the true stories
It is said in some legends out West that when God finished creating the world that the Devil complained that he wanted a chance to show what he could do to express himself with what was already created. God gave him a little patch to play with. Just so happened it was that part which is today called Texas. Diablo rubbed his hands together and engaged his awful imagination.
He scattered sand over much of the beautiful territory and then changed some of the plants and animals. The birds he tweaked were vultures, screech-owls and magpies. The plants were prickly pear cactus, yucca, poison oak, poison sumac, saw-grass, loco-weed, creosote, cockle-burrs and poison ivy. When he got to the snakes he changed four in particular. The rattlesnake, the cotton-mouth, the coral snake and the copperhead.
He put alkali in most of the water holes in the Pecos and alligators in the Eastern rivers. He sprinkled all this with tarantulas, black widows and scorpions. Not satisfied with this, he sharpened all the rocks and along the coast he put jelly-fish, stinging catfish, sharks and rays. He doubled the usual size of the moths and made their caterpillars bristle with poisonous stinging hairs.
Along the coast, he introduced cannibalism to the Karankawa peoples. He lassoed the sun and roped it in a little closer to make the heat more unbearable and fixed it so that the thunder-heads were bigger and the lightning bolts more powerful. He put sour gas and petroleum under the thin crust of sandstone to be discovered later and turned into money for people to fight over.
Such are the tall tales spun by the newcomers to this part of the world in an attempt to comprehend the vastness stretched out before them. First thing the Europeans noticed was that this place bit back. I behooved one to watch where they placed a foot when walking and a hand when climbing. It was well to shake out ones boots before putting them on in the morning and if something like a rattlesnake had the decency to warn you first, it was your fault if you got nailed.
A similar legend could have been woven for Louisiana's swamps. Just add more water and make the mosquitoes, cockroaches, water rats and alligators twice the size. Diablo changed the soil to Gumbo mud, a type of blue-gray clay that would suck the boots off your feet. It is said when he got to the Sabine River, he was getting tuckered out from his exertions of fixing Texas. He left a few wonderful things alone. In this lapse of malice he left alone the Magnolia flowers that smelled like a pretty girl from a mile away, honey-suckle vines and the thick fragrant Spanish moss hanging from all the trees.
I decided at around four years old in Texas that I was going to be an entomologist. I started collecting insects and carried this hobby over into Louisiana when I moved there. I had all the Herbert S. Zimm books and had memorized all the Latin names of many insects.
There was a plethora of insect life that I have only seen equaled in the Philippines and in Guatemala. My collection grew and was duly labeled and placed on Styrofoam frames for display. My greatest specimens were a type of ground-dwelling wingless wasp we called a cow killer in Texas. It is the size of a man's thumb and can sting repeatedly with its barb-less sting. Another prize was a very large cicada killer.
There were stick bugs that resembled every type of tree or shrub you could imagine and if they didn't move you could walk right past without knowing they were not made of wood. The butterflies and moths were numberless and of astonishing variety and beauty. My favorites were pipe-vine swallowtails and tiger swallowtails.
As is the climate, vegetation and fauna, so are the people. A hard place produces hard people. In Louisiana's school playgrounds this became abundantly evident. Children there at that time were not instructed to “use their words.” They were expected to use their teeth, nails, fists and feet. Recess was either thirty minutes of fighting or a half-hour of watching a fight. It was usual to come home with half a shirt and a patch of hair missing. I wrestled but I never hit back. I knew what it felt like.
I took up running laps around the perimeter of a cane-field behind the football field in the first year. It was a good release of pent-up energy and much like Forrest Gump, there wasn't any mother's son who could dream of catching up to me. Three years later, I took up exercising on the parallel bars between runs and I drew a little heat from a sixth-grader. I had the pain tolerance of a Gurkha and absolutely ignored dozens of little jabs and shoves.
One Spring our area of Baton Rouge was treated to an infestation of Buck-moth caterpillars. They marched across the hard-packed sun-baked clay in long black trains. These strands of fast-moving hunger would mount every tree in the vicinity and cloak the entire thing in thick tents of silk. Then they stripped it bare and formed up a column to descend the denuded tree.
The children and adults were very disgusted with the whole affair as the caterpillars had a horrible habit of dropping off trees onto people. It was on some days impossible to walk without murdering hundreds underfoot and woe to the unshod foot, for these worms were covered in hard spiky poisonous bristles.
A mere bump was enough to pierce the skin, break off the hollow hair and release a strong poison. Most people so stung reacted with welts, a rash and a nasty red patch that continued to hemorrhage for several days, if the individual had a good immune system. Some people got nauseous and very ill. It stung like fire when it was new and itched like hell for days afterward.
Most people had had at least one encounter in their life and gave these bugs a very wide berth. I was interested in them and spent quite a few recesses watching what they did and how they did it. I had guitar string callouses on my fingers and discovered that I could pick them up ever so gently without getting my skin pierced by the spikes. Because they had been given the European misnomer of “stinging caterpillars” it was thought by most people that they actively darted you, which was not the case. Of this they were incapable.
One day I collected a dozen or so and arranged them on my bare arms facing wrist-ward. I walked slowly around the parallel bars and out onto the baseball diamond, the football field and made sure everyone saw the spectacle. Within minutes, I was transported back in time to the first “medicine man.” From the various ethnic groups and education levels represented at my school, a gumbo of fears, awe and superstitions began to be voiced by my schoolmates trying to make sense of the unbelievable. In the end, everyone believed what they were most comfortable with personally.
Several fights broke out when two differing explanations were at logger-heads and the professors of these differing theories were deeply convinced of the rightness of their own interpretations. I had the monkey bars all to myself for a good week after that. I had the Voodoo, the Mojo, the Medicine and people didn't want to get too near.
Except for that one dang sixth-grader. The whole caterpillar affair put him in fit. It just wouldn't be the same joy coming to school if he didn't have me to bump around. It took him a week to get over his own superstitious fear and come to mess with me. I was hanging upside down by my knees and checking out what the world looked like from that perspective, when the scoundrel walked up briskly and flipped my two feet up over the bar.
I remember hitting the hard clay straight on top of my head. It was for this good fortune that I wasn't injured. I was, however, put over my tolerance level. I could have fought the guy many times with good reason for doing so but I abhorred violence and was used to taking abuse. Something in the way I hit my head elicited a response. Now that I had caterpillar mojo, I knew that magic was science not yet understood. I also knew it didn't work on the unimaginative, like my determined self appointed nemesis.
Faster than either of us was comfortable with, I was off the dirt and perched on this guy's chest. I swung four times with my right hand. My targets were his left eye, his right eye, his nose and finally his mouth. I hesitated for a second not wanting to break the symmetry and was hoisted aloft onto the shoulders of a friend of that boy for a victory parade around the school yard. No one could believe their eyes. When I saw the boy stand up I felt mighty bad but his own friends assured me and his teacher that he had asked for it.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.