I slept with my first beetle at age eight. Ours was a casual affair; two souls finding refuge on my grandmother’s pull-out sofa. But, as with many relationships, what began as a simple nocturnal arrangement between insect and boy soon became a complicated and crowded tempestuous two week ordeal. By the end of my Chappy vacation, beetle and I would be joined under the covers by several June (July?) bugs, five or six handfuls of gnats, additional members of the beetle family of various size and iridescence, a gaggle of ticks, two halves of a snake (my cat’s unfortunate friend), innumerable mosquitoes and a toad.
Being neither a country boy nor a city boy (Pittsfieldians are equally ill at ease at a hoe-down as they are at Spago’s), I wasn’t sure what to make of my situation — perhaps, I thought, this was how Chappy folks lived. I appealed to my brothers (bunking in the adjacent room) for their take on our buggy nights. Were they too kept awake by the creepy crawly hubbub? My brothers, however, were cut from a different somnial cloth. A camel could spoon them all night long, but come morning they’d wonder where on earth the viscous drool on their pillows had come from. So they had little sympathy for my petty battles with arachnids, insects and reptiles. “Just roll over and go to sleep,” was their sage advice. Easy for them to say, very hard for one freaked out eight-year-old to do. Inevitably then, glorious sea sprayed days soon became filled with leery anticipation of nights filled with mostly unseen and mostly unwanted friends.
My parents were of no greater help. “Close the window,” was their suggestion. A child of greater insolence might have pointed out to Mom and Dad that there were, in fact, several windows in what we affectionately called the play house, and closing all of them would cause its occupants considerable distress, heat-wise. Furthermore, the play house (being far from today’s clad-windowed, climate-controlled guest houses) was not much more than a loosely joined gathering of two-by-fours atop a concrete slab. Conceived as housing for chickens, and then as a place for Grammy to play with her dolls, my forefathers (I would guess) never intended to have the play house comfortably sleep a family of five these 71 years later. There were real holes in this house, and lying awake at night as June bugs (the Mr. Magoos of the insect world) clumsily bonked from wall to wall before falling on my face, I imagined a miniature train circling Chappy, picking up an ever-increasing clientele of Island bugs before finally passing through the tunnel in my oceanside wall and reaching its destination at my bedside. “All aboard for Brad’s sofa bed!”
By the second week of our stay at the play house, I was becoming truly miserable. I itched at bites real and imagined, I searched my belt line for burrowing beetles and I dreaded nightfall. My parents, noticing the bags beneath my eyes drooping dangerously close to my mouth, commented that I should really get some shuteye. Really? You think? I had tried napping during the day sitting up, an Alfred Hitchcock mystery hiding my open-mouth and rolled-back eyes, but Grandpa had a knack for finding lazy boys and upon discovering me would replace my book with a rake. “There are plenty of days to be inside, but those pine needles won’t rake themselves,” he said. It didn’t matter to Grandpa that those pine needles, even if they could rake themselves, had nowhere to go but right where they were on the forest floor with millions of their ilk. A boy should be outside. It also didn’t matter to Grandpa that I had been suffering for many nights. His skin was cured to a worn work boot consistency by years of wind, sun and petroleum products. There was not a mosquito needle made that could ever penetrate his hide. Grandpa was a lost cause to complaining grandsons, but even dear old Grammy wasn’t hearing it. Surely I could buck up. But I couldn’t. Not yet.
Fatigued and close to crazy by the last night of vacation, the cricket in my mouth should have been the last straw. But something about the finality of the gesture struck me instead. Surely a cricket in the mouth had to be the ace in the hole for my bug adversaries. I expected that they believed they would break me with the move. But I laughed. I chuckled in bed, staring at the white washed rafters and the repelling spiders. I’d won. I had not gone mad. I had not packed my bags (or rather had my Mom pack my bags), but had gutted it out. And I thought, in some way, the bugs respected me for it. Perhaps one even began to clap slowly and the rest, one by one, followed until the room was filled not with buzzing but with applause. Maybe not, but still I found a peace in knowing that I had faced adversity with a modicum of aplomb. And for the first night I noticed the stars outside my window and heard the breath of the ocean. And I slept. A long deep sleep that only winners can sleep.
Chappy changed me for the better. I’d return home from those summers of my youth to the streets of Pittsfield (soon to be a major motion picture) a little bit weathered and a little bit tougher (a good thing for a small-boned boy in a big-boned neighborhood). Together, the bugs and my grandparents taught me to appreciate what might be gained if one waded through the rough waters to a very cool spot.
Now, some 35 years later, I remember fondly all those weeks spent in the play house. Eventually Kim joined me there for a couple of the summers of our early twenties. We painted and plastered and patched a bit but there was no stopping the bug train — it’d been running without interruption for the duration of my absence. We didn’t care though, they were part of Chappy life. Kim had had her own childhood run-ins with subcutaneous chiggers in Brazil and ham-sized leeches in South Africa. We’d both weathered our respective storms and had emerged from them stronger. Others we know (no names — but picture burly men) have been less stoic when dealing with Chappy nature. Finding out that the tickle on their arm is indeed a lone weary tick making slow progress through the forest of their arm hair, they still scream as if they are witnessing the Beatles arrive at JFK.
There is a choice of course. One can choose to avoid at all costs the Island pest population. But what might they be missing in the process? The hand special someone held while sitting on a dock and being devoured by mosquitoes. An adventurous trek through the back brambles of our ever-fascinating tick infested Island. A long swim from raft to raft through nesting jellyfish. Without a doubt there are wonders to be missed here if you choose not to immerse yourself in the Island’s air and water. Jump in the ocean, pick beach plums, listen to the night birds. There are months upon months to cover yourself in Armani, but maybe only days to wear the Island.
Brad Woodger lives on Chappaquiddick.