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Bugs, politics, and other annoyances

Funny stories from a rancher


Bugs, politics, and other annoyances

John R. Erickson, author of 70 Hank the Cowdog books and other ranch-based stories, knows his subject matter. He was a working cowboy and ranch manager in Texas and Oklahoma. Here are three essays from him as part of our Saturday Series. —Marvin Olasky

Buffalo Gnats

The coming of spring is always a joyful occasion in our country, but it also brings an invasion of insect pests. Here in the Canadian River valley of Texas, we have a variety of vermin called the buffalo gnat.

I have cowboyed on the Beaver and Cimarron Rivers, and never saw a buffalo gnat. They seem to be unique to this one river system, and the closer you get to the river, the more of a scourge they become.

Buffalo gnats are not ordinary gnats. They are the most persistent, obnoxious, overbearing creatures God ever created. They are so small you can hardly see one, but they never come in singles anyway. They come in clouds, so you not only see them, you hear them, feel them, and breathe them.

Once they find you—and they always find you—they get under your hat, in your ears, in your hair, up your nose, behind your glasses, and down your shirt. Though almost microscopic, they have the buzz of a P-38 passing through your ear canal.

Mosquitoes and flies you can shoo away. These little monsters won’t take a hint. Shoo them and they’ll come right back. They’ll take any piece of exposed skin, but they seem to prefer ears, neck, forehead, and cheeks. They bite and suck blood, and the bite leaves a little circle of red.

When you see a Canadian River cowboy with red spots on his face, it isn’t smallpox. He’s been feeding a cloud of buffalo gnats.

Several years ago, I was riding with a cowboy crew on the river. It was a lovely spring morning until we disappeared inside a cloud of buffalo gnats. The horses went berserk, pawing, tossing their heads, and bucking. The men tried to shoo the devils away with hands, hats, and wild rags.

Finally, we kicked our horses into a gallop. The gnats stayed with us for a quarter mile (they were flying at twenty-five miles an hour), until we finally lost them.

Bug spray doesn’t help, and I’ve heard that the only sure deterrent is cigar smoke, so you can choose your poison: gnats or cigars.

There is one small blessing: They have a short lifespan. They appear in the early spring, and by the middle of June, they’re gone. The great mystery is, how do they entertain themselves and what do they eat when there isn’t a cowboy around?

Bugs and Politics

Ask anyone who lives in this valley, “What is your worst insect pest?” and he or she will name the buffalo gnat as the very worst. But we have others.

Gray-back deer flies run a close second to the buffalo gnats. These loathsome creatures are twice or three times the size of a normal house fly, and gray in color. When they bite, you know you have been bitten by something bad.

It comes suddenly and it’s not something you can ignore. When gray-backs bite, they create all sorts of amusing behavior in human beings, causing them to jump, dance, slap, squeal, yelp, and leave.

The annoying thing about gray-backs is that they choose to live in the prettiest parts of the ranch, any place that has lush grass, shade trees, and running water. They’re fond of places where you’d want to swim or fish or sunbathe or have a picnic.

They steal the choicest real estate and make it uninhabitable for those of us who pay the property taxes and make the ranch payments.

It isn’t fair, but what are our elected officials in Washington doing about it? Nothing. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have one thing to say about the gray-back problem.

Then we have miller moths. They descend upon us in the early summer and in great numbers. These things don’t bite, but I have other gripes against them. For one thing, they can’t seem to fly straight. They fly in circles and spirals. I don’t know why that irks me, but it does.

If you have wings and were made to fly, you should fly in a straight line. Birds do, bees do, airplanes do. What’s wrong with miller moths that they can’t fly in a simple straight line? I know that God is in charge of the universe and I really don’t need to worry about this, but it bothers me.

Another thing that irks me about millers is that they are drawn to the light in my office. Early of a morning, when I’m laboring on great works of literature, the millers come to my office light, and for the next four hours, they swirl about my head, bounce off the light fixture, and land in my coffee cup.

I can’t count the gallons of coffee I have consumed that were fouled with miller dust, but I refuse to pour out a perfectly good cup of coffee, just because a miller has swum in it.

Do the leaders in either political party have a plan for dealing with this? No. In the last two weeks, I have received 57 requests for money from the Republican National Committee, yet in all their literature, there is not one word about the miller problem.

Then we have mud-dobbers. They are a form of wasp, only black instead of yellow, and they build nests of mud. This summer of 2011, Texas was in the grip of a terrible drought. There wasn’t enough moisture in all of West Texas to rust a fence staple, yet the mud-dobbers kept finding mud and building nests.

Two weeks ago, my air compressor quit working. In an act of desperation, I took it apart and found that the electric motor was full of mud-dobber nests. Yesterday, I fired up the portable welder to do some work on a windmill. For 30 seconds, I was blinded by a dirt storm created by vaporized mud-dobber nests.

Again, our political system has no way of dealing with this. When it comes to these major quality-of-life issues, the government just doesn’t seem to care. It appears that we’re on our own.

The Cammo‑Stealth Army Truck

I saw it parked on Main Street in March of 1990: a four‑wheel drive 1952 Dodge army surplus truck with a brand new camou­flage paint job. It had a “For Sale” sign in the window.

It stayed there for several weeks and I managed to drive past it a dozen times without stopping. But then one Saturday afternoon I stopped and looked and called the number written on the sign. The owner gave me his price and asked if I wanted to drive it. Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. He said, “Be careful, ‘cause that cammo paint job is so good, you become invisible. You might get lost and we’ll never find you again.”

That’s where we got the name Cammo-Stealth: invisible to the human eye and even to enemy radar.

I fired it up, drove to the house, picked up Kris and the kids, and off we went for a drive. When we drove past groups of children, they stopped playing and waved. On Main Street, cars bearing groups of teenagers slowed to a crawl, as the occupants stared at the Cammo-Stealth.

It was powered by a six‑banger Dodge engine that topped out around 35 miles per hour. The steering was a little stiff; “Armstrong steering,” it’s called. The heating and air conditioning left something to be desired. The heater worked best in the middle of August, while the air conditioner hit its prime in January. But whatever the season, anyone cruising around in the Cammo-Stealth got plenty of fresh air.

We were fortunate that the police weren’t out that afternoon. They could have issued me enough citations to balance the city’s budget, since the Cammo‑Stealth was seriously illegal.

It had no license plate or safety sticker, no headlights, tail lights, or turn signals. The horn wasn’t hooked up and the brakes were adjusted about right for stopping a bicycle.

But what a piece of work it was! We who live in the computer age sometimes forget that car manufacturers used to build vehicles out of steel. Brother, that truck had enough iron in it to make a hundred Toyotas, starting with a front bumper made of four‑inch pipe.

The engineers who designed it must have had teenage sons at home, because they built a vehicle that was virtually impossible for a teenage boy to tear up.

I couldn’t resist. I bought it.

Before taking it down to the ranch, I drove it around town for several months. Scot and Mark, my boys, loved chugging around town in that old thing—what boy wouldn’t?—and even our daughter Ashley was proud to seen on Main Street—dad and daughter, dragging Main in the Cammo-Stealth.

But that didn’t last long. One morning she said, “Daddy, let’s don’t take the truck.”

Don’t take the truck? I was shocked, and tried to explain that she was the only girl in Perryton Junior High who rode to school in a genuine Cammo‑Stealth Army Truck.

She rolled her eyes and said, “Yes, I know.

John R. Erickson John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.


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