Read Old Man Scanlon


09 January 2011

As a geek who finds much of human contact enervating, but who has always been well-served by a small talent for manipulating symbols and by dogged persistence (leavened by occasional flashes of intuition and insight), I spent most of my adult working life fixing software bugs. This has precious little connection to the bugs, arachnids, and occasional annelid with whom I misspent my youth, except that both careers were well-suited to someone who loves to study things and figure out how they work.

Bugs occupied hours of my youthful days. I watched them, played with them, and massacred them, as did all the kids I knew. The Japanese beetle was our bête noire. The term "Japanese" carried baggage in 1960. "Made in Japan" evoked the same reaction as "Made in China" does today—cheap crap. People who lived through the war in the Pacific, whose memories of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima were not yet twenty years old, did not necessarily have warm and fuzzy feelings about Japan. It's human nature for such feelings to persist—my Uncle Edward to this day will not buy a Japanese car.

japanese beetle

So Japanese beetles, invasive pests, were fair game. Though recently I went an entire summer without seeing one, fifty years ago they were everywhere, and they ate almost anything. Rose bushes, the grapevines at the far edge of our back yard, and even the arbor vitae around the house were our prime beetle hunting grounds. They were so plentiful you could bag a handful of four or five at once off a single rose. Clawed legs straining, they'd try to squirm their way out of our clenched fists. With hardened hearts we carried them to their almost certain doom. We'd drown them in jars of soapy water, hurl them onto the driveway pavement to stun them before stepping on them, incinerate them with a magnifying glass, or toss them into the funnel webs of grass spiders. A lucky few managed to escape.

Even in our frenzies of premeditated beetle murder we noticed their marvelous warm chestnut brown and glossy deep green. We observed that the beetles often extended their hind legs just before flying off, so if you saw those legs raise up, you had to grab fast. Some beetles seemed to be into piggybacking, which we noted but could make no sense of at the time.

We determined that beetles made lousy fishing bait. Digging worms instead, we'd occasionally find beetle larvae, grubs with distinctive sunny-side-up-yellow heads. One time Dru Burns, the girl across the street behind whose back yard we first discovered digger wasps, assured us younger kids that if we dug deep enough we'd reach a region of fire and gravel. Try as we might we could never break into those promised upper reaches of Hell.

Apart from our coleopteran genocide, we generally dealt benignly with other bugs, or at least with no more than the casual cruelty of the clueless; they were in fact objects of interest. We captured honeybees in empty peanut butter jars as they diligently foraged for pollen on clover and dandelions, the ostensible danger of stings adding piquancy to the chase. The tricky part was catching a new one without letting any of the current detainees get out. Pete Blaisdell solved this problem by using a narrow perfume vial, into which he crammed bees with his pinkie. Fearless, he also regularly handled huge scary black and yellow garden spiders.

A myriad of other bugs caught our attention. There were praying mantises—large enough to be small mammals—swaying eerily on long legs, and dragonflies, fearless aerobatic assassins, wings rustling, simultaneously reminiscent of helicopters and biplanes. Earwigs, entirely too common, we deemed disgusting and weak; their pincers held no terror for us. Wading in a small neighborhood pond, we collected leeches on our exposed calves. And roaming in the woods on rare occasion we'd find a molted cicada skin.

In the eaves-sheltered dry sandy backfill around his house's foundation, my grandfather once showed me ant-lion pits. I like to imagine it was his own grandfather—he would have been pushing a hundred—who initiated him into the ways of the ant-lion. Now that I've found them at my own house I've forged another link in the chain. Even my granddaughters, who will spend hours nursing a mangled caterpillar until it finally and inevitably expires, watch gleefully as we send ants down into the ant-lion's pit, geometry, gravity, and a voracious predator at the bottom conspiring against them.

Another time at my grandparents' house, as I lay sweating in the infernal Pioneer Valley dark waiting for sleep to come, I heard the sharp metallic snick of some nightmare Grendel clipping his toenails under my window, biding his time until the opportune moment to strike. My grandmother shone a flashlight out the window to indulge me, and declared the coast was clear. But I knew better. She didn't think it was worth mentioning the katydid gearing up for his evening courtship gig. Of course, I wouldn't have believed that story either.