Mel, the Naturalist

Every school kid I ever heard of has had to catch grasshoppers and other insects for their first science project of the year at least once in their life. For years, in most places, the kids all flocked through their neighborhoods or wildlife areas with their bottles that contained cotton balls soaked in formaldehyde. The idea was to catch the bug or insect and seal it in the bottle to numb the little critters into not caring that their little bodies were about to be pinned to a piece of Styrofoam board.

It was different in the upscale Los Angeles area we lived in when Jeannie and I were kids. The bugs had all pretty much departed for other locations due to the smog and the lack of a favorable environment. In fact, the only two critters that seem to have not minded the population growth are ants and roaches. Given that we were from a more affluent area, it was nearly impossible to collect anything without Mother having a hissy fit at the idea that any such animal might be present on their property, and Dad wondering why the servants couldn’t do the collecting for us back in their, less pristine, neighborhoods.

If a kid brought in a display that contained both an ant and a roach, then they might get a higher score than, say, a kid who only brought in ants. But nobody was going to be visiting their house soon. And there were no points for head lice.

So after our meager collections were presented, the teacher would organize a field trip to the natural history museum so that we could see more expansive bug and insect collections there.

Living in the country means we have ants and other various creepy crawlies, ants, and ants. My littlest child, Melanie, really got into the spirit of bug collection, quite to our surprise. Usually, Lorrie is the more adventurous of the two, but once she pointed out an ant colony to Mel, Mel was in heaven, dreaming of the award she’d get for bringing in the biggest collection of ants.

Once she had a jar full of ants, she branched out to pill bugs, palmettos and just about any creepy-crawlie thing that couldn’t run fast enough to get away from her. As for the formaldehyde, they don’t use that anymore. What’s toxic for the bugs is also toxic for the kiddies. So they just collect them and let them slowly die from lack of oxygen in the collection bottles.

Scene II: Martha and Charlie’s kitchen.

Martha was fixing lunch and chatting with me while Lex and Lorrie were heading towards the house to clean up after fixing up the tack-room in the stable. Charlie was keeping Mel entertained and asked what she’d been up to lately.

The next thing I knew, I heard a “I’ll be right back, Mommy!” and the back door slam.

“She said she wanted to show me what she was working on,” Charlie offered. Then he shrugged his shoulders and reached for the newspaper.

A few minutes later, the back door slammed again. “Here it is, Granpa Charlie!” Mel tripped over her own feet and dropped her bundle, which included glass jars full of insects.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up as I realized that the only reason Mel would have glass jars would be her insect collection. “Mel!” It was too late. Fire ants and palmetto bugs that were newly caught swarmed from the broken mayonnaise jar Mel had confined them in. Charlie grabbed Mel and took her out back to hose her off. The ants spread quickly and headed for the kitchen. Martha and I grabbed the lunch she had just prepared and ran.

Lex and Lorrie, cleaned up and in clean work clothes, were coming down the stairs when Martha and I flew through the front door with Charlie and a completely soaked Mel right behind us. Everyone was talking, shouting, and laughing at once. Mel was crying for her lost insect collection.

Lex and Lorrie just stood there at the bottom of the stairs and took it all in before turning toward each other and slapping hands in a “high-five”. “For once, it wasn’t us, Lorrie!” Then Lex and Lorrie stuck their tongues out at the rest of us and ran back up the stairs until the smell of food lured them back down.

That’s okay. Lex can write the note to Melanie’s teacher.