paddle boats.”

And, Dean says, Myrtle Beach “has grown well beyond its original identity as a redneck Riviera.”

The area around the Pavilion (not necessarily the Pavilion itself) has reached a saturation point of unique ó arguably unsavory ó culture. Beachwear shops carry shirts with silhouettes of strippers and the words “I Support Single Moms,” and the words yelled from those cars cruising the Strip aren’t always wholesome.

Whether that’s part of the kitschy charm or a reason to go somewhere else on vacation is a matter of taste and of debate.

Several stores have closed over the years as sales figures have declined. The Strip is still packed on a summer night, but as Dean says, “many visitors see the downtown as a place to roam but not a place to spend.”

At one point, the Pavilion attracted more than 1 million visitors a year, but began to see marked declines about five years ago, says Tim Ruedy, a Burroughs & Chapin executive.

He wouldn’t share specific numbers for comparison.

More entertainment offerings such as Broadway at the Beach and the upcoming Hard Rock theme park, consumer expectations and changing demographics are responsible for attendance dropping to the point that the Pavilion no longer supports itself financially, Ruedy says.

Burroughs & Chapin hasn’t come up with a final plan for what will happen after the Pavilion is closed, so has yet to share any specifics, Ruedy says. Whatever is developed will attempt to attract year-round business instead of the largely seasonal traffic now.

Buz Plyler, owner of another Myrtle Beach icon, the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove near the Pavilion, says the future of not only his store but the very culture of Myrtle Beach hinges on what Burroughs & Chapin ultimately does.

“There’s no question there’s going to be societal change,” says Plyler, whose family has owned the Gay Dolphin for 61 years. “If the newer place is too much like current developments, it will be too homogenized. People will not think of Myrtle Beach as being different than any other place.”

Burroughs & Chapin’s plans will focus on compatibility and public access, Ruedy says. It will, however, incorporate elements that will attract more high-end tastes, such as fine dining that Ruedy says doesn’t exist now.

The company likely will preserve elements of the Pavilion’s culture and history ó like the amusement park’s 1912 vintage carousel and its German-made organ that first appeared at the World Expo in Paris in 1900.

“Iconic elements are a part of the thinking,” he says, “and I am certain in one way, shape or form that Burroughs & Chapin will make sure those elements are included. It’s always easy to say that you could do another high-rise and fill it out, but is that really what’s important to the development of the city of Myrtle Beach? I don’t think so.”

***

The carousel spins and the Frog Hopper lady blows her whistle.

A boy uses his 25 Skee-Ball tickets for a tiny parachute man.

A steady bass line from the bombastic car sound systems cruising the Strip underpins it all.

The rain has stopped. The water droplets create a thousand neon prisms

Each bids its farewell.

Published in: on August 13, 2006 at 2:32 am  Comments (2)  

Din Of Iniquity

Here they come, then they’re gone again — sprouting like the exotic summer insect that might live for a week, then evanescing like a flash of summer lightning.

Sizzle … pow!

“More Roman candles, please.”

Pop!

“OK, I’m back for more.”

The fireworks stand: the den and din of all that is invigorating and unsettled and fleeting about summer.

Where menacing pyrotechnic assortments named Pit Bull, Artillery Shell, Firestorm and Mad Dog Fountain are juxtaposed against the splendor of Ground Bloom, Butterflys & Flowers, Southern Night and Glittery Fountain.

They are depots selling fun: the promise of trails of sparkler light going ’round and ’round and children sword-fighting in the cloud of a smoke bomb.

They’re here, and then they’re not. And then they go … somewhere.

Only to return again.

“It’s so busy,” says Alison Standridge, a Simpsonville Church of God youth pastor helping operate a stand in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Simpsonville. “Then, it’s just like, boom! it’s over. Kind of like a firework, it’s over.”

***

For these precious few fleeting days leading up to the Fourth, Hunter Moss the professional photographer is Crazy Hunter the mad fireworks tycoon.

Crazy Hunter has put up no sign that says “Crazy Hunter’s Fireworks Stand.” It’s just the name he penned on the business license because he figured it was somehow appropriate.

Crazy Hunter dresses in an Uncle Sam costume, waving American flags to passersby along Haywood Road and clicking his heels mid-flight every now and then for some extra attention.

He’s made a mock commercial on his video camera — in true hyperventilating, used-car-salesman form.

He plans to sleep in an air-conditioned tent next to his temporary enterprise, with some willing friends on hand who think this whole selling fireworks thing is a party worth throwing.

And when he closes shop on the day after the Fourth and turns in his unsold product, he’s taking his 20 percent commission and boarding a plane to the Dominican Republic to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Why bother with a fireworks stand?

The better question, Crazy Hunter says, is why not?

“It’s just right up my alley,” says Moss, whose day job is a mercurial profession that depends on the whims of whoever might need a family portrait or a wedding photographer that weekend. “I didn’t have anything else to do. I might as well just be out here selling fireworks. It’s a good time, like a Visa commercial or something.”

***
The temporary fireworks stand business is a lucrative one — and a particular boon to the nonprofit groups that typically run them.

A church youth group’s entire budget can be met with a little more than four weeks of work a year. Most of the money is made (and the more than 250 million pounds of fireworks sold nationwide) over the Fourth of July, with the rest in the days leading up to the turn of the New Year.

Charitable groups operate as many as 80 percent of the 200 fireworks stands TNT Fireworks sets up in South Carolina each year, says John Johnson, regional sales manager for TNT.

“Instead of going out here and having to sell hot dogs and hamburgers and having pizza parties and all that,” Johnson says, “they just work with us twice a year and do one fund-raiser and have their whole budget for the year.”

The formula is simple: Fireworks companies such as TNT provide the product, building and land, and the temporary owners provide their labor.

The business model is one centered on a maelstrom of business concentrated tightly around two holidays.

It’s like a bride spending months planning a wedding that will last one day.

“We work all year getting permits, leasing properties and making sure our stands are fixed up for the next season,” Johnson says. “It’s a full-time job for me, but the groups only come in for about 10 to 15 days.

Prospects are checked for good credit and given training in safety, securing permits and the products they sell.

TNT sets up the stands, helps facilitate the permitting process and provides the fireworks based on how well it expects a certain location to attract traffic.

The stands open about two weeks before the holiday. Business is a trickle at first, but the early opening lets people know the stand is there for when the frenzied rush ensues.

When the party’s over, usually the day after the holiday, the workers clear out the stands and board them up. Within a few days, the fireworks company carts the stand off for storage.

Fizzle.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” says Standridge, the Simpsonville Church of God youth pastor. “We really depend on this for our budget.”

The church has had a lock on its location for years and operates a total of three stands on the Simpsonville Wal-Mart site. Most sales take place the day before and the day of the Fourth of July, Standridge says.

Each year, she says, the church brings in about $20,000 from its fireworks sales — enough to pay for youth trips to Florida and to help keep up facilities.

The New Harvest Church of God in Gaffney travels to the Woodruff Road Wal-Mart to help raise money for its Revolution Teen Ministries youth group. The money from last year helped turn a church garage into a youth room.

Michael Perry, the youth pastor, used to run the Woodruff Road location when he worked for a Greenville church. The location is so busy, Perry says, he requested to move into it when his old church gave up the spot.

The hours are tough — 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. each day leading up to the holiday, then until midnight the night before and the night of.

Shifts are spread among volunteers, Perry says, and those who work are credited with a discount on their next youth trip. For the most part, parents work the stands for their children, who must be 18 to legally dispense fireworks.

The rush of activity is fun, Perry says, but exhausting, too. He sees bottle rockets and sparklers in his sleep.

“My wife woke me up one morning and asked me what time it was,” Perry says. “I told her, ‘$9.99.'”

***

There’s a distinct culture to the fireworks stand — one of fascination, mirth and the occasional odd characters who explain in great detail what they plan to do with the fireworks they’ve bought.

Fireworks speak to something primordial, drawing us in and turning our eyes upward. The phenomenon is as old as the ancients, dating back to the Han Dynasty and the world’s first bamboo firecracker and the hope an aerial display gave our Revolutionary War forefathers before they knew they would win the war.

To stand behind the counter and hand out smoke bombs and bottle rockets is to attract conversation, like the cashier at the newsstand who spends his entire day talking to customers about the news, whether he’s read the newspaper or not.

“The people who come up here, man, it’s a trip,” Crazy Hunter says. “Just random people, man. All walks of life. People just come up and here and tell me random things.”

For Angel Butler, the fireworks stand is a social event.

For 14 years, Butler has worked or owned a fireworks stand. Her location on Anderson Road in the Big Lots parking lot has brought the same faces back each holiday.

“I look forward to seeing people,” Butler says. “They’re like extended family. You learn a lot. A lot of characters.”

All kinds, she says, step up to the stand and squint at the buy-one-get-one-free specials — rich and poor folks, church groups, neighbors chipping in on a big package for a block party, kindly people who buy fireworks for the disadvantaged kids in nearby neighborhoods.

Butler’s family spends holidays at the stand.

Angel’s Fireworks is even open on Christmas.

“We have breakfast Christmas morning, then everybody comes down here and just hangs out,” Butler says.

This Fourth of July will be no different, she says.

Family both near and distant.

Then … until the next the holiday … poof.

Published in: on July 2, 2006 at 4:26 am  Leave a Comment  

‘Big A’

TO MY DAUGHTER

Be encouraged, my daughter

The victory is mine,

My race, I have won.

I am home now with Jesus

He talks taily with me,

My journey has ended,

My soul has been set free

Let the life that I have lived

Be a testimony to you.

Hold steadfastly to Jesus

He brought me through.

Whenever you need me,

Remember this day.

I am resting in heaven

Not too far away.

Always look up,

Don’t tarry, you see;

Call faithfully on heaven,

That is where I will be.

When your time has come,

To do what you must do,

I will be at the River Jordan,

To see you cross, too.

I am happy now, Leigh,

Don’t fret over me;

All my troubles have ceased,

My soul has been set free.

*****

Aaron Debnam had spent his life fighting.

He crushed tailbacks as “Chickenhawk,” the fearsome South Carolina State linebacker. He stamped out infernos as “Big A,” the Greenville firefighter.

Aided by an imposing frame, a cool demeanor and an unending confidence, he welcomed these challenges, volunteered for them.

But the fiercest battle the 46-year-old husband and father would face would be far from a choice, and it would require a new identity A<3> an unfamiliar acceptance of physical vulnerability that only an immeasurable spiritual strength from within could undergird.

Cancer isn’t a disease of victims, it’s a disease of fighters. Living on borrowed time that doctors had predicted he wouldn’t have, Aaron staked out his ground to stand in defiance of death, to see his daughter, Leigh, graduate from Easley High School.

“That was the only thing he would talk about,” says Wanda Debnam, Aaron’s wife of 23 years. “He would say to me, ‘If I can just make it to my baby’s graduation.'”

On May 27, dying of brain cancer, struggling to stand and speak and at least 100 pounds lighter than he’d been since he was a child, Aaron would see his daughter, in her green gown, walk across the Littlejohn Coliseum stage.

He stood to congratulate her after the ceremony. Afterward, he fell to the ground.

A little more than a week later, on June 7, Leigh sat alone with her father in the downstairs of their Easley home. She helped hospice caretakers put him in an ambulance, knowing she would never see him again.

Over the course of the night, at his own request out of his beloved family’s sight, Aaron succumbed to the disease that had made him a shell of himself — but that so, too, helped define the life he led.

* * * * *

Aaron’s nickname was “Chickenhawk” at S.C. State — apt for a linebacker, whose job description entails methodically and precisely striking his prey.

But on the field, Wanda says, he was the one who led team prayers. He was the encourager, the teacher, the glue that formed togetherness.

Aaron and Wanda met their freshman year at S.C. State in 1977 and dated right through school, to graduation and up until their holy union in 1983.

Aaron had always been a helper. He majored in sociology, but while his wife would go on to become the social worker, Aaron ultimately found his calling in a different kind of rescue mission.

In 1985, he was laid off from his job at Duke Power. Not one to simply wait for a job, he got in his car one day and drove down to a Greenville fire station to apply. He worked for the department almost until he died.

His assertiveness and leadership earned him the rank of lieutenant and the respect of his comrades.

In 1988, his only child was born — Erin Leigh Debnam (named after her father, as her parents had always pledged to do, boy or girl).

“Big A” was what firefighters call “a door buster:” By the time a colleague would come back with a crowbar to pry open the door of a burning building, Aaron would have bulled through it with his body.

He carved out a humble, selfless figure of steadiness in the fire department.

“It was always, ‘I want to go work for ‘Big A,'” says Doug Henson, a firefighter who battled flames with Aaron for two decades.

Aaron led the charge, both with his brawn and a keen awareness of when and when not to go into a burning building, says Jack Gillespie, a firefighter who served under him.

“Big A” would never put a colleague in a situation he wouldn’t be willing to be in himself, Gillespie says.

“It was an honor to be behind him, backing him up,” Gillespie says. “If you wanted to have a firefighter at a fire, he’s the one you’d want to be with.”

At home, Aaron engrossed himself in the welfare of others. If he had a flaw, Wanda says, it was that he cared too much. He was a worrier.

He was also a doer, a studier: He water-skied when they bet him he couldn’t; he bowled 10 strikes without having tried the sport before. If you were on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” and needed a lifeline, Wanda says, he was your guy.

And he loved his baby girl.

“We both loved tennis shoes,” Leigh says. “He’d take me out and buy me a pair of Jordans. Mom would be like, ‘What are y’all buying $150 shoes for?’ And he would say, ‘This is my only child; this is my girl.”

* * * * *

It was a Tuesday at dawn in February 2005, and Aaron was on duty when he fell and began to convulse in a seizure.

The Saturday before, he had run eight miles (he had weighed in at 320 pounds months earlier, Wanda says, decided he was fat and dieted and exercised to get down to a healthy 248 pounds for his strapping 6-foot-3 frame).

The guys at the department — thinking of a stroke or heart attack — rushed him to the hospital. Shortly after his examination, Aaron was getting dressed, ready to go home. Then, Wanda says, the neurologist walked in:

“Aaron, where are you going?” the doctor asked.

“Well, I figure I’m fine now. I feel great. I’d like to go home.”

“Well, Aaron, I don’t think we’re going to be able to do that.”

The coming days would reveal an awful truth: Aaron — despite the outward perception of being a healthy, fit person — was suffering the most-advanced stage of cancer. It had begun in his lungs (he wasn’t a smoker) and spread to his brain and spleen and liver and lymph nodes.

The doctors told him he had a year to live.

“He was devastated,” Wanda says. “We were devastated.”

Aaron underwent chemotherapy. The tumors shrank. There was hope that, because of his physical strength, he might be able to fight off his cancer and extend his life.

He went on maintenance drugs for remission. But by December 2005, the tumors grew again. Back to chemotherapy in January. This time, the chemotherapy couldn’t stop the advance.

By April, his body began to shut down.

One day at the doctor’s office, Wanda noticed a nurse’s pained glance toward the doctor. Outside the room, Wanda asked the doctor the question she never wanted to ask.

“He’s dying, isn’t he?”

“Yes.”

* * * * *

In his last weeks, Aaron would take his wife outside to wash the cars the couples owned (including his beloved vintage 1967 Ford Mustang). She needed to learn how to do it herself — the right way.

“He said, ‘You see what I’m doing, Boo?'” Wanda says. “This is how you do it. You’ve got to section off and do a little at a time. You try to do the whole thing all at once.”

When he wasn’t washing cars, he was reporting for work at the fire station — nearly up until Leigh’s graduation.

Through most of his chemotherapy Aaron worked at the station, says his battalion chief, Clark Farmer, who describes Aaron as “one of those quiet kind of guys who made things happen.”

He could no longer enter buildings because of the smoke, so instead, he worked as an “incident safety officer.”

He drove himself to work.

Aaron had accumulated “gobs” of sick time, Farmer says, because he rarely called in ill. The chief had tried throughout his battle with cancer to get him to use some of his days.

“Even when he was doing chemo, we had to make him go home,” Farmer says.

But on his last day at work, it wasn’t quite such a struggle. He had come in on May 23 — a Tuesday — on his day off because of a misunderstanding about when he was supposed to work.

“I said, ‘Big A, what are you doin’ here?’ You’re supposed to be taking a labor day,'” Farmer says. “He told me, ‘Yeah, I was talking to one of the guys, and he said, ‘I’ll see you on Tuesday,’ and I didn’t want to hold out on you, so I came on in.'”

Farmer told Aaron he didn’t look like he was feeling well. Aaron agreed. The chief told him not to worry about work and to go home and get strong for the graduation on Saturday.

His firefighting career was over.

* * * * *

Family pictures cover the walls in the Debnam household. Downstairs, Aaron’s treadmill sits still next to a memorial picture of him, displayed on an easel.

Aaron stayed here until his last hours.

Two days after Leigh’s graduation ceremony, he was admitted to the hospital, where he stayed for five days. The staff encouraged Wanda to let them handle the burden.

They told her he had five days to live. She took Aaron home.

Five days later, his body failing, Aaron asked his wife to call the hospice.

“Boo, I told you I wasn’t going to take you anywhere.”

“Listen, listen, don’t be so hard-headed. Wanda, just take me to the hospital. Take care of Leigh. I don’t want you to be burdened with anything.”

Leigh came downstairs and asked her mother if she was going to work.

“No, baby.”

Wanda told Leigh to go downstairs and spend some time alone with her father, and then she walked upstairs.

“I looked at him,” Leigh says, “and I knew he wasn’t going to come back home. I told him that I wanted him to be really sweet. He told me that he loved me, and that’s the last time I ever saw my Dad.”

Wanda planned on spending the night by her husband’s side.

Aaron could barely move. He spoke in long, breathy whispers. He didn’t want his wife to have to see him die.

“Go home.”

Wanda told him she was staying. He showed as much agitation as he could muster.

“You go home.”

“You’re going to heaven, Aaron. I love you.”

He couldn’t talk, so he winked.

“Aaron, God, I wish you could talk.”

Then, he emerged from his stupor. He took his eyes off his wife and looked to her right and spoke clearly.

“Wanda, I love you. Take care of Leigh.”

Before leaving, she took his hand and pressed her cheek against his: “God, if it’s your will.”

He passed in his sleep.

* * * * *

Aaron’s loved ones see his life as a testimony. He left an impression: at least 900 people attended his funeral, and his co-workers continue to give Wanda and Leigh help.

“I’m wondering,” Wanda says, “Now what’s going to happen me? As I look back over our lives, God had a plan for us.”

Leigh’s plan is to begin nursing school in August at Greenville Tech (to help people, she says, just like her mother and father).

“It makes me happy,” Leigh says, “that he was there to see me complete a chapter of my life as I go on to do something else now … but there’s so many things he won’t see.

“People think they’re going to live forever. You don’t know what time you have.”

Published in: on June 25, 2006 at 4:17 am  Leave a Comment  

Dumb Ol’ Dad

Dumb Ol’ Dad.

Our beloved caricature, defiantly unembarrassed, singing out of key on purpose.

We buy him a grilling spatula shaped like a golfing wedge and proudly give him a “Kiss My Bass” baseball cap that’s about as funny as all the bad jokes he tells over and over and over.

We scale his shoulders, punch his belly, roll our eyes at his incessantly long stories and needle him as he suffers to fix the toilet.

We treat him like we’d never treat our mom (who herself seems to enjoy getting her licks in).

We aim our arrows at him because we know he is impervious (or at least he is committed to thinking he is): After all, he tells us, if we think the pun is bad, it’s only because we didn’t think of it first.

He revels in his Dadness, for he is a member of a distinguished tribe: secure enough to be the butt of jokes, willing to take the blame whether guilty or not, OK with Father’s Day cards that point out just how over the hill he is, etc., etc. …

We love him more than we feel comfortable telling him.

And he, well, loves us back … and all that stuff.

* * * * *

Bobby White is splashing water on his 4-year-old grandson, Luke Hebert, as the two sit at the edge of the fountain at Falls Park at the Reedy.

Bobby is visiting from New Orleans. He’s in town for the Father’s Day weekend to keep his grandson while his daughter, Wendy Hebert, and her husband spend the weekend at a music festival.

The dutiful grandfather and father just got his Father’s Day present early A<3> a T-shirt from Mast General Store that reads, “I’m Not Right In My Left Brain And I’ve Got Nothing Left In My Right Brain.”

He saw it in the store and liked it. Wendy hadn’t bought him a gift yet, so she bummed some money off her Dad and bought him his Father’s Day present with his own money.

How sooo Dumb Ol’ Dad.

“That’s about right, really,” Bobby says of the shirt’s message.

It would have been OK if he hadn’t gotten anything for Father’s Day, he says. You know, it’s just a day when greeting card companies and cologne makers get rich, anyway.

Sure Dad wouldn’t make a big deal if he were forgotten, Wendy says, but be careful scratching too close to the surface.

“He’s not like all dads,” she explains. “He’s hypersensitive.”

“Wellll …”

“No, you are. Real sentimental.”

“I don’t know, I guess I am.”

* * * * *

These days, a brave new world awaits each man thrust into the duty of fatherhood.

As the flood of women entering the workforce redefined the structure of the World War II-era nuclear family, the definition of being a father took on a new meaning, says Dr. Paul Kooistra, a Furman University sociology professor versed in family sociology.

Enter the birth of Dumb Ol’ Dad, spawn of the modern-day economy.

The notion of the stoic, distant father returning after a day of bread-winning separated from his children has faded over the past handful of decades, Kooistra says.

Fathers play a more intimate role in child-rearing as more mothers venture outside the home. Duties once reserved for a housewife are now shared — and dads are left to feel their way into a role they have little experience in.

And even if the father works and the mother stays home, the expectations of what it means to be a father have entered into a new realm.

“Almost by necessity there’s become a forced closeness between fathers and their kids,” Kooistra says. “There’s kind of an awkwardness.”

The notion of Dad as a loveable, bumbling, ever-culpable buffoon is ubiquitous in American culture.

Call it the Homer Simpson Syndrome.

Never on Mother’s Day would newspaper ads market a Superman T-shirt for both child and mother as they did for dads this week leading up to Father’s Day.

There’s the ever-present “Dad at Leisure” (pictures of a khakied man baiting a fishing pole and resting his golf-gloved hand against a shade tree) and “Dad the Fixer” (obscenely bright flashlight, sleek air compressor, big hammer).

“Go to a store and look at what kind of greeting cards there are for mothers versus fathers,” Kooistra says. “Maybe that has to do with a little bit of hesitance about showing emotion to fathers. Whereas you might gush your love for your mother, you may feel this emotion for your father but it just seems goofy to express it. So it gets expressed in humor.”

* * * * *

“Madison, why do you girls always pick on Daddy so much?” Matt Jerabek asks his oldest daughter, 6-year-old Madison, as his family of four skips rocks along the Reedy River.

“Becaaaause. …” she answers.

And there it is. Simply … because.

“What’s your favorite toy?” Elise Jerabek asks the couple’s youngest daughter, 4-year-old Karli.

“Daddeeee.”

This dad is the one who puts the girls’ clothes on backwards — who, the couple agrees, teaches all the bad habits.

“It’s quite entertaining,” Elise says. “I’ll go put them in bed, we’ll say our prayers — and his idea of putting them in bed is to shake them up, throw them around, toss them up and then they’re ready for bed.”

And for this, he gets what he deserves. A father under siege.

“They say, ‘When in doubt, blame Daddy,'” Matt says. “They gang up on me all the time. ‘Mommy’s No. 1.’ You know.”

John Eric Sullivan has earned his Dumb Ol’ Dad I.D. card through years of hard work.

John is here at the Cleveland Park playground with his 4-year-old daughter, Chinnesey, who normally would be in preschool if it weren’t for her father’s insistence on spending as much time with her as he can.

She’s been with him all afternoon and won’t let him leave. John has been doing this dad thing for two decades now. His two other children are much older (he has a 22-year-old son and a 20-year-old daughter).

John’s oldest daughter, Nora, refuses to go out with him to the grocery store when he wears his sandals with socks (a classic Dumb Ol’ Dad fashion statement). Her Father’s Day card for him this year is titled “Old Fart.”

“A mom would never get that card,” he says.

And somehow, he knows why.

He’s a second-generation dad with gray-sprinkled hair who builds tents on the bed and when he puts his preschooler down for the night lets her paint lipstick and eye shadow on his face and tie bows in his hair.

Nora captured the Dumb Ol’ Dad moment for posterity.

“I’m on video,” he says, “and I can’t wait until she grows up so she can see what she did to me. My wife thinks I’m crazy. But a child’s only going to be around you so long.”

ou’re right, Dumb Ol’ Dad.

But don’t worry: Long after we’ve left your home and your bear hugs, we’ll remember your sacrifice.

With a tie, a bottle of cologne and one of those bouncing-ball thingies that are supposed to relax you.

We know you’ll like it, whether you do or not.

Published in: on June 18, 2006 at 4:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Saddles And Souls

At Cowboy Church, every happy trail leads to God

“Round ’em up!” is the call, and with that everyone knows it’s time to take a load off and get some Jesus.

“It’s great to be in the Lord’s house.”

A canopy of cowboy hats nods in approval.

“AY-men.”

The bug zappers in the Lord’s house are silent tonight (it’s cool out, so the horse flies are a no-show), but the chapel — the cedar-paneled Tack Store Restaurant inside the enclosed arena at the Circle M Ranch in Pelzer — is humming with believers.

This is the Happy Trails Cowboy Church, where boots keep time with a country/gospel show, the dogs meander in and out, and the saved are baptized in horse troughs.

“Cowboy Up & Come Worship With Us,” the handout reads, and it lets us know in no uncertain terms that even the city slickers are, like, sooo welcome here.

Follow the roadside placards planted in the dirt. No fancy church signs with “Exposure to the Son may prevent burning” or “It’s hard to stumble when you’re on your knees.” Just “Cowboy Church” and an arrow to point the way.

Here, the handshakes are firm but the stiff upper lips are a little more relaxed. Cowgirls rub their cowboys’ leathery tanned necks. The Word takes the edge off.

The arena is dark and the dirt is settled; chairs that seat 2,800 are stacked a story high; the horses are in their stables. We’re gathered here tonight, outsiders embracing their outsiderness and inviting others to be outsiders, too.

Here you go: a free, green “Equestrian Edition” New Testament to take home. Get up for some coffee and homemade brownies and pound cake if the mood strikes. We’re not passing a plate around, but if you’d drop some bills into the silver feed buckets by the door, we’d be much obliged.

And keep them hats on, unless it’s time to pray.

***

“I’m one of these, I can’t sang unless I can wiggle my toes,” Sarah Harper tells the small crowd as she slips off her shoes before she and her husband, Tommy, start to ministerin’ with song.

They’re from Fair Play, asked to come tonight to share their voices and stories and get people ready for the sermon that lasts longer than it was promised to last.

Tommy explains how he was saved in 1991. He wasn’t a very likeable guy, and he was never much for crying. But salvation led him to tears, and it didn’t feel so bad.

Still, it’s easier to sing than cry.

“This song here sums it up pretty good,” he says. “I hope it blesses you.”

The hats nod back and forth. Knees rise up and down and boot soles tapping the lacquered brick floor sound suitably like horseshoes clopping on pavement.

***

“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”

As the Good Book tells it, Peter and his brother Andrew were the fishermen. They left their trade by the Sea of Galilee and followed Jesus.

Today, the cowboys are doing their part the American way, roping in the faithful and the wayward instead of calves.

Happy Trails has about 30 members and part-members, and all told about 70 different people have walked past the dirt-filled arena and into the Happy Trails Cowboy Church.

Services are on Tuesday nights because so many of those in the equestrian culture work and compete on the weekends.

The church has already had three “salvations,” says Candace Kuykendall, a Happy Trails founder, in the month-and-a-half since they’ve opened their doors and propped a cement block to keep them open.

Another will be baptized soon.

Pinned on Candace’s shirt is a red bandanna folded into the shape of a rose (red bandanas identify the people who can answer questions; the men’s hang out of their back pockets).

She explains how attendance is growing slowly but steadily as word gets around. How they’re close to hiring a permanent pastor. How they always hope to get just enough to pay the band — and how they always seem to.

The church has grown out of programs offered at other churches for horse enthusiasts and professionals. Happy Trails is its own — it’s a church as churches are — evangelical and interdenominational with roots in the Baptist faith.

Nationwide, there are more than 400 cowboy churches, most of them out West and concentrated in Texas. Happy Trails is the first cowboy church in South Carolina.

Floyd Tidsworth, president of South Carolina Equestrian Ministries and a church founder, points to the words of the Apostle Paul and his call “to become all things to all men” to reach as many as possible.

“The message, we can’t adjust this,” he says. “The method, we can.”

Loren Hodgens and Sheila Rogers are both trail riders. They’ve been coming since Happy Trails opened.

Neither had been to church in years. For them, this is church.

“I remember church and running through the pews as a kid,” says Sheila, 49, “but when I got up a little older, I started listening to some of the members talking about what Jane did yesterday and what John did the day before. The main thing is to be able to come and be us and worship God.”

Sheila and Loren finish each other’s sentences, even if they are separated by a generation.

“Yeah, be us,” says Loren, 19. “Not have to put hose on, not have to put a dress on, in uncomfortable shoes, sitting in a pew for however many hours. We’re here from the heart. We’re not here for appearance or our neighbors to see us and say, ‘Oh, they’re Christianly people.’”

Don Snyder marries the two churchgoing experiences, here at Happy Trails and at his Fountain Inn hitching post, Pleasant Grove Baptist.

In the cowboy church, you can be a member or a “partner.” Being a partner (or is it “pardna”?) allows you to keep your membership at a primary church.

The 47-year-old rancher grew up on the Ohio plains, surrounded by cornstalks and miles away from his nearest neighbor. He learned how to ride at age 7. He remembers tying his fishing pole and his baseball glove and bat to the saddle and taking off for a spell.

“Your nearest friend was five miles away,” he says. “We didn’t ride a bike on gravel roads. We rode a horse. That’s how we lived. Going back to those places, they still live like that.”

Here, at Happy Trails, away from the homeowners associations and the lights of neon marquees, the cowboy life is alive.

Don has come straight from his ranch in Fountain Inn, in black cowboy hat and jeans, after “literally feeding my steers and horses before I got into the car to leave.”

Come, all ye faithful. Smudged and ingenuous.

“Our people,” Candace says, “they may have their Sunday clothes and it’s a starched pair of jeans. If they come in dirty, we don’t care.”

***

The music has ended.

Pastor Phil Bryson — visiting from Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Laurens — steps up in his big buckled jeans and pulls off his hat to pray before preaching about forgiveness.

The kids — four of them fresh out of the dirt “playin’ dead” — are headed out to “Kids Corral” with Candace, where they will paint suncatchers to learn the lesson of “letting Jesus’ light shine through.”

Pastor Phil promises the sermon will be short even if it won’t be.

“Don’t you like to get dirty?” he asks. Hats nod. “I do. I like to get out there with my bushhog and mess around. When God forgives, God forgets. All that dirt just goes down the drain.”

Never mind the mixed metaphor (“dirt” is “sin” and the listeners have said they like getting dirty), the message is well-received.

Pastor Phil preaches. And preaches. Hats turn up from their Bibles, nod, then look back down. Everyone is here looking for the righteous trail.

Outside in the arena, the children — Mikalah Smith, 8; Madisyn Kuykendall, 5; Dakota Bogle, 9, and his little brother Jacob, 3 — have finished their suncatchers and are learning their own lessons in forgiveness.

They’re getting restless, the night is winding down, and the paint has flowed a little too freely.

“Maaaadisyn wiped paaaaint on my shiiiirt,” Mikalah says.

“Was it an accident, Madisyn?” Candace asks.

“Yes.”

“Apologize.”

“I’m soooorry.”

Mikalah flashes displeasure.

“She said, ‘Sorry,’” Candace tells her. “That’s when you have to forgive, right? Can you put a smile on your face for me?”

And she does.

“OK, now finish that up and play in the dirt here where I can see you.”

And they do.

Inside, the hats nod.

Published in: on May 21, 2006 at 9:35 pm  Comments (1)  

Stolen Hours

"We'd like to welcome everyone who skipped work today," the announcer wisecracks over the public-address system.The waggish voice echoes through the West End Field stands and off the Big Green Monster in left field, cutting right to the heart of what this day is all about.It's a day smack in the middle of the week, smack in the middle of the downtown lunchtime scurry.

A day when a retired law-enforcement officer finds himself "back in heaven" and a banker in a three-piece business suit finds himself slogging across a wet baseball field in diver's fins.

A day when an insurance worker with his wife and kids tries to keep his tie out of the hot dog mustard and when a teacher decides it's somehow fitting to let her P.E. class wallow around in rain puddles.

"Hey, man, what are you guys doin' out here?" a business-casual worker bee calls to acquaintances as he waits outside the ballpark to see the Greenville Drive take on the Kannapolis Intimidators.

"Oh, I just came here to do nothin'," the friend says as he's called out for changing from work clothes into shorts and a T-shirt.

Today is the Drive's very first "Business Person Special" day, which is stodgy, gender-neutral PR code for "Play Hooky for a Few Hours and Hope Your Boss/Teacher is Cool With That" day.

But it's more.

This — middle-of-the-week, daytime baseball — is an urban tradition, sharing a kinship with Philly and New Yawk and Bahston and the unmatched disciples of sun-baked-bleacher bummitude, Northside Chicago's Wrigley faithful.

It's an American cliche, the warm kind that makes you understand that cliches become what they are because they are true: father and son, beer and popcorn, anthems and flags. (If only they served apple pie at ball games. …)

The warm, humid air can't stop time from freezing.

Close together

Three old friends sit close together, as if they don't have an entire section of bleachers almost all to themselves.

Randy Robinson is squeezed in the middle, wearing one of those old, wool newsboy caps and sitting on a Publix grocery bag to keep his rear dry on this drizzly afternoon.

He stands and claps as Drive infielder Jeff Natale comes up to the plate (that Natale, he's a good one, I tell you). Before the season started, the mail carrier for the Taylors Post Office looked at a Drive schedule for the first workweek day game, marked down the date and turned in his annual-leave-day slip.

This, Robinson says, is the week on his rural mail route that he delivers the most junk mail. Better to spend a damp day watching foul balls buzz overhead than packing mailboxes full of bulky propaganda, he figures.

"I'd be out delivering junk mail on a 71-mile route today in this weather," Robinson says.

"And you know, it's his birthday."

He points to Lance Coulter, a retired Greenville County detention center officer celebrating his 59th birthday, wearing a Red Sox cap and still speaking in that distinctive Boston brogue even though he left home more than 30 years ago.

Robinson, Coulter and their portrait-painter buddy, Michael Del Priore, are out here today for Coulter. Coulter's a Fountain Inn guy; he wasn't sure about all this talk about a new downtown ballpark.

He doesn't get out a whole lot, and if he does, he prefers to do it during the day because his eyesight isn't what it used to be behind the wheel.

The moment he entered the stadium, Coulter was both here and there — here in downtown Greenville and back there in Fenway with his dad on a school day.

"Oh, yeah," he says. "With my dad. A lot of memories. A lot of memories. For me, it's like being back in heaven again."

Back. Again.

For some, a Big Green Monster stands beyond the Pearly Gates.

"My old energy is back up," Coulter says. "As soon as I walked in and saw that wall, I said, 'Oh man, bring me home.' "

Having trouble

The game has just begun and the Intimidators are having trouble intimidating. Already the Kannapolis shortshop has muffed two hard-hit ground balls.

Drive batters are putting a charge into the ball: "Hey, go back to high school there, mister!" a heckler shouts to the Kannapolis pitcher.

The Intimidators will have time to regroup and refocus in the dugout.

The menacing clouds have made good on their threat, and many of the 3,085 in attendance retreat back under the overhang that covers the concourse.

The first-base umpire waves his hands. Out comes the grounds crew with their shirts covering their heads and their walky-talkies flopping on their belts as they rush to spread the tarp.

The crowd cheers at the show within a show (and perhaps some mildly hoping to see one of them wipe out in the scramble).

Cindy Myers' Mount Zion Christian School middle-school P.E. and Bible-study class stands at the edge of the downpour where the overhang meets the right-field open plaza.

The girls run out into the rain, dancing around in their jeans, all grouped together to ensure that no one is doing this all by herself. They run back for shelter, but decide they might not have reveled in the opportunity enough.

They brave the deluge again and lie in puddles side by side. As they walk back, a stadium attendant sees their soaking hair and clothes and brings out an umbrella.

Thanks, but no thanks.

"We wanted a fun field trip," Myers says as she takes pictures and watches for lightning that never materializes.

"Since I like sports, this is right up my alley. Before we came down, they asked me if it rained would I let them play in the rain. Why not?"

The boys stay out of the rain. Ivan Bonnet's 13-year-old son, Kristian, elects not to join in the sideshow.

The class needed chaperones for the field trip, so Bonnet has left his auto-repair shop on White Horse Road to an able assistant, calling in every once in a while to make sure everything's going smoothly.

"Hey, they needed drivers," Ivan says. "I was telling someone, 'You know, there's a lot of people in Greenville who don't work. He said, 'Yeah, you're one of them.'"

The outfield video board is playing the "Anchorman" Channel 4 News Team's impromptu, a cappella rendition of "Afternoon Delight" and the "Saturday Night Live" skit of Will Ferrell fulfilling requests for "more cowbell."

In the shell of condos rising over the Big Green Monster, construction workers lean against newly installed windows and observe.

The 30-minute downpour is beginning to subside. A misty haze floats over the downtown skyline and obscures the view of Paris Mountain.

The grounds crew is back out to fold up the tarp and squeegie the excess water into drains just outside of the infield dirt.

The construction workers must now return to their clanging and banging, creating a tapestry of sound unique to daytime baseball as outfielders yell for fly balls over the symphony of hammers and power drills.

It's Aquaman

Co-workers are patting James Krout on the back of his three-piece suit as he reflects on his feat.

He did it. The banker actually put on a pair of flippers and a diver's mask and waddled onto a wet field between innings to win a koozie shaped like a baseball jersey.

The on-field crowd rabble-rouser with the microphone and free T-shirts dubbed him Aquaman.

Aquaman's bank paid for lunch and a ballgame at the park. In the search for an apt metaphor on "Business Person Special" day, a tan, three-piece suit becomes a big golden bullseye.

"It's definitely not something I expected when I came in here — not during a workday," Krout says. "But it's a great way to get away from the stresses of work."

Aquaman wants to pull his son out of kindergarten for one of these mid-week games, but, alas, the family lives in Liberty. He points out that it's quite a "drive" (a man who just walked around in flippers in front of 3,000 people has no reason to fear the pun police).

Restless crowd

A ball is fouled onto the grassy hill where parents watch the game and their children see who can roll down the fastest.

The crowd becomes restless. A man in a green shirt rushes after the ball and beats a kid to it.

"Give it to the kid! Give it to the kid!" the crowd yells.

In sports, there is a razor-thin line between hero and villain. The boos are imminent. The man relents.

The kid holds his arms up triumphantly. The man does, too. As the Roman gladiators learned, winning over a crowd is a matter of pride and self-preservation.

Grayson Bailes is the kid, and he's shagging grounders on the hill with his friends, a pair of 9 and 10-year-old brothers. Grayson's father, Greg, took the boys out of school in Laurens to come to the park with his son.

The boys all play on a travel baseball team, the Laurens Lightning. Greg coaches. Grayson had a doctor's appointment, and Greg took a day off from the box plant he runs in Greer to bring the boys to the game.

"We're just playing hooky," Greg says. "We had to go to the doctor, so he never showed up for school. Those two, I don't know what their mama used. She had to come up with something."

Ask Greg how old he is, and he's deliberately reflective — "I am a 40-year-old man."

He thinks about "40" as he sits on a picnic table at the top of the hill, sipping a beer, watching the boys play and waiting for another foul ball to come their way.

Greg says he never played baseball as a kid. He travels with the boys and lives his youth through their success and love for the game.

He watches them throw the ball and snap-off their catches. Tirelessly. Over and over and over.

An Intimidator in left field tosses a foul ball up to the hill. Then an attendant brings a third ball so Greg doesn't have to worry about any hurt feelings.

The Drive are on their way to a 4-0 shutout.

There's nowhere to be right now but here. This is baseball in the sunlight on a workday that isn't.

"You know, we're battin' a thousand, man," Greg says. "We're doin' good."

Published in: on May 1, 2006 at 3:40 am  Comments (1)  

To Send Or Not To Send?

Ding.

And there it appears on the screen with a subtle chime – that peculiar cultural phenomenon brought to us courtesy of good ol' reliable dad/sister-in-law/co-worker/next-door-neighbor.

"FW:OMG! U will sooooo love these hilarious pix!!!"

"FW:FW: Female drivers …"

"FW:FW:FW: Proof that Courtney killed Kurt. NOT A HOAX!"

The forwarded e-mail is the modern populist media of mass gossiping.

The forward reaffirms our belief that the world is against us and that karmatic justice will prevail through the power of a mouse click.

It ignites the da Vinci Code inside us, bamboozling us to believe that on May 5 we mustn't allow our tires to touch the white intersection line at the traffic light, lest gang members shoot us as part of a nationwide initiation ritual.

With each ding! it renders the art of joke-telling obsolete. We no longer need concern ourselves with the delicate blend of pacing, memory and exaggeration required to deliver a successful punchline at the dinner table.

It misleads us at the Photoshopped sight of a Great White shark lunging toward a rescue worker aboard a helicopter, leaving us skeptical about what is actually real, like the NASA photograph of the Helix Nebula that depicts the "Eye of God."

We are both honored and annoyed – more one than the other depending on our mood that day – to be on the list of 120 friends, pseudo-friends and vague acquaintances.

We love our habitual forwarders like Fred loved Barney, like Cramden loved Norton.

They are the unabashed people-persons we aren't, the ones who before finding empowerment with a keystroke were intimidated enough by technology to swear that they just weren't one of those "computer people."

Scroll. Giggle. Send.

Congratulations, you are now in on the joke.

Scroll. Gasp! Send.

You must be outraged, and you must forward this prayer to 10 people to ensure good luck and to save yourself from sure eternal damnation.

Yes, the serial forwarders: Join them or not; it doesn't matter. They have your e-mail address.

Confessions of a forwarder

The profile of the forwarder is simple, really: We are them and they are us.

We all do it – even if just once – whether we admit to it or not (and we like some of what we receive).
Within us all is a degree of self-centeredness that convinces us that if we think something's interesting, others certainly must, too.

The serial forwarder is an entirely different curiousity.

Shannon Schmutzok is your everyday habitual forwarder: curious, skeptical but generally trustful, and ready to share just about whatever might pop onto the computer screen.

She admits to her habit with a self-deprecating awareness, like a grown man who might admit that he reads "Superman" comic books.

Her forwarding ritual manifests itself at work, where about 10 people, give or take, engage in a conversation of forwards that helps add a little levity/inspiration/outrage to the monotony of a work day spent on the other side of a computer screen.

"I don't really have time to sit down and type out a long e-mail saying, 'Hey, how are you doing? How's your morning?" says Schmutzok, 33, of Taylors. "I know when they get something interesting, they'll e-mail it to me. It's a way to communicate, but not on a personal level."

That might go over well at work in a network of the willing, but not with her friend Richard.

Richard is that friend.

You know, the guy who takes a little too much pride in his disdain for a forwarded e-mail. The guy who lives an hour away who wonders why you don't just come see him or at least send him something only for him. The guy who not only bursts your urban-legend bubble with a little Internet research, but sends the rebuttal to all 120 on the forward list.

Richard has requested to be taken off the list. Schmutzok says she fully understands where he's coming from, and something about his indignation is endearing. But like other serial forwarders, she is blithely convinced that she has the ability to filter out the sappy and the suspect so that her forwarding habits aren't that annoying to others.

She knows the picture of the tsunami wave isn't real, but she'll send it on anyway, if only because she thinks it would be so interesting if it were true.

"I try not to forward too much junk to my friends, because they get a little frustrated with me," says Schmutzok, 33, of Taylors. "They're like, 'I don't have time to read all this crap!' I understand. My father-in-law sends me all kinds of stuff."

All kinds of stuff. There's always a more prolific forwarder.

Like when her father-in-law sent her an e-mail — forwarded five times from its original source — that implored her (and everyone else) to "delete this if we aren't friends."

"A lot of times when I receive stuff, I wonder what behavior I display that would make someone think I would enjoy that and send it to me," she says. "It's a bunch of sappy stuff. Of course I'm going to delete it, but it doesn't mean I don't like you. It's just that it's crap."

Better to give

Central to the vitality of the forwarded e-mail is trust in your friend Bill, says Barbara Mikkelson, who with her husband, Dave, runs Snopes.com, considered the foremost authority on urban legends in the cyberworld.
Bill is the arbitor of what is and what isn't true or funny or galling (because, you know, we trust Bill, and he's a lawyer and all).

But, Mikkelson says, what happens if Bill's wrong?

"Bill could be honestly mistaken," says Mikkelson, who started Snopes back in 1995. It was a hobby then; now it's become a nearly full-time job. "Folks always think their friends are going to be 100 percent trustworthy, but the same reliance of trust they place upon their friends, their friends have placed upon others."

The site has blossomed into a worldwide database where people both submit questionable e-mails for scrutiny or act as resources to help debunk myth or confirm odd reality. It takes less than a minute to load Snopes, type the key words of an e-mail in the search engine and almost always find a piece the Mikkelsons have addressed.

For each piece of research posted on their Web site, the Mikkelsons provide a copy of the e-mail in question, assign a value to its truthfulness and write an explanation with links referencing how they reached their conclusions.

"Otherwise, we'd be putting people in the same position as they started," Mikkelson says, "which is going from trusting the unsigned, reckless e-mails that arrive in their inboxes to trusting what we have to say about them."

There's something natural, within all of us, that wants the ordinary to be fantastic, to possess unique information that will change the world.

Even if you're the Snopes party poopers.

When they first started researching urban legends, Mikkelson says, her husband believed half of what he heard and she believed all of it.

"These are either expressions of our fears, our concerns, that which is troubling us, or they are confirmation of how the world should be run if I were running it," Mikkelson says. "Because these stories resonate so deeply with people, they don't look at them as critically."

Over time, she says, she learned, after extensive research, how many stories simply aren't true … and how sappy even the most cynical friends can be.

A virtual community

A particular favorite for her is the e-mail forwarding behavior she refers to as "slacktivsm."

"It's the joy of feeling that you've done good in the world and struck a blow for right," Mikkelson says, "without having moved your rump off the chair."

Slacktivism manifests itself in the delusion that sending an overwrought inspirational prayer/poem/completely made-up story — a "glurge," it's called — will convince someone to swear off his vices and live a life of pure spiritual perfectness.

The reality is, you might just be disconnecting yourself even further from the real world, becoming a victim of information overload and victimizing others, says Barry Markovsky, a University of South Carolina sociology professor.

"Having all this information so available sort of devalues it," he says. "In parallel with real society, you have a virtual society going on. It's far too easy to sit at home alone and participate in a virtual community without any real human contact."

Urban legends aren't a phenomenon born of the Internet. They're as old as mankind's ability to speak — and write on papyrus, orate in the temple, talk on the telephone, use a fax machine or send an e-mail.

Even if they know it isn't true, the age-old fascination with wanting the unbelievable to be believable compels people to spread urban legend, says Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University pop culture expert.

The only difference between now and, say, more than a decade ago is that word travels almost instantaneously, Thompson says.

"The Internet has become an absolute bonanza for the urban legend," he says. "The Internet doesn't have any editorial control, so everything can just go circulate around. Virtually everybody who's got an e-mail account has at least one or two people who, the minute they see it in their inbox, they know what it's going to be."

This is what happens when you become old, predictable Bill: People can't bring themselves to tell you to take them off the list, because, hey, you sent them the "forward-this-to-your-five-best-friends" e-mail.

Predictability can be lovable, but it also can be a problem.

"The more people make their messages seem worthless, the more they're going to be impacted by things like spam filters and people who deprioritize these messages," says Chris Williams, an analyst with San Francisco-based Ferris Research, which regularly studies how e-mail behavior affects businesses and consumers.

A recent Ferris study found that workers spend an average of three minutes of interruption per e-mail message.

Time to attend to e-mail is steadily dwindling, Williams says, as about 80 percent of work e-mail these days is spam.

And while the forwarded e-mail might get through the filter, it doesn't take long before the "FW:" begins to resemble a spam alert in the eyes of the recipient, he says.

Add to that how long it takes to figure out who the five best friends are who must receive this message to ensure eternal life, Williams says, and that all-important change in company policy might get overlooked because of a prolific forwarding history.

"You might not go all the way to, 'Well, I'm going to delete everything they send,'" Williams says, "but certainly you could adjust it in your priority — like read it at the end of the day."

Published in: on October 2, 2005 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

They Hope, They Worry And They Wait For Their Marine Son To Come

BACK HOME

The door knocker doesn't make a sound, with the wooden stakes of two small American flags wedged between it and the front door. But the note taped above is blunt proof that the Williams family must know if anyone comes calling.

"Home of Marine L. Cpl. Daniel T. Williams
Son of Mr/Mrs Dan/Micki Williams
In Emergency — if we are not at home
Please Call us Immediately"

Each of their cell phone numbers follows.

Dan and Micki Williams have no delusions about why they hang that note on the door: If their son, Danny, dies in Iraq, solemn men in military uniforms will come to their front door to tell them first, face to face. They might be at work or the beach, or visiting family in their native Pennsylvania … or simply shopping at the grocery store.

Inside the Williamses' Eastside townhome is a juxaposition of hope and fear, of the comfort of symbolism and a willingness to accept stark reality.

The couple's study is a tribute to their beloved Pittsburgh Steelers; beneath a framed picture of the old Three Rivers Stadium, a stuffed bear in a Steelers jersey has a trademark Terrible Towel draped over each arm.

The shrine to far-less-anxious times is also where the computer burns the midnight oil.

It's almost always online, so that both parents can check regularly to see if Danny is trying to contact them through instant messaging — and so that Micki, every day, can visit a Web page that chronicles each American casualty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Marine bandana tied around the neck of a bulldog statue near the fireplace. The disproportionate number of pictures of one child over his siblings. The yellow "Support Our Troops" pin that Mom has worn so much she can no longer keep it glued together.

This is the home of thousands of mothers and fathers, of spouses and anyone else who sits powerless to control the safety of those they can't possibly imagine living without.

This is the home of those who read the newspaper and know there's a real possibility that the next story headlined "Four U.S. soldiers killed by roadside bomb" could be a report about their soldier.

"Right now, if I could take his place … what parent wouldn't?" Dan says. "Every parent is doing what we're doing right now. We're not doing anything special; we're just subjected to it."

Like so many other parents, Dan and Micki want nothing more than to have their youngest son back, healthy and safe from stray bullets and suicide bombers.

If only he wanted to stay home.

His story

Like the stories of so many soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Danny's is one of duty and survival, trying at once to win and to avoid the same fate as the more than 2,000 who have been killed in action.

The true, unembellished story is that he is no iconic Sgt. Stryker in "Sands of Iwo Jima," nor is he a disillusioned Capt. Willard in "Apocalypse Now."

He is, instead, Dan and Micki say, a single, 24-year-old, somewhat unpredictable youngest child of three in a family with little military legacy. He was a self-absorbed young man who ambled through boarding school and college with little purpose before he found the discipline of the Marines.

Danny floated through Drexel University on an academic scholarship to study information technology, a scholarship that his parents say he won less because he worked to have good grades than because he always scored exceptionally well on achievement tests.

After leaving Drexel for Penn State, Danny dropped out of college for good.

He found what he needed, though. In February 2003, he joined the Marines, just at the time former Secretary of State Colin Powell was trying to convince the United Nations that forces should invade Iraq.

Dan says his son was no ideologue. He simply always enjoyed doing what few else were doing and wanted to find discipline that seemed so elusive, even when he attended the regimented, all-boys Kiski prep school in Pennsylvania.

Danny was snowboarding when everyone was skiing, his dad says. He was joining the Marines when a full-scale war was about to erupt.

Danny always needed more special attention from his parents than his siblings, says his sister, Jenna McDermed, who is only 18 months older than Danny and is now serving a medical school internship in Miami.

Not only was he the baby, Jenna says, but growing up "he was the wild spirit of our family." Danny would be known to cut out on vacation as a young adult and not tell anyone.

Jenna says she finds it ironic that now that he's answered his parents' prayers and has become responsible, that responsibility is causing more worry than ever before.

"They always worried about Dan more than anyone," she says. "He's always been the one they've kind of had to look out for. In a way, he's still kind of doing the wild thing, but how can you say he's not doing the right thing?"

Danny's job description (which his parents can't divulge for security reasons) creates an environment in which the family knows little about where he is and what he's doing. It was a job description they originally thought would keep him in the United States.

Instead, Danny was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and in March 2004 he requested assignment to Iraq. His military superiors told him that he was needed more in Okinawa, but Danny insisted, his parents say.

After a short homecoming — during which he revealed a scar on his rear end caused by shrapnel from a roadside bomb — Danny requested a second tour of duty in Iraq.

Dan and Micki are sure that if Danny is able to make it home by October as planned, it will only be temporary. He's sure to volunteer to go back again.

And they'll have to wait.

Again.

The photo

"Up to a dozen die as 2-front battle tests coalition troops" was the sub-headline that shared the front page of the April 7, 2004, edition of USA Today — along with a memorial for the 10th anniversary of Kurt Cobain's suicide, the University of Connecticut's national championship in women's basketball, and a man in Minnesota whose neighbors opposed his plans to open a tire-burning plant.

Plastered across the page was a photograph — which appeared in news publications nationwide in the days to follow– of soldiers crouched in battle in Fallujah.

One soldier among them was standing. Micki was shocked to see it as she logged on to AOL. It was Danny.
It's one of countless pictures spread throughout the Williams household.

Dan and Micki shuffle through the old ones: the infant Danny being spoon-fed; Danny wearing a collared shirt under a sweater at age 4, looking like a little man; Danny at age 8, wearing an engineer's cap and sitting on a horse with his dad in New Mexico; Danny, with a frightened look in his eyes, as he first began to wrestle in high school; then another wrestling picture (with a sticky note attached reading "THE WINNER!") a few years later as his arm is raised in victory.

"You'll go for a month and not hear a thing," Micki says. "Whenever I see him, I tell him, 'Danny, it's like you're reborn.'"

Any child is to his parents more than what he is today: He is what he has been and what his parents always hoped he would be.

The Williamses are proud of what their son has become, but it leaves them living each day without a guide for how to deal with the dread of having a child fighting in a war.

The hope of what would be is a particular burden for Dan and Micki to bear, says the couple's oldest son, Chris Cava, 37, who lives in Atlanta and like his dad is an engineer and a father.

Chris says he knows his parents are struggling with the past, that perhaps they feel they are responsible for their son being in harm's way.

"It's almost like Danny has something to prove to everybody," Chris says. "All those years, the people who said that he wouldn't amount to anything. I think that's what's hardest on my parents."

No politicking

The Williamses moved to Greenville in January from a small steel town near Pittsburgh for Dan's job. The people they speak to here — mostly acquaintances — about having a son in Iraq are quick to learn that the couple isn't comfortable talking about the politics of war while their son is in danger.

Micki stays connected.

She watches cable news tirelessly. She knows the body count from week to week (Chris says he turns the news off when he visits, and his mom will turn it on in the bedroom and turn the volume down).

Daily she visits a Web site, "Honor the Fallen," that keeps track of the most recent casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a short biography and picture of each soldier.

She helps sew "comfort quilts" for families who have lost loved ones in war, and she's hooking up with an Upstate discussion group, Blue Star Mothers of America, to share and seek comfort from others who are dealing with the same worries.

Dan tries to stay disconnected, except for the pictures of his son and a voice mail message he saves on his cell phone. Dan missed the call when Danny phoned from Kuwait last March to tell him he was 45 minutes away from heading into Iraq. The message, in its placid brevity, is reminiscent of a teenager checking in past his curfew.

Dan doesn't sleep much. His wife regularly finds him sitting on the living room couch in the dark. His nighttime is his son's daytime.

At work, he says, panic will inexplicably wash over him. He doesn't know if his son is in danger, or, for that matter, playing football in the sand with comrades.

Micki wonders if she's too connected; Dan sometimes is concerned that he's not connected enough.

In the end, along with their love and worry and pride for their son, they share a disquieting emotion beyond fear and doubt.

Guilt.

Guilt over the relief they feel when they see the reports and learn that their son isn't among the soldiers killed today, relief that he isn't another Internet picture that makes Micki "feel like I'm just clicking on this kid."

"At first you're relieved," Dan says. "You get that 30 seconds of relief, then comes that time of knowing what a family must be going through."

As much as they might worry about whether they are connected too much or too little, this journey of uncertainty has formed a powerful kinship — not just between the couple but with the families they've never met who must walk the same path.

Those who love what they fear to lose.

Those who fear the knock on the door.

"When our son wasn't in the war, they were just numbers," Dan says. "You feel guilty even saying that. Now, no matter where he is, even when he comes back, that has changed."

Published in: on August 21, 2005 at 7:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Group To Mark Library Protest

Six of 'Greenville Eight' to remember day they tried to use 'white' facility

The wave of rebellion was beginning to swell across the American South. They were young, idealistic and passionate, hungry to mold a lasting, more-dignified history for their race and culture.

And they no longer wanted their black skin color to deny them the right to read.

On July 16, 1960, eight college and high school students swallowed their fear and marched on the "white" Greenville County public library then located on North Main Street. On July 16, 2005, six members of the "Greenville Eight" — including the most celebrated of them, the Rev. Jesse Jackson — will gather in prayer at the jail they were locked into for refusing to leave a segregated library on that Saturday afternoon 45 years ago.

An afternoon, Jackson says, that was a defining moment in the fight for civil rights in Greenville — whether the students realized at the time the importance of it or not.

"It was the beginning of a certain dynamic in Greenville for rebelling against that system," Jackson said in a recent interview with The Greenville News. "I didn't realize just how pregnant the moment was for change. It was an historic moment, a scary moment and, yet, a beautiful moment."

Jackson and five others of the eight members of the protest group will devote the weekend to honoring the library sit-in.

The group will meet at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the old Greenville Police station behind City Hall for a reunion.

On Sunday, Jackson will speak at 11 a.m. at the Evangelistic Temple in Greenville across from the Cherrydale shopping center and at 4 p.m. at Springfield Baptist Church on East McBee Avenue — the church from which the protesters marched to the library. In his speeches, Jackson said he will focus on honoring past bravery and looking to how far the country still has to go to shed the veil of racism.

It was Christmas break 1959 when Jackson returned home to Greenville from the University of Illinois — four years since Rosa Parks first refused to give up her seat at the front of that bus in Montgomery, Ala., and a volatile time when blacks who spoke out would find crosses burning in their yards.

Jackson was a college freshman and walked down to the segregated "colored library" in search of research materials for some school work he wanted to do over the break.

The black library on McBee Avenue was woefully small. The librarian, Jeanette Smith, worked hard to stock the library with as many books as possible, but oftentimes it took as long as a week to receive books requested from the white library.

The librarian told him that she couldn't get the reference materials he wanted for another six days. That would be too late. He would have to return to Illinois before the books could come.

Jackson says he walked to the white library on North Main to get the books himself. As he made his request inside those forbidden walls, Jackson says only he, the librarian and two police officers were in the building.

It was yet another in a long line of insults, rekindling the sting of when the Sterling High School football team he played on was forced to sit on cinder blocks to watch the Greenville High team that refused to play them.

"Before I left, I told them, 'I intend on using this library this summer,'" Jackson says.

And he did, along with seven of his peers playing their parts in the legacy of the civil rights movement.

The protesters were not the incorrigibles that those who resisted desegregation at the time would have liked to make them out to be, said Davida Mathis, a Greenville attorney and steering committee member of the local of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition that Jackson founded. The eight: Jackson, Elaine Means, Benjamin Downs, Hattie Smith Wright, Dorris Wright, Margaree Seawright Crosby, Joan Mattison Daniel and Willie Joe Wright.

They dressed in suits and ties and floral dresses, all model citizens from good families, she says.

Mathis remembers the buzz of the sit-ins when she was 4. "It set the black community on fire," she says. "It was a very revolutionary and forward-thinking stand at the time."

The eight gathered at Springfield Baptist Church, which at the time was a magnet for civil rights activism, led by a charismatic young pastor, the Rev. James Hall. On the morning of July 16, the eight marched to the library and were told they would be arrested.

They left, Jackson says. When they returned to the church, Jackson says Hall asked them why they had come back. He sent them back, instructing them that incarceration was OK and, in fact, expected. "When you're a teenager and you're taken off to jail," Jackson says, "knowing how brutal society was at the time, I think it was more terrifying for the parents than it was for us."

The group was not locked up long. Activist Tony Shelton had already gathered the money to bail them out, Mathis says.

The sit-in and lock-up was just the beginning.

The group's defiance, Greenville historian Judy Bainbridge says, was a significant piece of Greenville history, a demonstration that marked a busy year in the local quest for equality.

On Jan. 1, 1960, hundreds of activists marched on the Greenville city airport to protest segregation. The October before, Bainbridge says a woman helping escort baseball legend Jackie Robinson to his flight was told to leave the white-only waiting room.

A.J. Whittenberg, a black activist and gas station owner in town, and the Rev. Hall and his wife, drove Robinson to the airport. As the three men bought a plane ticket, Hall's wife was ordered from the waiting room.

Young blacks who had come to the airport to meet Robinson were incensed, calmed eventually by the three men. Amid the library sit-in, blacks in Greenville began taking seats at the forbidden dining counters of Woolworth's, following a nationwide trend first made famous in Greensboro, N.C., in February 1960.

The library sit-in was a salient mark on the struggle for equality in Greenville during that time, Bainbridge says, though she believes it often gets overlooked in today's reflections on Greenville's past.

"I don't think it's remembered particularly well locally," Bainbridge says, "but I think people try not to remember a lot of things that happened in the early 1960s. The significance was that it came so early. It wasn't about swimming with whites. Here, it was a matter of reading."

Published in: on July 15, 2005 at 10:49 pm  Comments (1)  

Beacons Of Summer

Here come real stars to fill the upper skies/
And here on Earth come emulating flies

– "Fireflies in the Garden," Robert Frost

We see them flash in the warm Carolina twilight, shining light on the impermanence of a season and igniting the child within us that longs for summer to last forever.

They speak a silent language – a language of survival and procreation, to each other and to us – just above finely manicured suburban lawns and misty pastures at the edge of the woods.

Their demure discourse embodies the essence of the summer evenings we are fortunate to share with them.

Elegant. Amorous. Fleeting.

They glow with blithe abandon in their search for as many summer flings as their short lives allow, with little concern for whatever predator might be on the their luminescent tails – a spider stalking on a web or an infatuated 5-year-old anxiously fumbling with a Mason jar.

Ecstasy is their birthright, their purpose. And their light is the beacon to it.

Fireflies. Lightning bugs. Hotaru.

The luminous nymphs of summer.

They have served as the muses of the ancients and contemporaries and those in between, from east of Kansas to South America to Europe to India to Japan to Indonesia.

They provide a link between parent and child; between generations, unbreakable as long as nature runs its course.

Firefly lights/
Even the frog's mouth gapes

– Kobayashi Issa, 18th century Japanese Haiku master.

Crystal Stewart saw her first firefly when she was 9. She had come from California to visit her grandmother in South Carolina during the summer. There are no fireflies in the American West. Scientists aren't sure why.

"Of all the summers of my childhood, I remember that one," says the 31-year-old mother of three, who for more than 20 years now has lived here, where lightning bugs can, when the time is right, flash in a virtual galaxy of light. "The thick grass, walking barefoot in the grass, the fireflies flashing all over it at sundown. I remember that like it was yesterday."

It was yesterday. And every summer yesterday that passes near the solstice, when fireflies emerge from the ground, flash in an exotic dance to attract a mate and die a mere few weeks after.

"What do you do with the fireflies?" Crystal asks her 3-year-old son, Colby.

He casts a wide smile and quickly clasps his hands together: "I catch 'em!"

"It's a sign that summer is here," Crystal says. "I'm sure my kids will be chasing fireflies with their kids, too."

And so it goes.

Fireflies are as ubiquitous as iced tea here in the South, where "lightning bug" is the preferred terminology (why else would we venture into the humid summer evening and brave the vampiric mosquitoes?).

Fireflies are an ageless wonder that crosses oceans, time and culture.

In England, fireflies are known as glow worms (likely referring to females, the only ones who flash, yet don't have wings like males).

The creatures surely inspired Shakespeare as he envisioned his fairies in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"And light them at the fiery glow-worm's eyes/To have my love to bed and to arise," the nymph queen instructs her mystic servants.

Fireflies permeate poems and prose through the ages – particularly in Japanese art in the form of haikus, novels and music, says Yoshiki Chikuma, assistant professor of Japanese studies at the College of Charleston.

School graduation ceremonies in Japan are often performed to the song "Hotaru no Hikari," which means "fireflies' light." Cities often celebrate with firefly festivals.

"Japanese people appreciate things that signify the brevity of life," Chikuma says, "perhaps because they have been surrounded by natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons for generations. Japanese people find beauty in fireflies because their life is short, but when they are alive they are so beautiful."

The past is beautiful/
Like the darkness between the fireflies

– Mason Jennings, contemporary folk musician

Among the mysteries of fireflies is a constant: The magic can't be bottled.

Heidi Mathis has lived in South Carolina all 33 years of her life. She remembers as a little girl playing kickball as the summer sun slowly gave way to shadows.

Then, they would begin to emerge one here, another one there.

The children in the neighborhood would watch them dip and flash, leaving a residual streak of light. Fireflies are lumbering creatures. In the twilight, they are easily caught.

The patience of a child to passively admire never lasts long.

Into the jar they would go, carefully as their tiny legs tickled the fingers and left the slightest sticky residue. The hope was that, all together under the glass, they would somehow unite in a dazzling display, perhaps light the room with a friendly glow at bedtime.

But they didn't. And they don't. Only against the canvas of darkness, only in the pursuit of a purpose, do they truly enchant us.

Once in the jar, Heidi says, "They were just bugs, then."

Let my love, like sunlight, surround you/
And yet give you illumined freedom

– "Fireflies," Rabindranath Tagore, late-20th century Indian poet

Even to biologists dedicated to the calculated analysis of the world's insects, fireflies stand out as more than "just bugs." They fascinate in a unique way, one that melds the deliberate scientific method and the pursuit of the ethereal.

Amazingly, the energy a firefly creates in its bioluminescent rear end is almost completely transformed into light, whereas a light bulb wastes 90 percent of its energy as heat, says Eric Benson, a Clemson University entomologist.

If we could find a way to produce cold energy like a firefly, Benson says, we'd have made a grand breakthrough.

Benson understands the folklore of fireflies – that, much like how life once seemed simpler and slower, there once seemed to be more fireflies.

The reality is, though, there are more fireflies to be seen this year in South Carolina (home to as many as 30 species) than we've seen in awhile. The wet weather of spring likely played a part in a marked swell of firefly activity, he says.

"There always seem to be good years and bad years," Benson says. "This is a pretty good year. People say they don't see as many, but I don't know if people try as hard."

There is much to see, if we leave our air-conditioned dens to look closely.

Sara Lewis, one of America's leading firefly researchers, describes the subject of her lifelong passion as "perfectly magical."

The sole purpose of an adult firefly – actually, Lewis says, it's a form of beetle of which there are more than 100 known species in the United States and more than 2,000 worldwide – is to reproduce.

During adulthood, which lasts only a few weeks, some species don't even bother eating.

The sexes find each other in a symbiotic dance of bioluminescence, a function believed to be the product of a delicate chemical reaction between an enzyme, luciferin, and oxygen.

While pulse patterns aren't fully understood, Lewis says, in one particular species males with longer pulses are believed to be more capable of providing a female with a nutrient that will help to better develop her eggs.

Lewis and her colleagues at Tufts University in Massachusettes are currently studying the flash patterns of other species to see if this is a constant, or possibly a trick employed to con a female into romance by mimicking the flashes of competitors of other species who are considered more virile.

During the mating process, females perch on low-lying vegetation awaiting the signal of any number of males. The males, she says, take flight as dusk sets in, hovering three to six feet above the ground advertising their availability with a flash pattern of one, two or several short light pulses.

Females respond with a single pulse. The flashing continues until a male finds his mate, often attracting other males in the process.

As hunters, we can observe the flash patterns of fireflies and mimic them with a small penlight to attract a male or woo a female into flashing her approval.

While adults are conspicuous, most of a firefly's life is spent underground.

In North America, Lewis says, they can spend anywhere from a few months to as long as three years in the ground as larvae, depending on how cold the climate, before they emerge in the summer.

Once a female is done mating, she will lay eggs in moist soil or moss. The eggs glow, it is believed, to warn predators that a victim isn't likely to sit well in the stomach.

In fact, many species of firefly release a noxious chemical when they are in distress; in one particular species, a femme fatale will mimic the pulse of another species to attract and eat a male to gain the chemical she lacks, for her own use.

After about two weeks, the eggs hatch and tiny larvae emerge and dig underground, eating mostly earthworms, snails and slugs. When the time is right, when the air is alive, they take flight.

Their light guides their passion and inspires ours.

We shine with them.

Published in: on July 4, 2005 at 7:45 pm  Comments (4)  
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