BUGS

OVER ARUBA

BY: BILL MOYER

When Sue and I prepared to move to Texas in 1981, people warned "Youíll have more bugs down there!" On Long Island we had aphids, Japanese beetles, lightning bugs, moths, butterflies, house flies, maybe even an occasional roach (though roaches donít reproduce well in cold weather, Iím told), termites, spiders, "Daddy Longlegs" and, oh yes, carpenter bees that bored into our attic and required special attention by exterminators. We were pleasantly surprised to find that in Dallas the mix isnít much worse--we see an occasional roach, and fire ants attack the lawn about once a summer. There are flies and a few other bugs, including Japanese beetles occasionally and June bugs in May, but not too many. I was bitten once by a recluse spider, but the scar is small. Maybe insects in Texas donít present a problem for me because I was introduced to REAL BUGS very early, during my childhood in Aruba!
Our house, and the other original bungalows in Lago Colony, were even built on anti-bug OIL POTS! These were reinforced concrete blocks with posts in the middle to support the house, but with a "moat" or channel about an inch deep and perhaps two inches wide, entirely encircling the center post. The moats were filled regularly, by Colony Service workers, with thick, nasty, acidic, sulphuric Venezuelan crude oil. It was readily available in the Refinery, and probably toxic to the average critter that might try to swim or crawl over it to get to tasty human food and leftovers inside. That didnít keep the bugs from trying, though. Every now and then Mother would find a trail of oil leading into her kitchen, and scream. Inevitably, at the end of the trail was a big cockroach: possibly the most daring of its tribe, but he or she had paid the price and lay, oil soaked, dead at the end of the trail (or, if still alive, in weakened state, easily dispatched.) At other times, roaches would get into the house in spite of oil pots. They could fly, after all, and were pretty good at it for short distances. They ate everything, from food scraps on the counter or floor, to old scrapbooks and photographs in the attic. Papers up there were almost always rough-edged from cockroach crunching if they had stayed in the attic for any time at all.
The house was high enough off the ground that it needed concrete stairs at each of the two doors to the outside. These staircases, of course, stopped short of connecting to the house itself, to prevent insects from traipsing up stairs and going inside. Instead, they had to jump! Or wait for a stick or leaf to blow against the top of the stairs and form a bridge. Whenever we found a chain of dozens of ants heading to and from a sugar bowl or flour canister, they inevitably formed a telltale trail leading back to a bridge at the stairs, or just as likely, to a bridge across part of one of the oil pots below. Finding the bridges and eliminating them was a constant challenge, often relegated to us kids who had nothing better to do and who didnít mind getting sticky, black oil all over ourselves. It was preferable to playing under the cliff and coming home with prickly pear or "thousand- year-itch" nettles sticking out of your leg. It was also fun for kids to use the ever-present Flit gun when gnats, flies, or anything else undesirable came into our house. "Quick!" "The Flit!" Was a very successful ad in those days for that useful spray.
Whatever bugs we had must have been a pittance compared to the Venezuelan mainland just twenty miles away. We had few flying bugs at night under normal conditions, because the 20 M.P.H. trade winds blew most of them away! But when Hurricane Season came, Aruba was becalmed for one or two days at a time, until the storm passed by to the north and the trade wind got back into action. During the calm, hordes of tiny flying things swept in from the south and totally changed our way of life! Lights at the Thursday night softball games became obscured by swarming insects. At home, if we had left lights on while we were away, we would walk into bedrooms crawling with tiny, biting things. Somehow they managed to squeeze through tiny gaps in the screens. If you turned out all the lights, they didnít come, so we spent evenings in mostly darkness at those times of year.
Xenia Schwartz was the only one in my class to return to Aruba and build a home of her own. With the help of her first husband, Dick Loewengart, she built a lovely, open place at Malmok that was perhaps the first modern home built there. She even managed to buy a rock fence from an Aruban home in the cunucu, have it taken apart, stone by stone, transported, then reassembled by hand in more or less its original form, around her place, making its appearance quite unique. She was very generous, too, and invited Sue and me to spend a week with her and her second husband, Paul Sriberg, in about 1970. We loved being there and greatly admired the place, but one evening as we sat in the patio, I commented that their windows seemed unusual, with big louvers to let in the wind or shut it out, but no screens. "What do you do when the calm days come and the bugs swarm over from South America?" I asked. Paul laughed and said, "We get eaten alive, thatís what! " Xenia admitted she had forgotten about the "bug invasions" from the south.
I remember that once during World War II the Colony suffered from a bad infestation of mosquitoes. They bred in ponds near the Little Lagoon. Colony Service solved that problem by spraying the ponds with kerosene, which seemed to do the trick. In those days, we also had those wonderful flashlight-size black "bombs" of DDT developed for our Armed Forces in the Pacific. DDT really did a job on pesky insects. Too bad it eventually had to be banned because of undesirable effects on insect-eating birds and fish, which was discovered several years after the War.
Another thing I remember about the War Years was the prevalence of bugs in our wheat and cereal. Some one said sacks of grain were left on piers longer than usual in those days, exposed to egg laying insects and borers. It became common for small bugs to appear in pastries from the Rainbow Bakery. They had been baked into the product by the time we got it, and since that was the only "store bought" sweet pastry we had, we ate it anyway, after picking out anything we could see that wasnít supposed to be there. If Mother baked bread from her own flour, we had the same problem, though she used a sifter that caught a lot of the bugs before they could be baked in the batter. When we ate breakfast cereal, it became routine to pour the flakes into a bowl, then pour in milk (Klim, I suppose, perhaps topped with Avocet sterilized cream) and WAIT A BIT before digging in with a spoon. Sure enough, after a few seconds, tiny weevils or borers would float to the surface of the milk, still wiggling. It was reasonably easy to scoop them out with a spoon, and after a bit longer, to go ahead and eat the cereal.
The most distressing bug problem to me, though, was cockroaches. Cockroaches in our yard, cockroaches in our house, and cockroaches in our Cokes! Viennaís Aruba Bottling Company used refillable bottles in those days, and the old bottles must have had traces of sugar left in them when collected. Green six ounce Coke bottles were still in use, and Pepsi was fighting for market share by offering 12 ounce bottles with bright coloring on the outside. (There was also Cliquot Club Soda, Royal Crown Cola, and Grapette, as well as Nehi purple and orange fruit sodas.) At the bottling plant, used bottles supposedly were rinsed and sterilized, but quality control must have been a bit lax. Occasionally I, or one of my friends, would pick up a bottle and notice something dark in the bottom before we poured it into a glass. The "dark something" inevitably was a dead roach. We got into the habit of routinely holding a Coca Cola or Pepsi Cola bottle up to the sun or a ceiling light for inspection before pouring a drink. On at least a couple of occasions, though, Gleb, Tinker, Bob Drew or I had drunk several ounces of our soda BEFORE looking into the bottle and seeing the dreaded dead bug! It still gives me the willies to think of drinking from bottles with roaches in them, but I swear that itís true--we did!
We kept a light inside our piano to keep the sounding board dry. When the bulb wore out and I opened a panel to replace it, there were always roach eggs near the bulb. Cockroach mothers liked heat, I guess. Iíve always known how to recognize roach eggs-dark grey, about the size of three BBs wrapped together--shucks, just a natural part of an Aruba education!
Mother was stung by a scorpion once, when she was reaching for something in a cabinet in the garage of Bungalow 1542 after we moved there in 1947. S he said the sting was painful, but it didnít make her sick or give any other serious signs of being poisoned. We didnít see them often, and when we did, they made threatening gestures with the stinger over their back, to alert you to keep your distance (which we were happy to do.) I donít recall any other injuries to anyone from insects. Looking back, I suppose it was good we had bugs, because they allowed lizards, iguanas, and occasional small birds to survive in Arubaís dry and otherwise barren environment. (I wonder if "hermie crabs" ate tiny mites or bugs, too. Maybe they did. If so, thatís even more reason to be grateful for the bugs we had in Aruba!)
Bill Moyer, Dallas, April 15, 2006