My uneasy relationship with insects started at an early age.
I don’t like bugs. Slithering, crawling, flying, it doesn’t matter, I find them unnerving. To this day, I jump a little when one of our six-legged friends shows up without warning. But I came by this condition honestly.
Some of my earliest memories are pre-school days spent with my grandparents, who lived next door. Grandpa Mike was dealing with an ant infestation the way everyone his age was trained to: aggressively, with the deadliest chemicals money could buy. He was spreading a little Chlordane around the base of the house, mixing the milky white substance into a watering can. And I, his four-year old assistant, was getting in the way.
The smell was familiar, like the clouds of spray that we’d see in the summer. Municipal trucks would drive by on summer evenings, belching out thick, fluffy clouds of poison, leaving a fog that made it impossible to see the other side of the street. Even though I wasn’t allowed to run behind the trucks like the other kids, I could still catch a whiff from the porch as the ghostly fumes slowly settled on the lawn.
Now I watched as Grandpa sprinkled the deadly mix along the baseboards. I picked up the brown glass bottle to admire the cheerful tin soldier marching on the label. Grandpa tells me to put it down and come see. In the pale puddles at my feet, hordes of ants writhed and twitched. They didn’t stand a chance.
As Grandpa continued, I stood back, hooking my fingers in empty belt loops at my waist. I liked to keep my hands in a safe place. But something felt strange. Stinging. I didn’t understand, and looked down at my left hand, still hooked in the jeans. I could feel the flush of fear spread up my arm and into my face.
There on my tiny hand was a big black bug the size of an almond. Its shiny wings flapped and its mandibles sunk into my skin. I screamed, struggling to untangle my fingers so that I could shake off the critter. I wriggled and jumped and cried out. Grandpa put down the can and came to help. He didn’t see the bug, but surmised that it might have been a horse-fly. I knew one thing: I have met the enemy, and it is bugs.
From this moment on, I am in an adversarial relationship with the insect world. When I encounter closeup pictures of caterpillars and beetles in the Encyclopedia Britannica, I am afraid to touch the brilliant color plates. When I enter the attic after the long winter, only to feel the brittle carcasses of dead flies beneath my stocking feet, I want to vomit. A short clip of Vincent Price watching a giant spider menacing a tiny human on the 4:30 Movie sends me to my room in silent terror. “Help Me!” indeed.
Why were bugs so scary to me?
Perhaps my earliest memory, more of a sensation, really, is laying in a hammock on a summer’s day while my mother and her sorority sisters gather for lunch. I was an energetic three-year old, getting restless, and wanted to play. But mom told me not to move. There was a spider in the grass, she said. I imagined something huge and hairy, waiting to hurt me. So I gripped the narrow canvas tightly, trying not to move even as the gently swaying hammock was surely signaling my presence. Strangely, mom and the sisters continued to talk and laugh.
I laid there a long time, face pressed into the fabric, damp from my open mouth. The coffee klatch continued until eventually, she told me it was time to come inside. But I’d spent what seemed like all afternoon fearing what lay beneath me. I hesitated, unwilling to put my bare feet into the grass. Eventually she dragged me into the house. Nothing more was said about the spider. But I never forgot.
Later, in kindergarten, I receive an awful wind-up tin spider as a gift. I refuse to take it out of the box — which I can barely touch. This mechanical monstrosity has four legs that wiggle furiously in order to skitter across the floor. My father could not stand to see his son “act like a baby.” So he winds up the toy, and proceeds to chase me through our tiny house until I am cornered in the living room, the sound of the whizzing, clattering metal setting my teeth on edge.
“You see, it’s not real! It’s just a toy, Joseph. You have nothing to be afraid of!” So he says.
By the time I reach fifth grade, there are bigger concerns. I want to do everything I can to make friends. There’s a new boy in class, Mickey, who is taking a while to fit in. I approach him, and learn we share a love of soldiers, space ships and sci-fi. Soon he reveals something that rolls it all up into one awesome, if highly inappropriate package.
Topps Bubble Gum released a notorious set of trading cards called “Mars Attacks!” Far more transgressive than the goofy ‘90s movie, these little pop-art travesties featured ghoulish paintings of aliens laying waste to our planet with fire, ice… and giant insects. According to the matter-of-fact mythology of the cards, all the bugs on earth were enlarged to 500 times natural size. I blanched at the sight of soldiers and civilians devoured by beetles the size of Volkswagens. Disgusting… and I couldn’t look away.
Mickey delighted in reading the purple prose, emphasizing the goriest details. “The soldiers were cut down by the searing rays!” He also enjoyed my discomfort. It was as plain as a giant caterpillar knocking over the Eiffel Tower. He suggested that I take the cards home to read them through — and give him a full report. Turns out that Mickey had a sadistic streak, but I didn’t have words for it at the time. All I knew is that I wanted to make a friend. So I accepted his offer and smiled weakly.
Walking across the street from school, I gripped the deck of cards. How would I deal with them? What will Mom say if she sees them? What was more important, my friendship or my fear? I was so wrapped up, I didn’t hear the woman scream, much less the roar of the oncoming engine. But I do recall the whooshing blur of the car right before my eyes, as the rear view mirror clips my arm and spins me around. The sky whirls before me as the cards go flying from my hands. The intersection is littered with lurid captions like “Creeping Menace!” “High Voltage Execution!” and “Mars Explodes!” (excuse the spoiler.)
I survived the accident with a bruised elbow and sprained foot. I’ll never forget that night, how the impact replayed over and over as I tried to sleep. It was my first experience with real physical trauma. I spent the next day recouperating — and looking through the trading cards. The cartoonish violence and grisly details were both thrilling and unsatisfying.
Running my fingers over the garish images I knew, on some level, there’s worse things in life than bugs. Like people you love who can’t or won’t return the love you offer. There are more important things to be concerned about. Like looking both ways when you cross the street. Who needs make-believe mayhem after having your toes crushed by a Buick?
I still don’t like insects, but they don’t bug me so much.
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