Friday, February 17, 2012

Year of the Locusts

Recently, I watched the movie Lucas, starring the late Corey Haim as a troubled teenager in the Chicago suburbs by the name of—you guessed it—Lucas. To most people, it's a bittersweet, coming-of-age comedy-drama. To me, it's a horror story.

In the first scene, we see Lucas fascinated by the sight of a cicada—often incorrectly referred to as a "locust"—molting. The scene is a metaphor, of course; as the insect leaves its exoskeleton behind, so will Lucas, by the end of the movie, leave his childhood behind. As if the metaphor weren't obvious enough, we have the similarity of the names: "Lucas" and "Locust." Cute, huh? It makes my flesh crawl just thinking about it.

Later, there's a scene in which Lucas and several other teenagers are riding in a convertible driven by a young, pre-tiger-blooded-and-fire-breathing-fisted Charlie Sheen. Something smacks the windshield, a girl begins screaming, Charlie loses control, and the car goes into the ditch. Lucas, who is, among other things, an amateur etymologist, explains that they have run into a swarm of "locusts," and that the insects are "harmless." (How many times have we heard those words in a horror movie, just before everything starts to go wrong?) The girl begins screaming again when she realizes that one of the insects is in her hair. I couldn't blame her. I felt like screaming, too. As a matter of fact, I think I did scream.

David Seltzer, who wrote and directed Lucas, was born in 1940 in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois. That would make him about the same age as Lucas when the Northern Illinois Brood of Magicicada septendecim, or seventeen-year-locust, emerged in 1956. The next emergence was in 1973, my senior year of high school. My family had moved from Indiana to the Chicago suburb of La Grange, Illinois, just a few years before that. We had no idea what was coming.

Sure, we had cicadas in Indiana. Every spring they emerge from the ground in their nymph state, shed their skin, and fly off to mate, lay their eggs, and die by the end of summer. You rarely see them, but you might find an empty exoskeleton stuck to a tree trunk, and on lazy summer afternoons, you might hear the soft, soporific buzz of their mating call.

We knew all about common, garden-variety cicadas, but we knew nothing of periodic cicadas, or Magicicada. In certain parts of the country (including Northern Illinois), every thirteen or seventeen years (depending on the species), enormous broods of insects emerge at once—up to 1.5 million per acre. It's nature's way of triumphing over predators by sheer force of numbers.

Technically, Lucas was right—they are harmless. They don't bite or sting. They won't even eat your plants. However, they will seriously freak you out.

I was walking home from a friend's house late one night when I saw my first. While waiting to cross 47th Street, I noticed several exoskeletons clinging to the street light pole. When I looked closer, I saw something emerging from one of them—a strange, pale thing with beady red eyes, about the size of the end of my index finger. Like Lucas, I was fascinated.

It wasn't long before fascination turned to horror.

Within days, we couldn't go outside the house without being dive-bombed by what looked like giant, red-eyed horseflies from hell. We couldn't leave the dog out in the yard, for fear the insects would drive him crazy. We couldn't even leave the windows open, because the roar of their mating call was deafening. When my aunts came to town to attend my high school graduation, we ran out to their car with umbrellas to shield them from attack. At the graduation ceremony, there were quite a few uninvited guests buzzing around the auditorium.

Then, just as quickly as they had arrived, they began dying. By the thousands. They covered the ground. You couldn't drive down the street without running over them. You couldn't walk down the sidewalk without stepping on them. And everywhere there was this weird, sickening smell—the sweet, organic aroma of hundreds of thousands of squashed, decaying cicadas.

Not long after that, my parents moved away from Northern Illinois, and I am happy to say that I have never witnessed another emergence of Magicicada septendecim. The next appearance of the Northern Illinois brood will be in 2024. I understand that Deerfield, Illinois, will be celebrating with a "Cicadia Mania" festival. Maybe I should go. They say it's good to confront your fears.

On second thought, maybe I should try to get through Lucas without screaming first.

Magicicada septendecim

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Name Game

In an earlier post, I told you a little about my Aunt Vonna. In her later years, she worked for Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, where she began collecting unusual names. (One of her favorites was "Rollin A. Snoball.") Inspired by her, I started collecting names I came across while doing research for the tax software company where I work. Most of the following names come from court opinions, and are therefore a matter of public record. (Like everyone, I get lots of interesting names in my spam folder, but I suspect they are all made-up.)

I'm particularly fond of alliterative names: Aida Abiog, Bengt Bengtson, Beverly Bernice Bang, Benson B. Berry, Breece Bartle Bull, Buffy Bush, Brandon Buster, Curtis D. Custis, Faris Fink, George Georgeff, Geeti Ghose, Grid Glyer, Gloria Gong, Gregory Goosby, Holly Hops, Henry Hungerbeeler, Jerry DeJesus, Julie Jebe, Jerry Junker, Kendricks Kilcrease, Lonnie Lakes, Mary Midgett, Melony Mogg, Paulius Pitts, Robin Riblet, Tracey Topping, Winifred Wackman, Wickie Whalen, Willie Whipple.

Charles Dickens was a collector of odd names, and many of the names I have come across sound as if they might have come from one of his novels (or from a W.C. Fields or Marx Brothers movie): Fred Aftergut, Carolee Flygare Argyle, Muhammad Butt, Buddy Creech, Horace Crump, Whistle Currier, Welbon DeLon, Regina Dipple, Alduff Doody, Fuchon D. Drain, Remington P. Fairlamb, Bushwa Farmer, Stephen P. Fattman, Kendrix D. Feemster, Luckens Felix, Melody Fucaloro, Kevin A. Goon, Denelda Sims Goolsby, Cornish F. Hitchcock, Zellard Lemon, Worth Z. Ludwick, Veena Luthra, German Miranda, Benny Nipps, Thurman L. Phemister, Dan Pickell, Otis and Tabitha Pimpleton, Wonderlyn Lorraine Bell Pinckney, Ilya Roytburd, Sally Rudrud, Ion Semen, Roland Slugg, Agripina Smith, Marietta Squibb, Ronald Stinchcomb, Gregory Q. Teeters, Marshall Tingle, Sophie Tittle, Vicky Titsworth, Dempsie Word, Emory Zipperer.

Some names are cute: Forrest Bird, Birdie Felt, Brenda Dandy, Gigi DeVault, Misty Dewey, Haidee Joy, Constance Lovelady, Corky and Rocky Self. However, there's a fine line between cute and "what on earth were the parents thinking?": Wyn Dee Stone, Unique Parks, Uneek Lowe. (I guess Uneek's parents didn't think spelling her name in the traditional way was "unique" enough.) And it's hard to believe that two generations could make the same mistake, but a surprising number of funny names are juniors: Proctor Hug, Jr., Magellean Askew, Jr., Denver C. Snuffer, Jr., Insel V. Gaitor, Jr.

Finally, there are the odd and oddly fitting names: Philander Jenkins and Chucky Wanton are convicted criminals, while Willie Outlaw and Francis Bogus were caught cheating on their taxes. Brett Gumlaw and Brian A. Turney are, as you might guess, lawyers.

Come to think of it, because most of these names come from court opinions, quite a few of them belong to either criminals or lawyers.

I could be in big trouble.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Close Encounters of the Slippery Kind

Last week, I was talking to a co-worker who moved to Tehachapi several years ago. She told me she had recently taken a tumble on some black ice. Now, there's something you don't hear much in Southern California. I remember telling a friend about black ice shortly after we moved here, and he had no idea what I was talking about. (He happened to be African-American, and he thought I was saying "black guys"—as in "I'm afraid of black guys.")

The trouble with black ice is you can't see it. Pavement covered with black ice looks just like pavement not covered with black ice, which is why they call it "black ice." One of my most memorable experiences with it happened about thirty years ago. I was leaving a rehearsal at the Civic Theatre in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It had rained earlier in the evening, then the temperature dropped, turning paved surfaces into something akin to glass coated with Vaseline. I made it across the parking lot, but when I pulled on the handle to the car door, Newton's Third Law (you know, the one about equal and opposite reactions?) took over. The next thing I knew, I was lying on my back, under the car, looking up at the stars. At least I think there were stars. Maybe I was just seeing stars.

My last encounter with black ice was eighteen years ago, when Loretta and I were living in North Tonawanda, New York. I had been off work for several days with bronchitis. (It seems like I got bronchitis every winter when I lived back east.) I was still sick, but I was determined not to miss another day of work. I knew that my customary route along the Niagara River between North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls was often icy in winter, due to mist from the river. I had seen ice on River Road several times in the past, and had managed to navigate it without incident. Unfortunately, on this particular morning, I couldn't see the ice.

My first indication that there was going to be trouble was the sight of brake lights about a half mile ahead, weaving dizzily from one side of the road to the other. Now, I am not completely stupid. I learned to drive in the Midwest. I know that you never stomp on the brakes in winter. I did not panic. I remained calm. I ever-so-gently tapped the pedal with my toe, as if testing the water in a bathtub that might be filled with piranhas. The car immediately went into a skid.

I did not panic. I remained calm. I turned the wheel in the direction of the skid, which is what they always say is the right thing to do. It didn't work, so I tried turning the wheel in the direction opposite the skid, which is what they always say is the wrong thing to do (even though it feels like the right thing to do). It didn't matter. The car had made up its mind where it was going to go—all I could do was hang on and enjoy the ride.

After the car and I came to rest in the ditch, I climbed out into two feet of snow to inspect the damage. Even if I could have gotten out of the ditch without a tow truck, the right front tire was flat. I did not have a cell phone. (The only person I knew back then who had a cell phone was my brother-in-law, Rob. It was the approximate size and weight of a cinder block.)

All I could do was start walking and hope that I found a phone before I a) froze to death or b) died of pneumonia. Fortunately, there was a convenience store with a pay phone about a half mile up the road. I called AAA, and I called Loretta and asked her to come get me and take me home. I also called my office and told them I would not be returning to work that day.

Later that year, when Loretta was offered a job in California, it was a difficult decision for her to leave friends and family in Buffalo. It was not a difficult decision for me. There are a lot of things I miss about Buffalo—the people, the food, the culture. I do not miss the winters. In fact, I will do anything I can to avoid spending another winter in New York, Indiana, or anywhere else that has black ice. I would urge you to do the same, if you can.

Also, if you're sick, do yourself a favor and just stay home.