Focal Point: Ants in our pants

Published on Wednesday, 14 May 2014 00:14 - Written by Dave Berry,

“I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific.”

Lily Tomlin


What could we do?

We didn’t have a choice.

It was a triple dog dare.

There was nothing more powerful.

With a double dog dare, you still have some wiggle room.

But a triple dog dare … it’s just not … you just can’t … there’s no way … well, it’s just not something you can ignore.

So, we sat in the anthill.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First, you need to understand our fascination with ants. I was maybe 4 or 5, and my brothers were a few years older and younger. At that age, our worlds weren’t very large, and we were enamored of, attracted to and curious about those big red ants.

On the farm in Kansas, we grew up with them. … Shiny red ants that staked a claim to a piece of ground and made it their own. They scurried about, lugging, toting and foraging. They built enormous mounds that dominated small clearings swept clean of vegetation.

We enjoyed watching them. From a safe distance, we squatted on our heels and observed their organized harvest. … Lines of worker ants heading away empty-handed, scuttling around columns of ants returning with leaves, stems, seeds, dead insects and whatever else might make a feast for the queen.

Disturb the mound at your peril. A sharp stick poked in the wrong place caused an immediate explosion of soldier ants radiating out in attack formation. Close behind them, a battalion of worker ants immediately converged to rebuild the shattered wall.

Normally, we kept our distance, respected their privacy, watched where we stepped and stayed out of their territory.

I never, ever had the same attraction for the little red imported fire ants that showed up uninvited on the shores of the Gulf Coast back in the thirties. Not content to invest in semi-permanent communities, they set their sights on colonization, pushing north and west, anointing new queens by the thousands, erecting new mounds overnight, displacing native species … pushing farther north and west, infesting all or most of nine states.

Fire ants are sneaky. They build their hideouts low in the weeds. Then — stealthy but spoiling for a fight — they wait for that innocent, wayward step and boil out to punish anyone who dares invade their space.

You can tell a Kansan from a Texan by the way they walk barefoot in the grass. Kansans enjoy the cool feel of the lawn between their toes and walk with joy. Texans walk looking down, tentative, hesitant, inspecting the ground beneath each footfall.

Texas fire ants, I think we can all agree, have done nothing to endear themselves.

The red ants of Kansas were simply too busy to bother with you, if you didn’t bother them.

But, as is often the case, little boys got older and bolder, and we ventured deeper into their territory, pestering them for sport, poking sticks into their mounds to watch them pour out, even dropping an occasional firecracker into their vestibule.

Adding a cousin to our trio of brothers was like adding a catalyst to a bubbling chemistry experiment. By the time of the great anthill standoff, we were a bit too cocky for our own good.

I don’t recall what led to the dare. My older brother Stu, cousin Doug, my little brother Galen and I were just doing what little guys do in the summer … exploring the farm, looking for fun, trying to stay out of trouble, but wanting to try something new and different.

Who dared who? I don’t remember, and it isn’t important. But when the dare was doubled and finally trumped by the triple dog dare … there was no turning back.

All of us would sit on the anthill. The winner would be the one who sat longest.

The screaming started immediately … before my little brother even found a spot to sit. The swarming ants poured out with a vengeance and got their revenge. Swatting, stomping, hopping and slapping … we ran for the gravel drive, skirted the thicket of honey locust trees and stampeded screaming for the house. Little brother Galen toddled behind, unbitten I think, but enjoying and taking part in the hysteria.

Through the screen door on the back porch — slam, slam, slam, slam — we invaded the kitchen, our high-pitched wails disrupting preparations of the traditional Sunday meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans.

To our dismay, our agonies were greeted with less than pure concern. After stripping off our clothes, swatting away any clinging ants and making a farmhouse diagnosis that none of our bites were mortal … we were unceremoniously escorted back out the screen door and placed in Dad’s old Chevy, where we would remain until our caterwauling ceased.

I suppose we learned our lesson. The bites burned like the devil, but eventually, we stopped our sniffling and joined the rest of the family inside for Sunday dinner.

Our standoff at the anthill had lasted just a few seconds, but it stayed a family joke for as long as my grandmother lived.

I remember her giggly laugh later that summer when — with all the ceremony she could muster — she presented each of us with a pair of white underwear briefs, on which she had carefully painted half a dozen red ants.

The scant evidence remaining of that “ants in our pants” moment is a short clip on grainy 9-millimeter movie film as the four of us, dressed only in our new duds, paraded through the farmhouse kitchen and headed barefoot out the screen door … slam, slam, slam … slam.


Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column runs each Wednesday on the cover of the My Generation section.