A Zip Code of Their Own

During the day they floated everywhere, or maybe my imagination sees it like that. Into the Kellogg’s Special K and the all purpose flour and my cooling cup of coffee. They lit on the counter, the couch with the bed hidden inside, the fireplace hearth, and the green bedspread.

After the sun set beyond White Sands, they mobbed every source of light in town. It looked like the bowels of a blizzard.

In the house they’d batter their wings on the inside of the lightshades and when one approached my head, the wing flutter reminded me of choppers in Nam which was something I did not want to remember. I swatted them and smothered them and crushed them, caught them and threw them out the door.

Miller Moth

But it was after the lights went out that things turned weird. At first they attacked the lampshade, beating it with their wings and I’d wonder, without the lights, why they still made that racket. They harassed me like they knew I was guilty of turning out the lights. As if they wanted to get even, they were at my noggin. Maybe my skin, my bone radiated warmth, too, like the lamp, and they bored inside the lobes of my ears and the flutter magnified like a drill bit grinding into my brain.

Reinforcements showed up if I managed to swat the offenders. Next it was my nose, and then my eyelids as if they needed to pry them open and if I wasn’t careful, they invaded my mouth, bitter and powdery and wild with wing beats against my tongue.

It was annual. They came out in early summer about the time the yellow jackets started to flit around my face as if I was something to eat. Some years proved worse than others.

I once met a woman who’d been raised out on the Bell Ranch—which was so big it had its own zip code, 88441—outside of Tucumcari and the miller bugs must have been horrendous when she was a kid because she possessed a mortal fear of them. She wore a battered black John B. Stetson and her big, callused hands clenched and unclenched like she wanted to box. I bet myself she could waddy up with the best of buckaroos but when the miller bugs buzzed her she cringed and shrieked like a frightened three-year-old.

It may have been 1986 when they seemed the worst, the year after the state sprayed the woods to kill the spruce budworms. Although 1985, 1987, 1988 were also nasty.

The old-timers wondered—even they thought the damned miller bugs were bad—if spraying the woods for spruce budworms made the miller bugs worse.

These pests have come to mind because an acquaintance of mine is doing some research on miller bug larvae. She’s a scientist who works with ranch folks to solve problems on the ranges of the West.

According to the available information the miller bug larvae, called Army cutworms, like to eat cheat grass which is a noxious exotic plant that causes difficulties for range management folks. And from that point of view, maybe they are good for something—the miller bugs—consuming cheat grass.

Army Cutworm

Reading some of her posts on Facebook lead me to ponder my memories of miller bugs, actually called miller moths, but in the high Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico we called them miller bugs.

They came at you anytime and anywhere and a fine powder painted their wings that powder sluffed off when touched and that’s how they got their name, miller moths, after the flour dust that coated the clothing of grain millers.

The moths go to the mountains of the West in the summer, not unlike a lot of folks used to do when they came from the flats of Texas to enjoy the cool breezes and daily downpours of the southern Sacramento Mountains where Betty and I lived.

Evidently bears like to eat the moths because a lot of fat sits—maybe half a calorie per critter—in those little flitting bodies. According to some researchers, a grizzly bear can eat up to 40,000 of the moths per day…40,000…per day.

We didn’t have grizzlies in our New Mexico environs. They’d probably lived there before they were all killed. The last grizzly in New Mexico was slain in 1931, not in the Sacramentos, but in the Gila, over in the western part of the state.

When I think about a bear that can eat 40,000 moths in a day I think of people who run a thousand miles in ten straight days or someone who swims the English Channel.

Black bears—which come in many colors besides black: cinnamon, brown, I even heard tell of a white one—aren’t as big as grizzlies, but they are big enough and like their bigger cousins, they are omnivorous so I reckon they can put away a passel of moths in a day, too.

But no matter how many miller bugs the bears found hiding beneath limestone rocks and piles of dead pine needles in our New Mexico mountains, they never munched enough to suit me.

Now, standing here at my computer, I think of that young woman raised on the Bell Ranch in her big black sombrero and fancy ostrich skin boots, whose hands were rough like big grit sandpaper. I wonder if she wouldn’t have rather run on a grizzly than mess with those miller bugs.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

I didn’t know the moths were here in Idaho, too, but evidently they’ve been gnawing on cheat grass in our locale. And that must be a good thing for the land.

Sometimes outside, on the walls of our house, I spy a moth that reminds me of a miller bug—maybe it is a miller bug—and then I think they aren’t because they fail to assault me. Or if they are, they must be some kind of weak-kneed cousin of those nasty attackers we battled in the Sacramentos.

Yep, down yonder in New Mexico they owned a reputation. And they backed it up with action. They were notorious and were expected every summer with a mountain’s worth of apprehension. They existed wide and tall and grotesquely handsome in the way folks imagined them. They were broad and historic like that old Bell Ranch out there with its very own zip code.

Maybe those miller bugs warrant a zip code of their own, too.

Sweet Science

My neighbor bobbed, then faked a punch. I flinched and he popped me on the nose and blood shot out and I yelled, “Stop, stop.”

He slugged me in the stomach and I folded at the waist and then he threw a right hook that hammered on my temple and I fell to my knees and bawled.

He sighed, “I thought you wanted to box.”

He yanked off the brand new boxing gloves and dropped them on the lawn and stomped off. Through my tears I watched him stride across the street, up the sidewalk and through the front door of his home.

It was the summer after my fifth grade and I had been ordered by Father, “Learn how to defend yourself, boy.”

In late spring of the year I’d gotten a black eye—a real shiner—when a kid socked me in the right eye. I’d called him a name—a racial slur—when our gang took on their gang.

The experience hurt on a number of levels because not only did he knock the hell out of me, but a bunch of us—not him—were hauled up to answer to Mr. Hartman. The rule on the playground was no fighting and we all had to bend over and grab our ankles while he busted our butts with his nasty paddle. The whacks echoed off the walls of his office.

By the time I walked home, my eye had swelled into a dark, puffy shiner and when Father came home he demanded, “What happened?”

My father was a serious man and when I look back now I think he was angry, too, so I didn’t always tell him the truth because the retribution could be painful. Often I would make up something or not say anything at all. It usually didn’t matter; he’d take off his wide leather belt and whip me.

But that particular moment, I didn’t fib. I told the truth because I didn’t see how telling the truth could make things any worse. But maybe it did.

He said, “If the principal busts your ass, boy, then I’m going to bust it, too, and since you like to shoot off your mouth and call people names, I’m going to bust it twice.” And he did, as he quietly ordered, “Don’t be mouthing off and calling people names, especially when you can’t defend yourself.”

The next evening when he came home, I sat at my desk in my room and faked solving arithmetic problems. He opened the door and when I turned around, he threw a box at me and barked, “Learn how to defend yourself.”

He closed the door and walked down the hall. I heard him laughing and my mother laughing, too.

In the box, two sets of new boxing gloves.

I’ve been thinking about the “sweet science,” as boxing was called when I was a kid, because I’ve been reading Louise Erdrich’s wild and magnetic novel, “The Night Watchman,” and there are scenes in there from the boxing milieu.

When I was a kid, boxing was a big deal in our lives. My father and his six brothers all boxed for fun and money, sometimes bare knuckles, and some of them were pretty good. My father knew the game well and I suspect he could throw hands with some acuity although he never talked about that, just his brothers Chuck and Ed and McKenzie.

I grew up in front of the television watching fights on Wednesday nights, and Friday nights, and Saturdays, too.

Carmen Basilio, Gaspar Ortega, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Gene Fullmer, Floyd Patterson and Dick Tiger filled our television screens.

When Floyd Patterson fought Ingemar Johannson in an attempt to regain the world heavyweight championship, Father and I tuned in. Johannson had knocked Patterson out the year before, 1959, and the 1960 rematch was a much ballyhooed bout, at least around our house.

Instead of watching on TV, we had to listen to the radio, and that evening is one of my strongest positive memories about my father and I sharing something.

We had a great big RCA radio—one of those that stood several feet tall—one that my grandmother had back in the days when radio was the way people received a lot of important information.

It had a fine oak cabinet and big speakers below the dials and the top was rounded off like the end of a .45 caliber bullet. Both of us, Father and I, knelt on the floor and listened to Patterson knock Johansson out in the fifth round.

I don’t recall how I felt about the match’s outcome although I suspect I was proud of Patterson, proud that he and I shared American roots and he brought the championship back home where it belonged.

I think Father was a little upset because the fight didn’t go the full length.

But that evening is cemented into my recollections because we did something we rarely did . . . we bonded.

Later, not much later, Muhammad Ali, who at the time was known as Cassius Clay, came on the scene and sundered the bond that Father and I, and I suspect a lot of fathers and sons, shared over the “sweet science.”

I was a rabid Ali fan. Hell, he was close to my age. My mouth ran constantly back in those days. I knew it all, and I pissed off a lot of adults because they knew I didn’t know it all. And deep down in my guts, I knew that Ali would become champion of the world and do it with a lightning punch packed with power and a big, yakking mouth.

He was one of my heroes. At school, the physical education teachers all hated him. And their hate and my big mouth created a lot of friction when I went to PE. I boldly predicted that Ali would beat Sonny Liston and become the new champ.

When Clay won bout one in February of 1964, I couldn’t keep my trap shut and crowed like a virile rooster when I got to PE. The coach had other issues with me because, as a reporter for the Cougar Growl, our school paper, I had written an editorial criticizing his coaching strategies.

Blogger Ken Rodgers

If I hadn’t been such a jackass about Ali, it might have been less inflammatory. I knew how Coach felt about me, and there was an element of fright. Looking back now, I suspect that the thrill from my fear is what egged me on. It was heady, it was provocative. I figured he couldn’t whip me around physically just because I liked Cassius Clay who sported an element of revolution, shattered long accepted taboos, and that sang to me. I was seventeen and itching to become my idea of a man and shatter a few taboos of my own.

I revered Clay, and when he became Muhammed Ali, I didn’t—like so many of my friends—denounce him, nor did I denounce him for dodging the draft. I respected his logic.

When he was older and still fighting, I felt sad about the beatings he took, although he generally still won his bouts.

He was electric and unusual and bold.

I quit watching boxing when, in November of 1980, Roberto Duran of Manos De Peidra (Hands of Stone) fame quit fighting Sugar Ray Leonard in the 8th round of what has become known as the No Mas bout.

No Mas? No Mas?

Anger roiled my guts like a boiling volcano and after that, I didn’t watch fights.

What remains of pugilism fails to gestate the calm and satisfying bonding my father and I managed to get from those fights in the 50s and early 60s. And after Ali gave up boxing, there just wasn’t much drama that meant anything. The game became, like so much of sport, ALL about money and maybe it always was but the glitz and shimmer of the promotional pranks disgusted me.

The “sweet science” became, for me, sour.

After my neighbor knocked me around that time, I vowed to learn to punch and jab and feint and dance.

Maybe it was plain stubbornness, but I didn’t ever become proficient at boxing.

I developed my own style. I’d wade inside and somehow flip my opponents onto the ground and then punch them about the head as many times as I could. I stuck my fingers in their eyes and if necessary, I’d bite, and if I got them down and sat on their chests, I’d grab their ears and pound their heads into the ground. Sometimes it worked, others it didn’t.

Sweet Science? Not for me.


Sweat dripped into my eyes and sizzled. It slipped off the end of my nose, onto my lip, and down my neck.

My back felt like dagger slashes marred the flesh at the base of my spine and I wondered how all those folks working close to me in the other rows moved so quickly, steadily, while I had to stop and stand tall and stretch my back and drink water.

It was June, hot, and I was 17.

As I gazed across the field, the people, all bent over, reminded me of beetles. Their potato sacks fastened to a wooden stick with hooks that attached to the torso with a thick leather belt.

Besides my compadres, the brothers Tim and Brian, and the ragamuffin punk, Jacky, there were kids working among us with whom I’d attended school—elementary, junior high, high school. But as I spoke to Pete and Enrique, two guys I’d known since I was six, they turned away like they were more interested in the jagged incisors of Picacho Peak.

When I called to them again, like I would have when jiving into English class or out on the playground, they ignored me.

Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers

That happened the first morning, and this all comes back to me now because I have been thinking about agriculture. It’s the season of crops maturing here in Idaho and the fields are all around. Besides, the COVID-19 episode seems to have brought into sharper focus where we get our food.

Back in 1964, morning number one of my spud-picking adventure commenced with high hopes that I’d make some money to buy and do the things that my parents told me I didn’t need. New shirts, some albums—Beach Boys, Beatles, Rolling Stones—and maybe even my own car like my neighbor had, a 1950 Ford with the bullet point emblem on the grill.

We assembled at the Greyhound Bus station at two in the morning and jumped into the back of a bobtail truck with sideboards. A lot of folks I didn’t know joined us. Mostly Hispanic -Americans, a few Native Americans and African-Americans.

Out at the spud fields the permanent crew handed out gear and we were ordered, “Get to work.” The drone of the machine that turned up the potatoes growled across the fields, people lined up abreast over individual rows of spuds, and the picking began. We stuck our hands in the dirt and threw the potatoes in the sack, which hung between our legs, and when the sack was full, we put it next to where we worked and moved on, picking, picking, picking, and the jefe came along and marked our sacks so we could get credit for them.

Being in some ways damned competitive, I looked left and right, not at my mates, but at the folks I deemed knew what they were doing. They worked fast, their hands and arms like tools on a robot that picked and sacked the potatoes at a quick and steady rate.

I had to keep up, but soon understood I could not keep up while they chugged along briskly, chatting in multiple languages. When they laughed it amazed me because I could barely keep breath in my lungs.

As the day progressed, my compadres and I fell further behind and when we got to the end of the day, noontime, I received a total of five dollars and some cents. That wouldn’t buy new, cool surfer shirts, or a bunch of Beatles albums, but at least some Cokes and a burger at the drive-in joint we festered around at night.

When we loaded onto the truck for home, I looked around for Paul and Enrique and the others I thought I knew well, but there was no sign of them. On the ride back to town, I dozed in the heat, sitting in the truck against the sideboards, sweat dripping down my back

At home, I showered and ate and soon hit the bed.

Day two was much the same. Not much cash in my hands.

On day three I rose early again, the swamp cooler outside our house blowing damp air into my room. When I arrived at Tim and Brian’s, I followed them down the ladder into the basement where we found a cabinet full of liquor. We poured Johnny Walker Black Label and Smirnoff Vodka and some red table wine into each thermos.

Upstairs, we added sweet tea and topped off the mix with ice and water.

At the bus station, we boarded the bobtail and watched the stars wane as desert heat began to nag. I unscrewed the top of my thermos and took a long swallow. I shivered all the way to the bottom of my spine, as if it were freezing outside instead of a surly Sonoran Desert morning.

At first, I burst out of the chute like all the other workers and I thought, I’m getting as good as the old guys. I saw Paul three rows over and I vowed that since he ignored me, I’d keep up with him.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

As I threw spud after spud into the bag that hung between my legs, my mouth grew dry and tasted like the worst thing I’d ever swallowed.

As I constantly sipped at the concoction in my thermos and wiped the sweat out of my eyes and stood up to ease the knife-stab jolts in my lower back, I noticed that I’d fallen way behind and so had Tim and Brian and snotty Jacky, too.

Even before the jefe called for an end to the day, we’d stopped and received our meager earnings.

In the company store on the farm, we bought Twinkies and Cokes and peanuts to put in our Cokes and walked out on the porch and then around the corner where we noticed a long line of cottonwoods that drew us down to the banks of what remained of the Santa Cruz River.

One of us, probably Tim, because he was kind of a leader, said, “Hey, my thermos is dry.”

We pooled what little cash was left and Jacky wandered up to the store and found an adult to buy us some beer.

We sat along the creek and drank Coors and got stupider waiting for the truck for home. Insulated from the others, we acted our ages, giggling and throwing rocks into the slim trickle of water that once was the pride of Southern Arizona.

We hunted frogs, making sharp sticks for gigging but all we found were big, warty toads that, according to Tim, were loaded with poison.

Finally the truck came and the horn honked, and before climbing in we managed to finagle another quart of beer each, which we harbored in brown paper sacks choked around the cold, sweating bottles.

As I loaded up, I again looked for Enrique and my other pals from school. But they were nowhere around.

On the road home, we took big sips and clowned around and folks back there, sitting with us on the hard deck, laughed and rolled their eyes and shook their heads.

Once, we hit a bump just as I took a big swallow. The beer didn’t go anywhere but out my mouth in an explosion that flew into the middle of the truck bed and down my shirt. I choked and coughed and the others really laughed. I felt kind of stupid, my head like a spinning merry-go-round.

Later that year, when I went back to school, all those kids I knew who chose not to recognize me in the potato fields acted like always, laughing and talking with me, clowning around.

For over five decades I have pondered what happened out there. Beyond getting stupid drunk and making an ass out of myself, and finding out that I was soft, and even though I would learn to do things that now amaze me—walk up steep hills with forty or fifty pounds of gear while smoking a Camel, unfiltered, of course, and the things that followed, the death and the fear—is the memory of those fellows not acknowledging me as…as what? An equal?

Back in 1964 I don’t think we were viewed, in my town, in my time, as being equal. There was a lot of talk about rights and equality, but no, we weren’t equal. And those kids who shunned me out in the spuds knew it, and when we showed up at the spud field, maybe they thought we were trying to take what was theirs, their world, their privacy. They weren’t going to get to go to college, and they were going to spend their lives probably working menial jobs, and we—us Anglos—weren’t keen to share what we thought was ours, either. Or maybe they were just tired of us after a year of all of us acting out “She Loves You” and “Alley Oop” while wearing our expensive surfer shirts. They showed up to school, in many cases, because the law said they had to. Or maybe it was something else altogether, like they secretly hated us, or something that I don’t know even now, and never will.

But they could work my butt into the ground, and they knew it.