I grew up playing flashlight tag. I lived in the country; the neighborhood kids would gather at my house—a big range of ages, since I was the youngest of four children. We only needed one good working flashlight. It would be dusk, the fireflies flashing on and on about a kind of desire I didn’t yet understand. The horses would be asleep in the barn, or dozing in the pastures. Our parents would be inside, knowing we were together, 10-15 outdoors-savvy kids, and if anything went wrong someone would pelt inside, calling for Mrs. Riegel.
Only once did something go wrong: my brother ran into either our cousin or a ladder, depending on which dark-confused story you believed, and his forehead swelled up with a baseball-sized lump. It was fascinating. He was a tough little kid; he sat on the couch in the tv room with ice on his forehead and our mom and the older kids made sure he didn’t fall asleep for a few hours, then woke him periodically through the night. It took weeks for the bruise to sink and drain down his face, so that at one point he looked like he had two black eyes.
But he still played flashlight tag with us. Of course. It was our best summer game.
The person who was “it” stood at the biggest tree in our back yard with flashlight in hand, and counted, loudly, backwards from 20. Sometimes it was 10, but we had a big yard and people loved to find strange hiding places—and kids loved to count too fast, so our 20 was really more like 10. On “zero” It shouted, “Here I come!” and giggles and panting were stifled behind bushes and under lawn chairs.
Older kids would sometimes wait to flick the flashlight on when they heard someone—the rule was you had to “tag” the hiders with the flashlight. I always turned it on right away and moved it around like a searchlight, which gave people warning to run and move so they weren’t tagged.
I liked hiding under the grape vines on the west side of our property. Under the car was another good place. Fast runners might just move from tree to bush to the side of the house. The barn was off-limits—too many places to hide there, so a kid might look forever. If one kid got to the tree before being tagged by the It, the game was over and It was It again. If everyone was found, It was the first kid who had been found.
It was all humid summer night air and running, the leap and gasp of the rabbit avoiding the coyote’s jaws, the body working freely, as it should, a part of the night and the grass and the pulsing fireflies. It was fake-furious whispers of “find your own hiding place!” and “good luck!” It was no one caring much who won or lost, as long as no one person had to be It too many times. And then the lit-up inside of the house, when we were done claiming the outside, the air-conditioning cooling our sweat. Glasses of lemonade, maybe a bath, teeth brushing, bed.
All summer nights should be so joyful, filled with fireworks of laughter and belonging. I keep thinking, I’ve got to play like that again. I’ve got to plan it, to make time in my schedule. But we didn’t schedule play back then. We didn’t make it happen. Somehow the word went out and kids congregated. We were just being, just rolling in the grass like puppies. The July night was there, would be there again. Meanwhile we listened for the call when one of the hiding kids eluded the searching flashlight and made it back to the home tree before all were found: Ollyollyincomefree! It meant safe passage. It still echoes in my dreams.