I just read an essay about Africa in which the author mused about sitting in an airport waiting for a ride out of Nigeria. As he dealt with delays and uncertainty, he killed time watching the insects fly around as evening arrived and he noticed how the locals trapped them and cooked them in a can. I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten insects on purpose, although sometime in my life I might have dined on some kind of six-legged critter. I suppose if you are ravenous enough, a cricket, an ant, a cockroach might hit the spot. The thought of munching on one of these hard-backed, black beetles I’ve seen on the trails around Boise isn’t too palatable and I’m sure their armored parts would not be as tasty as braised asparagus spears or a rare t-bone steak. I have no intention of finding out if cockroach legs taste as sharp as they look.
I have eaten some pretty sorry grub in my life. Once, in Vietnam, we went out into the bush for a two or three hour patrol and ended up staying over a week. We took no chow (on the orders of the Platoon Sergeant) and for a number of days received none either. Those of us who, disobeying orders, thought to take a can of chicken noodle soup or pound cake found ourselves quite popular. Once, while we were out there looking around for someone to shoot, or something to eat, a six-by Marine Corps-green truck loaded with soda pop come down the road and sped around a curve just below our position. The lieutenant sent a few of us to check out the chaos and we found a whole palette of orange Fanta spilled out into the road. The NVA were out there too, so we set up a perimeter and helped load up the wayward soda. When we got down to the last few cases of pop, we got into an argument about our share. The sergeant in charge of the truck full of soda said his orders were to deliver all of it to Khe Sanh, so he was thankful we’d helped round up the errant cans, but he could not share. Since we were hungry enough to eat the skin off the rock apes that lived up on the ridge, we took offense and brandishing our locked and loaded M-16s, acted just like old-time highwaymen and held up the shipment. We stuffed our pockets full and then ordered the sergeant, at gunpoint, to vamoose and we formed a detail to haul the rest of our take of Fanta up the hill.
We were hungry, actually on the verge of starving, and after three or four cans of hot fizzy orange Fanta, we began to vomit. After that, we reserved our food procurement activities to sweeps alongside Route 9 to see if we could find some discarded cans of ham and lima beans or beefsteak and potatoes. We did not, but we did find thrown-away crackers, Hershey’s candy bars, Big Hunks, and Almond Joys, all which were mostly rotten, so we picked the bad parts off and were glad to get what we could get.
We might have eaten insects, or other such critters, but luckily for us a chopper full of fresh water and cases of C rations showed up. Yes, we might have eaten the insects—they were all around us—and some of their cousins like big black arachnids with red and yellow stripes and blazes. Spiders as big as my hand which could provide a substantial repast and less inviting, the ever-present leeches. They loved to climb onto us for a ride, or try and slither into our mouths while we slept, or into our noses. I think I was lucky and found the ones that were on my lips, looking for a way into my mouth and further down. I think I got them all, of course in the rain and wind and the humidity, who knows, I could have gained protein from a leech.
Pondering bugs, this came to mind. Years later, in southern Arizona, returning home from viewing a high school baseball game in early May I stopped in Chandler, Arizona, to buy a Coke or a Coors or maybe some pickled jalapeños. It was one of those hot spring-times of the year when the Sonoran Desert is castigated by Biblical hordes of grasshoppers. I got out of my pickup to go into the 7-11 and as I walked across the parking lot I could hear them crunching beneath the soles and heels of my lizard skin Justins. Crunch, crunch, crunch. I am not a stranger to death and mayhem, but I remember feeling just the slightest bit squeamish as I massacred all those grasshoppers, cutting short their oh-so-brief flings and I won’t even venture into what I was probably musing on…if grasshoppers feel pain, know they are dying, consider death as we do in a self-conscious way, or if they just live and die, driven only by the need to survive long enough to fertilize their eggs.
After I came out of the 7-11 with my bag of Lays or sixpack of Coors, I remember stopping to gawk at the gangs and gangs of grasshoppers flying around the street lights. It reminded me of rainfall in Khe Sanh, the way the big drops seemed to thunder down between me and the lights, but instead of thundering down they flew around and around, so many of them the light was clouded, but eerier, as the shapes and hordes moved and shifted, they caused the light to reflect, then refract, then reflect. I crunched on to my truck. I had the window down and could hear the decimation of the grasshoppers beneath my tires as I drove south.
Herds of grasshoppers like that can scour the crops and I suppose that was their goal. Similar to my grasshopper experience was when I drove my Toyota Tacoma north from Sebastopol, California, to Boise when Betty and I moved. As I approached McDermitt, Nevada, I was suddenly surrounded by hosts of critters that splatted on my windshield to the point I could not see. I turned on the windshield wipers and they got mucked up so badly I did not think the wipers would work.
I stopped at the Texaco gas station in McDermitt and the bugs were all over the asphalt and gravel parking lot. They crunched beneath my feet. Bigger than grasshoppers, almost succulent, I’d say, and as I tried to avoid that squishy sound of death beneath my boot heels I recalled I’d seen these critters before. Once my friend Wayne Wolski and I trudged up the flanks of high Mt. Jefferson in Central Nevada on a backpacking trip. After scaling to the top, our breaths wheezing, our heads like overripe muskmelons, we struggled back down and on the way, found similar critters lying in the trail. We looked them over and headed on to camp for a meal of freeze-dried spaghetti mixed with Top Ramen noodles.
Inside the McDermit Texaco, I got the skinny on “Mormon crickets,” as the lady called the succulent joint-legged denizens out there crawling, zooming, looming about. Talk about biblical or more than that, “Book of Mormonical.” I’d read about the hordes of these critters, which are actually katydids of sorts, but unlike the image of katydids of bucolic wonder that you might read about in stories like “Little House on the Prairie.” These katydids, these Mormon crickets , toted a sinister reputation that made my neck feel like a Rotweiler’s might when his hackles get up. I had read about them migrating, for one supposed reason, to keep from being eaten by other Mormon crickets.
Cannibalism. These critters eat each other. In our civilized time, cannibalism makes our skin crawl, or mine anyway. I think about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and the constant need to eat, and the constant fear of being eaten. By other humans. Our civilized neighbors. Primitive, like it must have been in the old days, when food didn’t exist at Winco, or Safeway, or Whole Foods, but had to be foraged and scoured from whatever source was available and whenever available.
I think back to those days on that little hill alongside Route Nine in Vietnam and if we’d have had to go much longer, we would have begun eating insects, snakes, lizards, and when those were gone, what? Imagine, eating one of your comrades, one who had died in battle, or worse, one who had died saving you, protecting you, and then becoming a source of a different type of salvation. And from there it’s not hard for me to imagine how starvation might drive you to kill and eat a person more as quarry, as game. And maybe enjoy eating them. Achh, and maybe developing ritual to make one feel better about dining on one’s own species.
Ah, but we aren’t like that…..we are civilized.
Yes, we are civilized and don’t do things like that. Wolves do that, and fish, and lions, and bear, and Mormon crickets. I wonder.