‘Skeeters, nature’s guerilla fighters
June 16, 1978
Mosquitoes were a plague on my childhood during fetid mid-Illinois summers. I might have exaggerated the scale of the combat between man and beast in this piece, but I didn’t lie. I wouldn’t lie about something like that.
The mosquito putting the bite on us this year is of the ' 'flood water variety, says city health services director Jim Diekroeger. That variety breeds early, grows bigger and bites harder. He calls them downright vicious.
June 9, 1978
Two Saturdays ago I bicycled out to the Lick Creek end of Lake Springfield. There's a small woods there with a footpath that snakes its way along the shore of the sluggish, grass-clogged pond that marks the lake's westernmost terminus. Like everyone else in town, I'd heard the mosquitoes were bad this year. But I was not about to let a bunch of bugs get in the way of a pleasant morning's hike.
Mark those words, gentle reader. They are the utterances of a fool.
As I entered the tree-darkened corridors I heard a soft buzzing that seemed to rise in pitch ominously with every step I took. Then I saw them—hundreds of them in a boiling cloud, making straight for me with the unswervable determination of a process server being paid piecework rates. The buzzing rose to a shriek. They bit at my arms, my legs, my face. "Now I know," I thought to myself as I slapped furiously, "how the Denver Broncos felt in the Superbowl."
I had walked my bicycle in with me and let it fall with a clatter when the mosquitoes first hit. Suddenly at my feet I heard a loud, angry hissing noise. I glanced down at the bike and watched horrified as the hungry horde attacked the tires, puncturing them repeatedly until they were left dead and airless.
1 panicked and ran—farther into the woods. 1 couldn't see and tripped over a root or something—I found out later it was an old refrigerator—and fell headlong into a stinking mud pool. I scooped handfuls of the black muck out of the hole and smeared it on my body. That kept them off me for the moment. By then I was lost, and as I wandered around trying to get my bearings 1 saw, through a bright hole in the canopy, an impossible sight. It was a dog—an Airedale. I think, or maybe a Labrador—and it was flying! Then I looked again. It wasn't flying after all. It was being carried aloft by dozens of mosquitoes, who were flying the hapless creature off to some terrible end. As he disappeared around a bend I heard a pitiable whimpering, a sound I'd heard only once before, from the stenographer whose job it is to transcribe city council meetings every week. I turned my head, unable to watch any more.
"Raid," I mumbled to myself as I stumbled on through the woods, "I'd give my right arm for a good old-fashioned 16-ounce aerosol can of Raid Flying Insect Killer. The ozone layer be damned! I'll show 'em!" Everywhere I looked in that nightmare landscape I saw evidence of the mosquitoes' depredations. A toad sitting beside the path became, on closer examination, a leopard frog that had been stung into temporary wartiness. I noticed with a sickened feeling that the insects had even attacked plants; birch trees bore enough bumps on their bark to be mistaken by the amateur for ironwood, and even poison ivy plants—delicious irony!—were itching noticeably.
Near an open spot I stopped. I thought I'd heard a moan. I listened again. I was right. It was the voice of a man, weakly crying, "Calamine! Calamine!" as if he were dying of thirst and begging for water. I traced the sound to a loose pile of leaves and branches. He was hideously bumpy, almost cucumber-like, and his eyes burned with fear. As I sat next to him on the damp ground, beating off marauding skeeters with a stout elm branch like a coach hitting fungoes during infield practice, he told me his story.
He was a computer programmer for the state Department of Insurance, he explained. He and some friends had come to the woods on one of the Memorial Days to do some bird watching. They were attacked by mobs of mosquitoes—"as thick as politicians at a picnic," he said, trembling. His friends ran but his legs were already swollen like tackling dummies and he was forced to take refuge. He'd been there ever since. "I've already used up every last one of my personal days," he said, breaking into sobs.
He'd seen some awful things in those five days. Two days earlier, he said, a boatload of drunken fishermen had chugged into the pond from the lake side, oblivious to the danger that awaited them if they got too close to shore. "I tried to warn them" my new friend said, "but they were yelling louder than I was." The mosquitoes descended on the tipsy revelers without warning. "It looked like the food stamp window at the post office on payday," he shuddered. It was then that the mosquitoes, themselves now filled with alcohol sucked in with the blood of their victims, turned nasty and belligerent. My friend had watched as thousands of them massed for a kamikaze attack on a passing Illinois Central Gulf freight train. "The noise was unbearable," he said, putting his hands over his puffed-up ears. "The clanging they made as they slammed against the tanker cars! Their bent-up corpses lay like Schlitz cans all over—in the water, on the bridge, everywhere." I calmed him as best I could, grateful that I had been spared the sight.
It will be some time before 1 will be able to write about our escape; all I can say now is that the Air National Guard performed magnificently. I am nearly fully recovered now except for some residual lumpiness around the kneecaps. My friend has gone back to work after a sympathetic supervisor wrote off his days in the forest as a state business trip and paid him $12 a day expenses as well as restoring his personal days.
The mosquitoes are still out there. There are growing reports of missing pets in the area and one or two of missing children; a Chatham farmer says half his beef herd has mysteriously disappeared. It's no mystery to me. Somewhere, deep in the woods, those mosquitoes are having a barbeque. If I were an ear of sweet corn. I'd leave the country until things quiet down. □