They bite me
Most of us complained about the weather in Portland last month -- the wettest June on record -- but somebody liked it. The mosquitoes, that is. This year's local crop of Culicidae is bigger and nastier than any I have ever encountered in nearly 32 years living in the Rose City.
Bug spray doesn't stop them. Citronella candles? They laugh in your face. Barbecue smoke may deter them a little. At least the meat right over the coals is safe. Anybody else who steps outside in the evening is automatic Lean Cuisine. And they're starting earlier and earlier. Today the females were out biting in broad daylight and despite a brisk northerly breeze.
Mosquitoes love me. In a group of people, I'm invariably the one who gets bit first and worst. Maybe they like whiter meat -- or is it the wine content?
Skeeters this wicked remind me of growing up in Newark, N.J. in the late 1950s and early 1960s. On the east side of the city, where we lived, were what they now kiddingly call the Meadowlands. Back then, before the land was largely filled in with human garbage and the remains of the occasional Teamsters official, this part of town was rightfully called "the swamps."
The mosquitoes from the Jersey swamps were as big as birds. The beat of their wings was audible. Before you went to bed at night, you'd run around your flat and try to kill them before they bit you in your bed. If you were lucky, you got them before they got you. If you caught up to one with the fly swatter after she had gotten you, she'd gush your blood back at you when you smacked her.
These were the skeeters who bit Frankie Valli, and Connie Francis, and Frank Sinatra, and Bruce Springsteen, and me.
Most of the kids we hung around with had nicknames. One guy just a little older than I, Michael Hudak, was called "Swampy." I never got the full story on that one, but I think on one childhood foray among the reeds and cattails of the swamps down by the Passaic River, Mike had tripped and fallen into some swampy goo. The accepted wisdom was that there was even some quicksand down there that you had to watch out for. Swampy used to run with Stevie Clemente, who somehow got dubbed "Bebop." We spent many a happy night hanging with Bebop and Swampy, mosquitoes notwithstanding.
Back then, the approved way to battle the skeeters was with "punks," or cattails cut from the marshes. If you dried these out a little, they'd burn slowly, like a fine cigar, giving off a distinctive, and fairy pleasant, smell along with their thick smoke. They kept the bugs from coming around. The spirits of the Indians who had once roamed that part of the world no doubt looked down on the practice with approval.
The skeeters in "Down Neck" Newark were so bad that the city used to send around trucks that would spray big loads of insecticide into the air every night in the muggy summers. I'm not sure what those trucks were shooting off, and I guess I don't really want to know now.
But the skeeters of my youth, and the Portland skeeters of 2010, are kid stuff compared to their cousins in Montana. I remember the Mrs. and me camping out near the Custer Battlefield one July, and the mosquitoes were intolerable. The local tribe came through with a truck and sprayed the campground, but within an hour the buggers were back with a vengeance. We lit a lantern inside our tent, and the skeeters started dive-bombing the outside. They were hitting the tent walls so hard and frequently that it sounded like a serious rainstorm.
We haven't been back that way since, but we're getting a reminder of that flavor right here at home this summer. And of course, nowadays there's the whole West Nile virus aspect to fret about. Portlanders, if you haven't already experienced this phenomenon, beware.