Just the other night, my seven-year-old daughter trudged up and held out the ruins of her Fourth of July night light.
The half-dome LED had projected fireworks and stars on her bedroom walls for nearly three years. Now it was deader than Jimmy Hoffa. The black plastic dome holding the stenciled shapes had caved in like a cheap hardhat and the plastic above the LED circuit board had cracked.
Worse than that, my little girl was in tears.
“C-can you fix it?” she asked and handed it to me with the gravity of handing a hurt kitten to a vet.
I knew right away I could not. It wasn’t the crushed dome that concerned me, that could pop right back out. The sputtering LED lights could not. Normally, the tiny red, white, and blue bulbs would glow brightly steadily or in sequence. Only the red LED flashed weak and random now.
I didn’t bother asking what had happened. Best guess was a little 7-year-old foot had stepped on it. There was no point in aiming blame. Whatever had happened, the resulting broken night light had been punishment enough.
“Sweetie,” I said. “I can’t fix it.” I pointed to the flickering red LED. “That’s a broken connection there. Even if I opened it, my sausage fingers couldn’t repair those teeny tiny wires.”
“Very teeny. Thinner than an ant’s eyelash,” I said. I hope this would cheer her up. It did not. It cracked a seal in her and she bawled.
“I c-can’t sleep without a light,” she said.
I parent panicked internally. She was tired and crying and I REALLY didn’t want to drive to the store. “How about a lantern? Or one of those big Halloween pumpkin necklaces light?” I asked. Like most parents, I had a wide array of flashlights around the house.
No dice. She cried and shook her to head. “Those are too bright*.”
*Now, I know some of you reading this are thinking Don’t coddle your kids. I never got a night light. Didn’t need one. It’s exactly that parenting that’s making kids weak. They have to get—
Hush. Folks, life is hard and bookended by oblivion. Kids don’t need to discover that prematurely. lf kids want a night light, give ‘em a damn night light. They’ll figure out the rest in time.
PS—And you probably weren’t as tough as you think.
I slowly shook my head. “I don’t have any extra night lights. Not like that,” I said.
Anticipating the next question, I continued, “And it’s almost nine. It’s too late to go to the store.” We had no extra night lights. No colored lights, except strings of Christmas lights buried in the basement. No glow sticks. No gels or tinted cellophane to dim the bright flashlights.
Her tears welled again. That’s the worst crying. The silent kind. She looked down at the broken night light. Her little hands tried twisted the halves together to fit, pressing the on/off switch over and again. Finally she simply jiggled it.
This futile display was even more heartbreaking than the tears.
There’s something about kids openly crying that strikes a kind of practical genius (I use genius loosely) in parents. I’d like to say that’s the result of love, but I think it has more to do with the preservation of sanity and experience handed down from one set of humans to another since the days of mammoths. An all-out crying jag can just about kill a parent.
On a shelf in my living I have a collection of souvenirs and knick-knacks from the Hoosier Slide, a 200-foot tall sand dune that once towered over Michigan City, Indiana. This Midwest mountain had been shaved down over the years by the glass industry, which had discovered the quality of the fine sand was unparalleled.
The combination of iron oxide and silica in the sand of the Indiana Dunes resulted in a blue so distinctive it became known as Ball Blue (named after the company that made the glass popular) since the Ball Brothers made millions from producing the blue canning jars.
I call it Hoosier Blue.
Besides the souvenirs, paperweight, and books, I had three of those Ball Brothers jars. The Hoosier Blue was still there, but those were too thin and would do nothing to soften the electric lantern light.
But the Hoosier Blue Hemingray telephone insulators I had were just right.
From 1900 to approximately 1920, the Hemingray Glass Company mounted millions of these glass insulators (which looked like little round hats) on telegraph and telephone poles across the country. These insulators allowed flammable telephone poles to “conduct” electricity hundreds of miles away.
During its long production history, Hemingray produced a variety of colorful glass insulators. Purple, black, yellow, green…but by far its most popular were those made from the sand dunes of Indiana’s northern lakeshore. Not Ball Blue. Hoosier Blue. I had three, all in excellent condition.
Making the night light with this antique insulator wasn’t brain surgery. I held the heavy glass—about the size of a Yankee Candle lid but five times heavier—sat it on top of the folding electric lantern’s quarter-sized spotlight, duct-taped one to the other, then turned it on.
Then we shut off her overhead bedroom light.
For about twenty seconds, my daughter and I sat on her narrow pink bed, looking at walls which had turned into in a rich aqua. It was like the color of the sky meeting the sea, or deep Caribbean water or seeing the bluest blue mixed with the lightest green or…
Describing Hoosier Blue is almost impossible. Analyzing and naming it was just as difficult. It had been categorized under a hundred names, (including the trademarked “Hemingray Blue”). Online color analyzers scrambled to ID it.
Here’s a FEW results: Strong cornflower blue. Deep sky blue. Cerulean blue. Cloudy blue. Blue whale. Prussian blue. Pacific blue. Eastern blue.
Ball blue. Grey blue. Horizon. Hippie blue. Dirty blue. Dusty teal. Sea turtle green. Blue chill. Nice blue. Dark cyan…
Colors, layers, proportions, hues, intensities…Hoosier Blue was like Crayola calculus. In my seldom-humble opinion, the color is a mongrel collection of distinct blues, fused together by time and pressure to form something more than the sum of its parts.
By the way, THAT just happens to be one definition of art.
That’s going Hallmark, I know, and often times it’s best to just sit back and appreciate things without gutting them like a frog in freshmen biology.
I explained to my daughter we were seeing a color made by sand that had been shaved off tens of thousands of years ago and ground down by glaciers larger than Indiana. This sand had fallen into Lake Michigan and spent millennia being churned to smoothness in the cold water, then had rolled onto the lakeshore to form tall, swollen dunes.
“120 years ago,” I told her, “little kids just like you played in that sand. Climbing up a mountain of sand with their hands and feet and then sliding back down, chased by a rooster tail of more sand. It was so fun that even boring parents like me joined in from time to time.”
This sold her on the new night light. Fifteen minutes later she was sleeping in her newly blue-washed bedroom.
A week later and the makeshift night light isn’t going anywhere. Now I am coming up with a way of installing a small LED bulb in a wooden base (probably made of poplar since it’s Indiana’s state tree) and then fixing the insulator to the base.
For now, the Hoosier Blue night light, and that five-minute history lesson, is all my daughter needs.