I was out on my lunch break and saw a scary looking swarm of dark bugs buzzing around a patch of grass, so of course I headed right for it. I’d seen swarms like this before, starting when I was a kid and staying at my grandparents’ house one summer day, and there was a dark cloud of buzzing bugs around the bushes of one of their neighbor’s houses. My grandmother was terrified and told me to stay away from them because there was no way we could tell what they were, so of course when she wasn’t looking I went over for a closer look. My grandmother saw lurking death in everything: grass that was too tall could hide spiders and snakes, grass that was too short could make the ground dangerously hard, being outside too long on a summer day I could get pneumonia, being inside too long I could get rickets from vitamin D deficiency, and she carefully went through every piece of watermelon out of a fear that the seeds might sprout in my stomach and grow out of my nose. And the bugs in that scary looking swarm turned out to be June bugs which I still love because they’re completely harmless and just big goofy bumblers. As a kid who studied bugs of all types I knew most beetles to be, in spite of their heavily armored backs, kind of timid. Most preferred to hide under logs and rocks or in basements; they’d retract their antennae and back away from any movement, any light. Not June bugs. You find June bugs right out in the open, happily buzzing or bumbling around with their antennae up and spread wide like radar dishes, broadcasting to the world HEY, WHAT’S UP? I’M GONNA CLIMB UP YOUR LEG AND FALL OVER AND THEN FLY INTO A BRICK WALL FOR NO REASON. They’re big and really attractive beetles, with mottled green and yellow backs and their undersides are metallic green or gold. I caught some and took them to my grandfather who showed me how you can tie a string to a June bug’s leg and it will buzz around like a tiny weird balloon or maybe yank really hard and leave you with a string with a prickly beetle leg tied to it.
The next summer I was old enough to stay at home by myself and there was a time when my friends in the neighborhood had either moved away or were away so I had a lot of time to myself. I found a swarm of June bugs and it was fun at first just watching them, catching one and examining its shiny underside before letting it go, but then I started to perform what I called experiments but which even then I knew were really sadistic tortures.
Anyone who knows me know this story has a happy ending, for me, anyway, although not for some of the June bugs. I didn’t grow up to be a serial killer or for that matter a criminal of any kind. I’m not a vegan but I probably would be if I couldn’t get meat so neatly sliced and packaged it no longer looks like any animal and while I will hurt a fly I only do it if the fly is in the house and I feel guilty about it and I occasionally cause my wife some consternation when I catch a spider so I can release it outside even though I try to explain to her that it’s a member of the Lycosa genus and therefore completely harmless. So this story is not as dark as it could be, or rather it’s not a prequel to something much grimmer, but it still makes me uncomfortable that I put June bugs in glass jars with cotton balls soaked in alcohol and then pinned them to a piece of styrofoam, and then I started to put them in plastic bags and put them in the freezer then revive them in the hot air that blew from the air conditioner in the back of the house. The stove in the kitchen had those black spiral burners and I’d turn one on, crank it up until it glowed orange, and press a June bug’s back against the metal. At worst I was risking a burned finger but for the June bug this was always fatal.
As I consider this heavily loaded words like “normal” and “healthy” come to mind. I wonder how many others have done the same sorts of things, but most who did, understandably, don’t want to talk about it. Even then I felt guilty about what I was doing, wondered why I was doing it to such inoffensive creatures that don’t bite or sting or even get served up neatly sliced and packaged. And I’d already stopped when I went out one morning and walked around feeling like my head was wrapped in invisible cotton, and aching in my arms and legs. I went back inside and went to bed and woke up with a fever of a hundred degrees, and the only thing more miserable than missing precious summer days because of illness is having a body temperature that matches what’s outside. And I was too weak to cross the room and get rid of the styrofoam board of neatly mounted June bugs.
I’m resisting the temptation to try and draw some bigger conclusions from this, or to turn the June bugs into a metaphor. Some people might say, hey, they’re just bugs, and maybe this is a common, or at least not rare, phase kids go through, but I also don’t want to offer up any excuses. What I really want when I walk through a swarm of June bugs, when they crawl up my leg and fall off or fly away and bumble into things is to be like them, oblivious to any threats, or maybe they’re really the smart ones who know there is no lurking death.