Exactly How Close Is Close Enough In Nature?



I spent 21 years in the United States Air Force. When you are part of a military organization for that length of time, you pick up a few expressions. One of them I picked up was a comment that was almost certain to be made when some first-termer who had done less than his best at something claimed that it was "close". "Close," he would immediately be told by the nearest NCO, "only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."

In the second grade, I became fascinated by something I was taught about butterflies: they came out of things called cocoons. I lived in New York City in those days, on Staten Island, which was as different from anything you probably think of as New York City as anything could be. A lot of Staten Island was almost as rural in those days as Pine and Strawberry are today. The Boy Scouts from the other four boroughs of New York used to come over to Staten Island to go on hikes and camp-outs.

That being the case, I just knew that somewhere close to my home there lurked a butterfly cocoon -- maybe two or three. Maybe hundreds!

I set out to find them. I looked all summer, without any luck. Toward fall, as school began again, my hopes waned. Then came winter. I gave up. But one wintry day as I was walking down a back lane I spotted something on a tree limb in a snowy back yard.

Was it?

Could it be?


Yes, it was!

I climbed into the yard and grabbed what was mine by right of discovery, afraid that if I went around to the front door and asked for it, I might be turned down.

My prize was huge, a cocoon the size of a small sweet potato. The butterfly within it, I imagined, had to be some great, rare thing with wide-spreading wings traced with beautiful colors and shapes.

Then, it was home with my prize to show it to all the other kids.

What a find!

Look at the size of it!

And then the question: Where to keep it till spring?

I didn't want the precious thing within it to suffer.

The cellar was too damp. The attic was too dry and dusty. My bedroom was too subject to motherly inspections and the poking around of nosy older brothers. Ah! How about beneath the kitchen stove?


That night -- I believe it was somewhere around 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning -- a quiet neighborhood on Staten Island awoke to the screams of a hysterical mother whose kitchen walls had been invaded by hundreds of small green things with many, many legs. My two oldest brothers joined Mom with brooms, trying to stem the horde of tiny monsters emerging from beneath the stove.

Who knew that praying mantises also came in a cocoon? Or that they hatched as the warmth of spring penetrated the outer layers of a cocoon?

What the heck, that cocoon, though it wasn't exactly like the ones in the books, was certainly close.

I'll say it again: Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

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