Firelight and the Lightning Bug Man

A dream that comes only once is oftenest only an idle accident, and hasn’t any message, but the recurrent dream is quite another matter—oftener than not it has come on business.”
≈ Mark Twain, from Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes


I spied the artwork below when I visited my friends Phil and Kim Fail a few weeks back in Summerville. It was an early Southern Gothic piece, and when I turned it over to see where it fell in the history of that series, the date was February 3rd, 2002. I was still using the integers 1 and 2 to signify binary code. There were many of the Southern Gothic works, but this one was seminal to the start up of that series. The man in the lower right is a shaman, his image and story found in a mid-1990’s Smithsonian magazine feature on his people. The woodcut whorl above represents the dream time; the unknown universe.

Phil has owned this piece for years, and we talked about it’s migration and the joy of seeing it again after so many years. I decided to wrap a blog around it once I got my site up and running. Years ago Phil recorded and interviewed my Grandfather, Willis L. (Bill) Ogburn, Sr, at his home just before he died. The interview centered on Granddaddy’s role in helping to build the Santee Cooper project back in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Bill also figured prominently in some of the Invocational works, as a participating image, or actor if you will!

The Fails then showed me where to unload my things and my jaw dropped, as there were two pieces of furniture in their guest bedroom—one similar, the other identical to the Art Deco pieces that Bill and Eppie Ogburn had owned all the time they were together. It was almost as though I was at my grandparents’ old home. That night after we all retired, I worked for a couple of hours online, glancing up from time to time at their 1930’s era furniture. These are the synchronous elements good, long friendships are made of. As you will read below, life in the late 1950’s was never as it seemed. At times it could be very out of the ordinary. As on one particular night in 1959…


“Firelight” — assemblage/acyrylic/collage/image transfer

The concept of the Dreaming, or Dream Time, variously described as time before we came to be, the world before we knew it, prehistoric time or possibly before we as a species came to read or write—both being very, very new developments in the overall scale of time—is one of the great cultural amorphous signifiers of all human history, and has fascinated anthropologists and many other people around the world for over 150 years. Yet it has been the root core of one culture for over 40,000 years. It’s older than history. It is generally agreed upon that the advent of writing ended the age of the bards, the shamans, or whatever you might name that body of persons who kept the lore of a people, shared it, and through their travels, disseminated ideas to very different groups of other people. It was a remarkably effective network; very green and very organic, for it was based on that one mainframe—us. And in every culture but one, the lineages were always broken and lost after the first wave of “civilization” took root and changed the way of assimilated people.

The spoken word was relied upon for ages longer than the written, probably back to the birth of vocalization. I imagine the question was something along the lines of “But how do we remember all this?” When we died, we turned back into the soil. But where does memory reside? Who collects and curates memory? Was it not far more pragmatic, especially then, to collect data which afforded us life? Survivability? Poems and songs which once learned would walk you safely through a barrens knowing what to expect along the way. These were collections. And so begins the story.

Many anthropologists consider the Australian indigenous people to be the only humans with an unbroken lineage dating back to the dawn of remembering. They are the only unbroken cultural lineage of humans to trace their shared knowledge of place and culture back to regions of memory unknown to all other humans, or even conceived in the sense that we know it today. Whether ritual, knowledge of land and routes through deserts virtually impassable by foot through remembrance of songs and tales—their feats of prowess and knowledge of place and location in relationship to vast distances surpass anything all the other human cultures in the world can possibly lay claim to in that field of expertise.

Thus guiding them to intermittent water sources often still unknown to others. This is a big deal. One might say cadenced memory was the first technology of mind.

This early Southern Gothic piece is a bit of an anachronism from others in the series, especially after the first batch, for it speaks visually of the relationship of dreams, knowledge, and data. This is one work of that series which was more out there in that regard. It was a self-portrait of a kind, having been made to commemorate a dream I have missed greatly ever since it disappeared suddenly from my life around age 28, when I was living in Seattle, Washington. This disappearance occurred similarly as does the loss of a chronic pain, in that I can’t really place the exact time of it’s disappearance, but remember telling our closest couple friends about it’s having seemed to disappear earlier that year, and that dinner being close to my approaching 29th birthday, the year being 1984.

The four of us usually met for dinner in Seattle restaurants, our place on lower Queen Anne Hill, or their place in Renton, south of the Emerald City. Our conversations ran the gamut of all things known between us, and usually the dinners were as close to what I understand is a proper French dinner conversation, which in our case would often extend into the wee hours of morning. The topic that night had entered into the basis of dreams, and of course what we thought dreams might offer, or at least signify. We were all considering possible explanations to our weirdest personal dream concoctions, but gave the longer focus to sequential or recurring examples.

It was the 1980’s version of Ouija board conversations, which my Mom bought “for us” in the 1960’s. The need to understand dreams, to ponder and dissect them is much older than that, for it is part of the human equation from the dawn of Time that we all seek to have our dreams interpreted. Surely they must have meaning, else why do they appear?


The birth of the recurring dream in Brewer’s Field, at times a nightmare


I’m not so certain today I care as much for meaning as I do for understanding linkages.

This has more to do with a recurring dream which stayed with me from it’s initial appearance, around age four or five, and caused my parents’ great concern as they were having to get up, walk into their son’s room and first, wake him from the nightmares he was experiencing, and then comfort him back into sleep. As they diligently sought to understand what frightened me so in my dreams, I remember trying to explain that I am walking in the dark with lightning bugs all around me, but they’re all blinking on and off in unison, so that faint light is there for a few seconds, then an inky black pool of surrounding night. That was hard enough to explain, for I did not have the words. Within that pool of night I would begin to hear footsteps, and a strange voice speaking unknown words, along with odd clicking sounds. Hisses and cooing sounds also surrounded me, as though doves and snakes were whispering just beyond the fringes of the road. Which I made clear was the same street just outside our safe and solid red brink ranch home on Stevens Drive in Kershaw, South Carolina, creating even more of a consternation to them both.

Keep in mind, these were dreams, and dreams are known by all to be fantastical presentations of the subconscious. But, are they simply that, as if the human subconscious can ever be labeled as simple? But to my father Willis and mother Jean, 32-33 and 31-32 respectively, they were nightmares invading not only the sleep of their child but the peaceful continuance of their nights. I was told I howled in my sleep when visited by these dreams.

We all need sleep. And we all sleep better when we sleep deeply and long. “It is known.” Perhaps so to other cultures, but not to ours of that time. Of course there was Freud, and Jung, and all their ilk to come soon after. There was Jung’s concept of the underlying archetype (to which I have a strong tendency to adhere) and in 1959 there were kinds of packaged classic Westernized behavioral psychology standards to which nightmares neatly fit, with all the standardized explanations issuing from just as many active imaginations, but they had degrees on their walls. Dr. Spock was the go-to child therapist of that era in popular magazines, and I doubt my parents found much solace within his stern pronouncements.

But to a little kid waking up in cold sweats and at times wetting the bed in sheer fright of what he could not comprehend, he could only describe the very prominent role of lightning bugs that blinked on and off in unitary purpose, the eerie on and off, the odd singing pattern of a voice speaking words I couldn’t describe when Mom and Dad both would query me as to what the man was saying. The clicking sounds he made. The odd way he looked; very dark, with cracked skin in patches of yellow, turquoise, and white. His eyes were yellow; I told them all as best I could. He would almost fade into the blackness of the night even when the lightning bugs revealed him. He came and went, he came and went. Like the on and off of the illuminating bugs. Even his footsteps were odd. There was a kind of pattern to them somehow. And all these disparate parts worked together in synchronization like a dance.

I remember, when they finally realized all the lightning bugs were synchronized in their on/off state, Dad said “Son, that’s just not possible.” Not only was it possible in a dream state, but in the real world, the concrete world, there are species of fireflies which do that very thing. But no one knew this then. It is said to be something to behold in seeing great swarms of them, and I one day hope to visit whatever land they are in to experience the sight. I’m guessing by now I don’t have to explain why. I also will guess they exist as well in Australia.

We can only speak of what we know, and being a little kid, I knew very little in terms of trying to describe or explain to anxious, sleep-deprived parents just what I saw in these dreams. They focused on the man, and asked me repeatedly to describe him. After many fitful false starts, I finally blurted out, “He looks sorta like Uncle George?” Which really wasn’t exactly the case but in my frustration I thought it would suffice. Considering the racial stereotypes of that famously popular ensemble comedy which really often had more to do with adult concepts of segregation and otherness than we kids picked up on, that altered the outcome of the solution of my parents’ immediate problem. They both looked at each other, then back at me.

This shared tidbit of explanation only succeeded in getting the Little Rascals banned from our TV screen with added dire warnings of what would happen if they found out I was watching it anywhere else in my known universe of Kershaw and Lancaster counties. For in Mom and Dad’s minds, it was a Eureka! moment in which they had—in perfect parental partnership—divined the origin of their little boy’s night terrors. I tried and tried to explain I wasn’t scared of Uncle George, or anything on the Little Rascals, but, no matter, a telepathic conference of the parental kind must have arisen through their shared intuition which made my tiny bedroom on Stevens Drive now peculiarly similar to Boston, Massachusetts, with Bostonian’s peculiar fondness for censoring all things they judged disagreeable with a peculiar public relish. I remember going back to sleep the night of the ban more both sad and angry than still being frightened of the lightning bug man, because how was I even going to be sociable with other kids now that I was forbidden to watch the Little Rascals?

Such are the minds of little children when explanations are far shy of succeeding in communicating with the adults around them. This was not a unique, nor was it a new feeling which arose that night in frustration at not being able to get my ideas across without becoming all jumbled up in translation. It’s a shame really, that we grow out of understanding kidlish.

It seemed my somewhat regular dream of the lightning bug man did not conform to my parent’s proscriptions, and living in mortal fear as to what other favorite TV show might be made off limits from one wrong slip of the tongue detailing what I was dreaming about in nightmares eventually created in me a stubborn unwillingness to share such things within a year of the ban. By age six, I’d learned to successfully evade all questions, rub my eyes, and sleepily ask to be allowed to go back to sleep. This seemed to solve the immediate problem of the parents appearing above me as I awoke from that recurring dream or any of the plethora of others I could experience at any given moment during sleep, for both of them truly wanted to help the little fella “get back to sweet dreams.” They also truly wanted to get back to the Land of Nod themselves before the first rush of sunlight penetrated the sheers in their corner bedroom. I truly wanted to retain my TV patterns, and had learned that silence was indeed golden, if not really comforting.

I have to chuckle as the thought just occurred to me that maybe 1959 was the womb of my addiction to CBS television’s Route 66 (which did cause more than a few nightmares, one of which was also recurring and involved a “wolf tree”) which I now have learned was the very first episode of that show in the fall of 1959. It was pretty spooky actually. That episode really creeped me out, for the subtleties of it’s presentation only succeeded in providing more grist to the mill of my four year-old mind’s lack of understanding of the plot. But there was no way in hell, (which was an even scarier concept mentioned often enough in the Methodist Church on Sundays and in various contexts throughout the two extended families I descended from) that I was going to spill the beans on the source of those related nightmares, which caused very similar symptoms to appear as I slept, before being jostled from so-called sleep by one or both still-concerned parents.

In time I learned to grin and bear it, living with the embarrassing outcomes at times, and over time, little by little, the dreams became more of a routine, and definitely were regular customers after sleep fell upon the store of my mind’s wares.

As to the lightning bug man with the clicking speech? He remained, and was a frequent visitor, with each dream over time revealing a little more in the progression of where I was in the dream, always beginning in the pitch dark at the bottom of the hill on Stevens Drive, where there were nothing but dense trees on either side of the inky night veil. It was always upon taking my first steps back up the hill when I first sensed, then heard him inching up behind me, always revealing his presence in little stages of events between the on and off cadence of the lightning bugs. As for me within the dream, no matter the age I was in reality, I was always around age five.

When I arrived at USC in Columbia in the fall of 1977, I enrolled in the Anthropology department as a double major to studio art, specifically in the arena of Ethnicity and Folklore, Art of Indigenous Cultures. It was during those studies that certain elements began to shed light on my dream, or more likely accelerated it’s intensities, bringing about an even eerier consideration of what it may be related to. By then though, I was only 22, and there were six more years to come of seeing the lightning bug man in dreams, as he became more prominent, closer to me, and far less frightening. Near the end, he was far more of an intriguing curiosity and a friendly presence before he finally reached out with his hand six years later to say goodbye.

Throughout the decades, my fascination with dreams has become a very large part of my being; it certainly has fed my art for many, many years. Joseph Campbell often taught, with varied presentations and subtle differences based on the context, that dreams are private myths, and myths are public dreams. I have every so often met people who proclaim they have never dreamed. Never had a nightmare. I have always looked at them with what I hope at least is a poker face, concealing a full house of dreams, and a sincere compassionate sorrow for their loss.

This is the first installment of a series of blogs reflecting on dreams. As it tells the story of one extremely long-lived sequential dream, nearly epic, it will be 2-3 segments over the course of the next few weeks, including art that stemmed from it’s appearance over the years.

Tom

Almost born on the hospital steps of Camden in a rush to be on time...