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May, 2009

Fleas, "Pedes," and Banana Trees

by Larry

In the autumn of 1953, when I was ten, my mom, sister, brother, and I moved from just outside Omaha, NE. We left amid a blizzard, though Mom had till then no experience with driving in snow. While six months' pregnant with my brother, she had nearly been killed from a fall down the basement stairs the previous year. He had arrived about 13 months before this trip that we now made, to a rental house in San Antonio, TX. Mom wanted us to be not so far from relatives. There I went to school for the balance of the 5th grade. My dad, Leon, was overseas in the U.S. Air Force, working as an intelligence officer in the Philippines during and a little after the Korean War.

He wrote my mom and me letters in which he talked of how hot it was even late at night. After a few more months, I could tell him a thing or two about how hot it was here as well. He mentioned lizards so big they straddled the roads from side to side when they crossed and thus could bring traffic to a halt. Other lizards crept up the wall in his little room at night and would eat from the large number and variety of bugs that might crawl there while he had his desk light on, reading or writing letters. Neither in the Philippines nor in San Antonio then was air-conditioning available.

Not long afterward, I would become acquainted with quite a few lizards too, though mostly they were small horned ones or else fast stripped ones about 8-10 inches long, nothing like the road spanning monsters from Philippine jungles where the Huks were still fighting on as nationalist guerillas long after the U.S. had first occupied their country in the Spanish American War and much later freed it but kept bases there, and after the Japs had taken the country over in World War II, which the Japanese had done not long following their bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, where my dad would also be stationed for awhile, until that war ended and he helped interrogate prisoners in Japan itself under Douglas MacArthur. Some of the men he and his unit investigated were then hanged for war crimes, as they would doubtless have hung some of ours if the Japs had been among the victors in that conflict.

Before our family quit San Antonio, I would become well used to local reptile types and even kept a pair till after they had laid eggs in the screened-in cage my grandpa, Papa Frank, had built for me. But by then we lived in a newer second house, with almost no shadows in its yard on the hot summer afternoons.

Our first rental place, though, at first seemed cozily dark, with lots of great trees providing shade as well as nuts, flowers, or fruit. There we had several mature pecan trees and a pomegranate. It bore us a blood red seedy harvest.

All seemed initially to be going well for us there. I gave a stray dog, Cookie, a home, and she became my best friend ever. I began collections of large quartz crystal rocks and even of cannonballs that I found in the yard, under the house, or elsewhere on exploratory hikes. I increased my knowledge of insects over what it had been from a basic early hobby begun in VA and then continued in NE. My living or mounted collections now included praying mantises, Luna moths, large click-beetles, bag caterpillars, dragonfly nymphs, and further large moth species, among others.

Our family also got a playful kitten, distinctive for its having six toes on two of her feet.

I am not necessarily saying Mom longed for the sight of vigorous and manly flesh in those long hot San Antonio nights and months, for she might have then simply been cultivating the best available uplifting entertainment on our little black and white TV screen, but while we lived there she would each week with religious dedication watch the televised Friday night wrestling matches. It was the only time I noticed her passion for the sport, but it was certainly a most ardent pastime of hers while Dad was off in those sultry distant isles. During the eight years following his return, I acquired five more brothers!

I made a couple special friends among my classmates. One who was quite pretty had given me her picture. I sent it to show Dad. In returning it, he wrote that she was a good looking girl.

The men of the moving company had accidentally left us with a super-thick quilt, one they normally used to separate and cushion pieces of furniture during transit. Often I put this on the ground outside or on the floor in the house and used it for feats of amateur gymnastics, like standing on my head or tumbling, or for king of the mountain free-for-all games with my much younger sister and brother.

A buddy of mine from school came over occasionally. We would play with Cookie or practice tricks on that blanket in the backyard. Then he developed ringworm on his scalp, which Mom thought was contagious, so it seemed best not to let him stand on his head on our blanket anymore.

There were other not so great things that happened too. A neighbor dog that used to bark a lot was poisoned. A large breed dog that lived with an old lady across the street from us suddenly attacked her one day, for no reason she understood, and nearly mauled her to death. It had to be shot. She was taken to the hospital and stayed for awhile. Her other dog had saved her life, fighting the more aggressive one so it had stopped biting her.

Uncle John, my mother's brother, came for a short visit around Christmastime. My mother's father, whose name was John as well, had another time wanted to come see us, but I think Mom refused. He had stopped by just once that I remember. It was when we lived in VA the first time. I was about six to seven years old. It was the only time Mom had seen him since, in the 1930s, she had been nine and he had abandoned her and the rest of his family.

During his VA stay, Grandpa John made an agreement with me. He would send me a fifty cent piece for each letter I wrote to him. I did send him several over the next few months and years and saved up my fifty cent pieces for things I really wanted. I was still just mostly printing then and did not have much to write. Both these men died rather early, one of liver disease, I believe, and the other of diabetes with gangrene.

Another uncle of mine, Shelby, married to my dad's sister, Lucile, hired me for a few hours to help him while he was doing carpentry work for a family, working up on their roof and leaving a bunch of small sawed off boards that had fallen into the yard. My job was to gather up those pieces of wood. It was the first work I can remember having. I made about a dime out of one morning's work but did not care to go back after our lunch break. I do not think Uncle Shelby particularly wanted me on his payroll after that either. I was not any great shakes as a carpenter's apprentice.

I believe it was in the spring, when I was still in the 5th grade there, that the fleas started. They probably got going in the yard or in the dusty, dry calichi driveway next to the house and back. At first, nothing we tried worked against them for long.

We attempted all sorts of remedies. Once, Mom heard that banana peels helped ward them off. It probably would have taken several hundred pounds of peels to do the trick in that good sized backyard. But from somewhere she had gotten a bunch of cut up pieces of banana trees themselves hauled over, and together we ringed the whole yard with long chunks of the banana tree trunks. The fleas evidently were not at all bothered. By then they were everywhere, inside the house too. We had dozens or even hundreds of itchy flea bites on our bodies. They had gotten on my sister and brother that way too. I only learned a lot later about sulfur dust, that one can sprinkle it on one's socks to keep them away.

The fleas seemed to come in waves, and when they were worst I thought of the plagues that had affected the Egyptians because they had been keeping the Jews as slaves. I had learned about this in Sunday School. I also wondered if God were testing us as He had Job. I think we must have failed the exam.

Eventually, Mom got somebody to spray a lot of oily stuff all around outside, and that did seem to kill them. However, then we would track that sticky liquid into the house and onto the carpet, and it could never be completely cleaned up afterward.

I think all that business about the fleas and then the sticky, oily treatment was mainly why Mom decided we ought to move again. Some of our relatives who lived then in San Antonio must have helped us get our larger stuff over to the next house. It was a little bigger place than the first one, in a nicer neighborhood, and much brighter since there were few if any trees around.

We never did have trouble with fleas there, but that fall, when I started school in the 6th grade, I had to start over from scratch (no pun intended) with making friends. Of course, that was not unusual. With dad in the military and being stationed so many different locations, this was already my 9th house and new neighborhood.

That next house was close to a new car dealership. It was just being put up a little after we moved in. I remember how cool those 1954 Chevrolet convertibles looked, such an improvement over the old fashioned Ford station wagons my dad preferred!

It was also across the street from a huge vacant lot, its flat expanse broken only by wild shrubs and succulents that grew up out of the almost white, dusty, hard, and usually dry soil. It was here that I chased down and sometimes caught horned and striped lizards. Our yard too was much less moist than at the other place and so required more watering. It was in this setting, though, that I found not only the small Texas variety of scorpions, which it was best not to handle, but also the longest millipedes, or "pedes," I had ever seen. These I could and did collect by the handful.

Of course, they were not the mammoth, ancient species, among the earliest terrestrial animals, that fossils showed had existed in lengths up to five feet, nor even the modern giants of African tropical regions, which may reach 12 inches, but they were definitely not small fry either. On any given evening, with flashlight and collection jar in hand, I could acquire several as long as my hand, quite impressive enough for me.

Dad got a new assignment after his return a few months later, and soon we were off to WA State, settling then for about the next two years into a suburb of Tacoma, a land of great trees, abundant fresh fruit, red-wing blackbirds, salamanders (instead of lizards), numberless ponds, several feet a year of rainfall, and thick yellow slugs every bit as long as those San Antonio millipedes. Here I would call myself a "conservation scout," and I would soon be traipsing about the Pacific Northwest's wildernesses in search of novel adventures. Again I found the natural world fascinating! My intent and interest were not in adding to scientific knowledge but in the moment to moment experience of life's richness and variety.

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