Friday, January 7, 2011

Its the Little Things in Life

     Being an American on a canoe trip in Canada reminded me over and over about my Mekong Delta vacation back in the late '60s. In both places getting wet came with the territory. Likewise, you carried your stuff in a pack, slept outdoors, were at best tolerated by the locals, did your own cooking and learned that though you might be at the top of the food chain, your dues for that privilege were paid in blood. On the other hand, booby traps were almost non-existent in Manitoba. The chances of being shot when near a bear baiting barrel, at least by tracer rounds, rarely happened in the Great White North. And most of all, at least as far as I could see, the fishing in Vietnam sucked.
     The 'skeeters in the Delta were something else. In our night positions we'd roll up in our ponchos when not on watch, after slathering all exposed body parts with bug juice. By slather I mean poured it on with no regard for potential genetic consequences. Bug juice was our friend, came free and was 71% DEET. Studies have been done about the consequences of Agent Orange but what about GI DEET? We did everything but intentionally drink it. But regardless of application method, we'd wake up every morning covered with bites and down about a half-pint of precious bodily fluids. That was glass half empty. The half-full side was the resultant immunity I developed to the wimpy mosquitoes back in The World. The glass full part was the larva floating around in the glass's tepid water.
     In Canada and the BWCAW, Allan and I had the benefit of choosing both the dates and length of time of mosquito exposure. Therefore, nearly all of our trips were within two weeks of ice out or in the Dog Days of August. In the late summer it seemed the 'skeeters were too pooped to party. In the spring, the ones able to winter-over would resurrect and form clouds. When laying in the tent at night, early on we became aware of their background drone sounding much the same as traffic on the freeway a quarter mile away. It ain't loud. Its just there and almost not there simultaneously. That is, until you hear it for the first time. Then its an all-encompassing, Always There. The thought crosses your mind that if they ever got organized, no tent made in this world's gonna keep 'em out. Chaos is a good thing indeed. Your first awareness raises a primal sweat. Your conscious mind keeps repeating, " Its okay. Its okay. You're inside. They're out there," until you fall asleep. Over time, the hum becomes as much a part of the experience as spruce trees or cat holes. Finally it becomes a lullaby that rocks you to sleep all snugly warm in your bag.
     In the world outside the tent, its another story. In the canoe near sunset, glass on the water, you're nothing but flesh on the hoof. That's what the good Lord made DEET for. Gotta be careful with it for quality bug juice is also an effective fish repellent. My Uncle Emil would have told you to pee on your hands to make them smell natural again. You only took him up on that once and then had to live with his laughter for years afterwards to realize he was only funnin'.
     Coming into an early spring camp in the evening, we found the mosquitoes to be no problem at all. The early season ones were big, dumb and slow. Not like their much smaller offspring who were much faster, almost as fast as house flies, and had a bite that almost stung. If Al and I kept up a slow stroll while in camp, the mosquitoes would always show up where we'd been, not where we'd gone. We'd head into the tent one at a time. A slow, outward, twenty second, deceptive, luring trek would be followed by a two second sprint back. Just enough time to strip off boots, unzip the tent, dive in, then lock them little vampires on the outside. The inevitable three who'd been taking a break on your shirt or jacket were then smeared on the tent walls where they could be admired for years to come like works of art.
     Then there's the eternal Red Ant/Leech/Fungi versus Black Fly/Horse Fly/Tick controversy. Which was worse? Which more fearful? Which more interesting companions? Each side had its pros and cons. The only practical difference from my point of view was having to suck it up and live with it in Vietnam and our freedom to pack it up and head home when back in the World.
     Red ants, unlike the Red Chinese or the Reds from North Vietnam who seemed to have no redeeming characteristics for a GI, had both their minuses and their pluses. A wrong step in the right place brought them down on you like itty bitty, scarlet Airborne. Immediately the shout would ring out, "Get 'em off me!" We all knew what that meant and came in a hurry. Strip the jungle shirt off and it was pickin' time in the boonies. Red ants hurt like the devil.
     But they also had their fun side. Fun for you, not for them, that is. It's break time on patrol. Five minutes of smokem if ya gottem. With a little luck you'd be set up in a wood line. A quick eyeballing and maybe a thin marimba line of red, humping scraps of green and miniature body parts, comes into focus. Time for a little sweet revenge. Strike a c-ration match, fire up a two year old Winston, lay down alongside the miniature marchers, get comfy, take a drag, blow off the ash, single out one of the bad boys, lower the ember and intently listen for the satisfying 'sssssss-pop.' Win-win time in the Delta. Smokin' and incineratin'. Ugly American takin' a break.
     Leeches. I grew up with a fear of bloodsuckers. Avoided them with a passion. And I knew for sure they were waiting for me, for all of us potential paddy pounders, from the moment Uncle Sam handed out those prescription sunglasses back in Infantry Training at Fort Lewis. Once the monsoon season arrived in Southeast Asia it was leeches on your legs, leeches on your arms, leeches coming in for a midnight snack while you slept the peaceful sleep of the dead on any piece of muddy, high ground you could find. Big frickin' leeches who could eat Minnesota bloodsuckers like popcorn while watching reruns of The Munsters. When your legs started to itch, it was time to pull up your pant legs and give'm a dose of bug juice. Dropped off like the glowing gold of maple leaves on a heartfelt Minnesota fall day. No. Better make that, fell like 500 pound daisy cutters from a B-52. Yeah, that's more like it. Combat dude macho.
      And then there was a whole universe of invisible stuff that got into your your body and sprouted intricate patterns of itchy, festering, itty-bitty blisters over various limbs. They came and went as they chose. May still be there for all I know. Twenty-five years ago, my children gave me a plastic watch for Father's Day. I got a kick out of that watch. Kept perfect time. Then one fine summer day I incubated a petite nebula of ring worm beneath it. Never wore it again.
     Not even gonna bring up the big, black, bumbly-looking bees that stung the bejeezus out of Thomas C. Smith - not to be confused with either Thomas A. Smith or Thomas E. Smith, both also in Bravo Company - and Iron Mike Whitworth (You ever read this Iron Mike, remember you still owe me ten bucks).
     Back here in North America, not once did I ever see a no-see-um. On the other hand, the Boundary Waters seemed to have a hatch of black flies more often than not. There's no obvious indication you're being fed upon by a black fly until a few minutes later when the organic novocaine they'd spit on you wears off. You find yourself scratching bare spots or up your sleeves or down the back of your undershirt, most any place they can crawl. "Won't you look at that. Little trickles of blood comin' down my neck. Must have sprung a leak." Rule #1: Black flies have a passion for crawling into dark places. Keep your pants on.

     1993. Al and I have set up camp on East Pike Lake. I've solo paddled back to the portage to find a length of rope I'd dropped there. A couple of hours earlier at the access we'd been warned there was an Armageddon-like battle being waged back in the woods between the mosquitoes and the black flies. Should a canoe party pass through, the bugs would quickly sign an armistice then lay in ambush. Flies in the sun, 'skeeters in the shade. We paddled off thinking, "How bad could it be?' Allan and I had no chance.
     Returning toward camp with the errant rope, I caught sight of Al as I glided into the rock slab shore. Blue pants in boots, bright red jacket zipped to neck, gloves and hat on, bug net over hat and tied tight to neck. Looked like a Muppet who'd just stepped out of a flying saucer. That night we took the Coleman stove on the lake with us where we made dinner in the canoe. Next morning we headed back to the cabin.
     During the decade Al and I headed north to Manitoba, one of my co-workers kept bringing up the subject of horseflies. Though I'd heard they were sometimes called bulldogs in Canada - if you'd ever had a chunk taken out of your flesh by one and tried to kill it with anything short of an aluminum baseball bat, you'd know why they were called bulldogs - Allan and I had yet to see one on any of our first seven trips. Then came the fateful and ironic eighth. A later than normal start, Allan's recent bride Maria along, billions of bulldogs. Thank God for Maria! Without her, Al and I would be on the horns of the at-what-point-do-we-wuss-out dilemma. I still have what-might-have-been visions of the two of us sitting in the canoe, watching hordes of horse flies tearin' up the camp, pissed off 'cuz they could smell us but couldn't find us. And us out on the water playing Paper-Scissors-Rock to see which us is gonna take the hit for being the weenie who couldn't tough it out like a man. Like I said, thank God for Maria. We could now blame her.
     Don't have much to say about deer flies. If you ever go for a run in the woods down a snowmobile trail in late July, don't stop. Or even look behind you. Take my word for that.
     The primary difference between leeches and wood ticks has to do with the size of the orifice they can violate. Deer ticks are smaller still. Give that some thought when picking blueberries. Puckering is a good thing.      

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