The Thinker

Return of the 17-Year Cicadas

They had almost receded from my memory. In 1987 I had never seen anything like them.

Okay, I misspoke. I had seen things like them. I spent my teenage years in Florida. Cockroaches – big, black shiny cockroaches that skittled across floors at warp nine and crunched underfoot when you stepped on them – infested and doubtless still infest Florida. It didn’t matter how clean your house was or how many times you called the exterminator. Roaches were lurking somewhere near you. They were ready to make their presence known and disgust you at the most unwelcome times. Aside from the usual places like the kitchen, closets, cupboards and bookcases, I even occasionally found cockroaches in my shoes. I carried them around for hours at a time only to remove my shoes and find them smooshed or crawling out. Ick. Double ick.

Worse than the cockroaches in Florida were the palmetto bugs: veritable flying cockroaches. The etymologists would argue they were nothing like cockroaches, but they were the about the same size and black and icky. But these critters would zing at you from the lawn or a nearby bush when you entered or left the house. They could cause a cardiac arrest in a guy wearing a pacemaker. I am sure part of the reason I moved up north again after graduation was to get away from all the disgusting crawling things in Florida. (That and there were better paying jobs up north.)

The Washington area has its share of cockroaches, but you have to invite them in. I’ve never seen one in my house. Except for the autumn plague of cave crickets in the basement we are amazingly vermin free. They amuse my otherwise sweet cat Sprite. He enjoys spending his days waiting for them in the basement. When he finds one he slowly rips out their legs one by one then watches them die a painful death. He thinks it’s good sport. I’m sure if he could talk he’d express surprise that he actually hurt them. “I was just playing, Daddy,” I’m sure he would say.

An occasional bug that has slipped through our defenses will get inside our house. A mouse temporarily took up residence in my garage over the winter but wisely never tried to move in closer. That’s the way we like it. Nature belongs outside. Inside is sacred, bug-free and human friendly sanctuary.

So while I was somewhat used to icky things, I had pretty much tuned them out in 1987. I had lived in the Washington metropolitan area almost a decade by that time. And then they arrived. We called them the 17-year locusts. But they weren’t locusts. They were 17-year cicadas. Yes, since 1970, long before I arrived they had been hiding in the ground. In May 1987 they decided to emerge. Their life spans may be short (about a month) but during that time it was like living an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

I remember a lot of mixed feelings. First it was curiosity … there sure were a lot of bugs around … and what were those things littering the sidewalk? Later the feelings became all jumbled up. I felt disgust by the sheer number of the things. I felt amazement at the same time that so many critters could occupy the same space at the same time. I also felt helpless because the noise of millions of cicadas was deafening day and night. Even in the house we could hear them. It was like I had a semi parked outside my window with the engine running. And of course I felt on guard whenever I was outside. I couldn’t walk anywhere without these hissing black bugs about an inch long jumping at me, or staring at me with their beady little red eyes. Lastly I felt panic because my wife Terri is bug phobic. A spider on the wall will freak her out. And here she was surrounded by bugs jumping at her, hissing at her, screaming at her. It put her in high panic mode. And that meant I had to be in panic mode too because when she was panicking she made my life hell. It’s amazing I didn’t file divorce papers.

They were everywhere except (usually) indoors. Cicadas may be disgusting creatures, but they are not smart. They didn’t mind getting stepped on. They didn’t understand windows. They just loved to try to jump through them. This would cause periodic taps on the windows that became difficult to ignore. And they had a talent for fouling up machinery. On the Dulles Toll Road the toll machines kept breaking down as their innards filled with cicadas. Back then we were too poor to afford a car with air-conditioning. For my wife that meant driving in summer-like weather with the windows rolled up. But lord how the bugs tried to get in anyhow. They seemed to love air vents. For years afterward there were cicada wings in our car’s air vents we couldn’t dislodge.

Finally they died rather spectacularly and haphazardly, leaving their ugly black carcasses all over the lawns, roads and sidewalks. I repeatedly went out with a broom to sweep those things off my sidewalk and off my car. For weeks afterward the lawns were dark with decaying cicadas carcasses until finally they disintegrated. The regular summer cicadas were something of a relief. They used to annoy me but suddenly they seemed so … quiet.

And I had almost forgotten all this. But cicada stories are everywhere in the papers. The bad memories are returning. Somehow here it is 17 years later and they are about to start this cycle again. I saw them pupating on the grass and on the walks on my way to work: whitish little things with immature wings. Not a hiss nor a screech out of them yet but I know in a matter of days not only will we see them but hear them too. And the nightmare will begin again.

I tried to explain to my daughter what was going to happen. But words don’t really suffice so I stopped trying. This is something she will have to experience to get. To me it will be another hellish four weeks or so. I have been told though that I have the wrong outlook. I should marvel at nature in all its bizarre and ill-timed glory.

I’d much rather marvel at them from a distance than have such a personal encounter with so many of these insects again. Please put them on a documentary on the Discovery Channel instead. That’s as close an encounter as I want with these critters. 17 years wasn’t long enough.

For more see this newer entry.


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