Sunday, July 09, 2006


I grew up at a time when bug sprays, lotions to spritz or smear on your flesh that deterred insects, and all of the chemical helping hands available today were unheard of. If they did exist, we couldn't have afforded them anyway. Defending oneself from insects was a personal thing, a war that did not end until the cold winter winds took some of them away.

Mom used kerosene to battle many bugs. Our mattresses were liberally smeared with kerosene regularly, to ward away bedbugs. It created quite an odor when one was snuggled under the sheets, but at least we were spared the itchy bites of those pests.

She also used kerosene to kill head lice. After we started school, she kept a wary eye out for the maladies children pass from one to the other. If she even detected one of us itching our scalp, it was the kerosene rinse that awaited. We were lice-free, and obviously, no one lit a match during our shampooing session. We survived it.

Most old farmhouses are beset with wasps and ours was no different. We could find no substance to deter the wasps, so one had to be constantly vigilant. You could not put on clothes without first inspecting them thoroughly, lest a stinging creature had decided to come for a visit in your shirtsleeve. Many times I have had nasty stings after donning a fresh blouse or dress. And the wasps fluttered ominously about the windowsills, occasionally soaring through the room like invading airplanes, searching for victims.

The mosquito situation was so bad that our only defense was to come indoors at dusk. Since our outhouses made going outside a necessity, one could only fight off the pesky invaders by waving the arms and jumping around. Inevitably, you returned to the house with a fresh supply of nasty welts. There was no way to avoid them.

Our biggest enemy in the insect world was flies. Flies would congregate in that farmhouse kitchen, lured by the smell of food, then congregate in all of the other rooms, buzzing about, landing on a surface only to take off again. If you were trying to read a book, engrossed in the plot, there was always that fly that decided your reading material made a good landing spot. You could swat and swing, but to no avail.

This is when Mom would organize the Dishcloth Patrol. Everyone in the house was given a dishcloth. If we ran out of dishcloths, any old rag would do. I have seen my brother, Deed, waving a pair of panties in the air.

There we were, organized into a Brigade of Flycatchers. Mom, the General of this battalion, would order us to the far corners of the living room. Then, on command, everyone would start herding flies. We moved steadily forward from room-to-room, waving frantically, determined not to let one enemy fly escape our wrath. Then, when we reached the kitchen, Mom would open the door to the porch. The Brigade approached, in a flurry of flying cloth. The flies, frightened by our onslaught, flew out the kitchen door. Only then was the Brigade dismantled and the soldiers could lay down their arms.

A little later in my life, DDT was discovered! Man, that stuff was miraculous! You sprayed it on flies or other pests and they keeled over immediately. There was no need for dishcloths, no need for flailing the air, no need to herd the flies. Unfortunately, this miraculous brew was taken off the market. So far, I know no one who has given birth to a deformed baby because of DDT, but I guess we should have known...something that powerful was bound to be problematic. Nothing in life is easy.

There is one pest we never had problems with. Our dogs had no fleas. I think I know why, but veterinarians would probably laugh at me for saying it. Fleas do not like horses. If there are horses around, there are no fleas. There. Go ahead and laugh! I still believe it is true.

You never see a horse with a hoof pulled up to his flanks, itching the fleas. They have no fleas. They use their tails to flick away flies, but seem to be immune to the itching frenzy that flea-ridden dogs will display.

Today, as I carefully administer the anti-flea medication to Jedi, making sure that little squirt of whatever-it-is is positioned carefully on the back of her neck, trying to find something that looks like flesh on that furry beast, I have often thought that it might be easier, and cheaper, to buy a horse. Then I remember the loads of hay I would have to buy and push that thought away.

Only a farmer's daughter would think with nostalgia about the bug-ridden days of her childhood, but I do think fondly of the Dishcloth Brigade and the Wasp Guard. I have a granddaughter who screams in a sudden, heart-pounding high soprano at the sight of a wasp or bee. She would have shivered the timbers of that old farmhouse, for they were a part of daily life.

We live such protected lives these days. We congregate in mosquito-sprayed, manicured, clipped and carefully planted homes, placing only the greenery that attracts butterflies and hummingbirds, feeding the colorful birds, encouraging them to visit. If we spot anything pestiferous, be it creeping, crawling, infesting a plant, or biting a human, we run for another bottle of this or that and erase it from our lives.

But perhaps we miss out on something.....I'm not sure what. I don't know the reasons for that Pandora's box of tiny perplexities that sting, bite, draw blood, and make strolls through a woods a sheer misery. But there must be something there. We all know the attributes of honey bees, but what on earth is the reason for a mosquito, other than to provide a little food for the birds, who could be eating something less voracious?

But bugs have had some purpose in my life. They have provided me with memories, some not so pleasant, like a kerosene rinse after a hearty shampoo. I can still chuckle about the thought of that Dishcloth Brigade, flapping cloths on a march through the house.

Like the pieces of cotton Mom used to place in the holes of the screen door to frighten the porch flies from entering the house, memories flap about in the winds of yesterday, some gentle breezes, some high, howling gales.

My gentle memories come to a screeching halt when, at the age of 14, Pop turned to me as we sat in the living room around the woodstove, and said, "There's a dead man in the cornfield!"

That is when the gentle breezes stopped, and the howling gales began.