by Terry Hargrove
Twenty years ago, my brother Glenn hosted a birthday party for his son. One of the guests thought it would be funny to bring along his pet tarantula. But the tarantula got loose and, despite a determined five hour search, was never found. My brother responded with what I consider a perfectly normal reaction: he moved into a hotel and sold the house. I would have done the same thing. If you don’t understand, let me tell you about mantids and the Big Galoot.
Across the street from our house was Harmon Park, and Harmon Park was a land of symbols. There was the gigantic elm, second oldest tree in Marshall County and Yggdrasil to my youth, where Andrew Jackson (or was it Andrew Johnson? Or Lyndon Johnson? It was somebody) had once tied his horse, or so we told anyone who would listen. Then there was the Marshall County Public Library which served a dual function as our only air conditioned refuge in the summer, and a handy right field home run fence for our softball games. If you knocked out a window, it was a grand slam no matter how many people were on base. Finally, we had the Park’s wading pool that dropped from a depth of six inches in the infant’s end to three whole feet at the deep corner.
We always considered Harmon Park to be our park, but in 1963, the Big Galoot moved into our neighborhood. He was a hulking, savage teenager who lurked in and created the shadows that surrounded us. One of his favorite hobbies, and I still consider this the creepiest thing I ever saw an alleged human being do, was to pluck those huge yellow and black garden spiders off their webs and let them crawl around his hands. Then he would put one in his shirt pocket and laugh as we ran or fainted.
The Big Galoot warned us to stay out of the wading pool. It was reserved for children under 12 who wore real bathing suits. But that was just another way of saying it was ours before and after the Park’s operating hours. When the Galoot wasn’t around, the pool was a great place to try out our fishing lures, since its clear water allowed us to see which ones needed adjusting before we trekked to Rock Creek for bluegills and redeye bass, only to lose those same lures to stumps and poor knots. But every morning of every summer, before the Big Galoot woke up, the wading pool provided us with other diversions.
The Galoot didn’t rise until 10:00, the Park didn’t officially open until 8:00 and the park workers didn’t arrive until 7:30, so at 6:30, just after our sisters threw us out of the house, my brother Glenn and I would join our neighbors the Miles brothers and investigate which insects had strayed into the pool the night before. It was always a strange brew of wasps, bees, moths and fairies, but sometimes, when we least expected it, the pool would surprise us with an exotic denizen of the night, as it did one August morning in 1964.
My brother spotted it first. Four and a half inches long it was and bright green. It was kicking slightly, no doubt exhausted by a long night’s struggle against the chlorinated water. Glenn sent me to find a mason jar on our back porch, but when I returned with one, he sighed that it might be too late.
“Don’t be sad, Glenn. That thing’s a devil horse, that is,” said Ray Miles.
“Naw, naw,” I said. “It’s a walking stick. A big one, too.”
“Will it bite? Is it poison?” asked Johnny Miles.
“I don’t know,” said Glenn, who was palming the insect. He placed its face next to my ear lobe. When I stopped screaming thirty seconds later, Glenn said:
“Yep, it’ll bite all right. Terry, if that starts swelling up, tell me or somebody.”
Dr. Walker lived across the street from the park. Our town’s only African American doctor, he left his home every morning at 7:00 and walked five doors down to his office. My screams had drawn him out and Glenn flagged him down.
“Dr. Walker, do you know what this is? Ray here called it a devil horse, and Terry said it’s a walking stick, but he’s an idiot.”
Glenn walked the insect over to Dr. Walker who examined it for a moment.
“Devil horse is what my momma used to call them, too,” said Dr. Walker. “But what you’ve got there is a praying mantis, a mantid of the order of Mantodea. Probably a female. They’re the bigger ones. Seems early in the year for one this size to be out. That’s praying with an A, not preying with an E.”
“Are they poison?” I asked. “Am I gonna lose my ear?”
“No, they aren’t poisonous,” he said. “Come over here and I’ll put some alcohol on that.”
“Don’t bother about him, he’ll be fine,” said Glenn. “But what about my mantis? Will she live? What should I feed her?” Glenn was actually rubbing the back of the insect, like it was a puppy.
“They’ll eat anything they can catch,” said Dr. Walker. “Oh, one more thing…”
With a wet flutter, the mantis rose from Glenn’s hand and headed north.
“They can fly,” said Dr. Walker. Glenn’s pet disappeared into the foliage of the elm tree.
“Don’t be too disappointed,” I said. “I heard Andrew Jackson himself once lost a praying mantis to that tree.”
“I’ve heard that, too,” added Ray Miles. “Or was it Andrew Johnson?”
Glenn spent the rest of that day in the library looking up everything he could find on the praying mantis. The more he read, the more impressed he was. The praying mantis was the perfect predator, a creature of absolute stealth. It could remain motionless for hours waiting for just the right moment to grasp its prey. I found the whole thing kind of disturbing, and had blocked this entire episode out of my mind until I chanced upon a picture on the internet two weeks ago of a praying mantis eating a hummingbird!
Glenn told me later that day the reason he was so enthralled with the mantis. It represented a way of standing up to the Galoot. If Glenn could find an insect that was more deadly that garden spiders, then maybe the Big Galoot wouldn’t have such a hold on us. The mantis was another symbol, like the tree and the library. The mantis was equality, and if it wasn’t, at least it was praying, and that might get God’s attention and He would smite the Galoot for us. The next morning, Glenn rose early with The Dad and took his mason jar to the pool in the hope that whatever had caused a mantis to trap itself one night would happen again the next. It did.
At 5:27, I woke to the piercing sensation of tiny green mandibles biting my other ear lobe. Glenn had chosen his weapon, and all that was left was to hurl the gauntlet at the Galoot’s feet. We dubbed her Queen Death, and even though it wasn’t her fault, she is the reason my brother and I to this day are both paralyzed with fear at the sight of any spider.
But before that happened, she would open other, more terrifying portals.
Next post: the terrifying truth about Nature! She is a mother, all right!
Categories: scholars and rogues
The huge yellow and black spiders you’re talking about were probably golden orb weavers.
The venom is fairly similar to a black widow’s. So had the kid ever managed to trap one and make it bite him, he’d have left them alone after that. They’re not very aggressive, though.
If you wanted something to traumatize him, handing him a centipede would’ve likely done the trick.
As an exotic pets person, I wouldn’t scare people with any of mine. If for no other reason than mentioning you keep a bunch of giant venomous things gives people a glint in their eye that implies burning you at the stake isn’t out of the question if you give them enough cause. 😉
You forgot the part about the female praying mantis biting off the male’s head after mating!