One of my earliest childhood memories is traumatic, at least what would seem traumatic to a three-and-a-half-year-old little boy. Though it didn’t turn out to be the end of the world, it sure seemed like a living hell when it happened. I still carry the memory with me a half-century later, so it damaged me on some level.
My family – mother, wicked step-father, newborn baby sister and myself – were living in an old two-story house in Lancaster, California, which in the late 1960s was still mostly desert scrub and Joshua trees. We were located far enough away from everything else that it could be called the middle of nowhere. Today, a strip mall stands where the house once did.
We were so remote that my mother didn’t really pay attention to what I was getting into. She trusted I would not stray too far and everything would just work itself out. She had a newborn baby to worry about and didn’t give me as much attention as I probably should have gotten. With nothing to do and no watchful eye, I would wander the acre-sized property, trying to keep myself entertained.
One day, I decided I would make friends with the ants who had built a nest out in the open area behind the house. I remember being fascinated by how they scurried back and forth, some appearing from the mound while others disappeared into it.
To make friends with them, it seemed logical I had to get close and be down on their level. This meant I had to sit next to the mound. So I planted myself there on the ground, wearing my tan little boy shorts, a striped t-shirt and little red sneakers. When the first few ants crawled on me, I thought they were welcoming my invitation of friendship.
Mind you, these were not your garden variety ants. They where those red and black kind that are almost a quarter of an inch long with strong mandibles. These ants were big, fast, and it turns out, very aggressive.
Before I knew it, I was covered by dozens of ants that saw me as a threat to their home. The hive mind sounded the alarm and went on the attack. First, I felt one bite, then a few more and several more soon after that. Suddenly, my skin was on fire as the big red and black ants bit me over and over. They were everywhere on my body from head to toe. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get them off me. This was pain unlike any other in my short time on this earth.
In a panic, I got up from the ground and began stripping my clothes off as I ran toward the house screaming like a banshee. By the time I got to the back door, I was completely naked except for my shoes, covered with big red welts everywhere. I ran upstairs where I found my mother nursing my half-sister. I’m sure the sight of her little boy bursting into the room in his birthday suit with tears streaming down his face freaked her out.
She was able to settle me down enough to get the story out of me. She squished the few remaining ants she found in my hair, then broke out the ointment to soothe the angry, swollen bites. Her motherly attention dissolved my anxiety and I was able to calm down.
There were many times my mother and I reminisced about that mishap over the years. We even talked about it the last time I saw her before she passed away. She always thought it was hilarious. I, on the other hand, have a different take.
To this day, ants give me the heebie-jeebies – even the small black ones you see after leaving greasy or sugary food out. If I find even one ant crawling on me after sitting in the grass, I’ll panic and start doing a wild – and very unmanly – arm-flailing dance to get the critter off me as fast as I can.
I learned a big lesson that day… Don’t sit on an ant mound without knowing the consequences, because you may end up being eaten alive. It was the last time I did.