Knee-High To A Plague of Locusts

Well, okay, a grasshopper infestation to any killjoys out there. But “plague of locusts” sounds more biblical and dramatic, and besides, today I’m remembering south Saskatchewan, where my mother and kin lived in the Bible for the entire decade following the 1929 crash. She was nearly as silent on the subject as most combat veterans are on their wars; it must have seemed similarly like End Times, with year on year of drought, tornadoes, killer hailstorms, and the locusts. It says all that our mindblowingly savage prairie winters were greeted each November as blessed relief.

Actually, the difference between grasshoppers and locusts is a little more than semantic, but is behavioural rather than anatomical. If you run into a grasshopper or two on the road or in a bar, they’re just grasshoppers. But when a few million of their buddies turn up, they become “gregarious”—this is the scientific term, honest—and these newly gregarious grasshoppers get a name change and sometimes also a change in colour. Now they are locusts, and collectively they are a plague.

When a bunch of these guys blitzed my Uncle Marvin’s farm during our summer holiday there in 1963, he asked me if I’d ever walked in a plague of locusts (Nope.) and if I’d like to (Why not? I’m ten, fearless, and still fairly stupid.) “Okay then, out you go, they’re in the field other side of the barn. Tuck your jeans into your socks, button up your shirt, and for chrissake keep your mouth shut.”

I can’t say it was fun, really, but it surely did tickle. Of course it would have gone way past tickling if there hadn’t been all that yummy wheat for the plaguesters to munch on, but I know my Uncle Marvin wouldn’t have let me out there if he’d thought it was better than even odds I’d be eaten alive. Despite his rawhide skin and occasional tough-guy talk (“…damn cow went & cut her damn tit, barbwire fence, north quarter…”) Marvin was as cool, elegant and gentle as his beloved Siamese cat Ching.

Next day there appeared to be no wheat left to worry about, and Marvin turned his attention to the barn swallow problem. He could have told me, “Shoot all the swallows you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a crow.” Of course Harper Lee had already said pretty much the same thing a couple of years previously, so I guess he figured I already knew this. He put me up on the parked combine with my .177 and said they’d come out of the hole in the barn gable, and if I could pick off a few he’d take me into Manor for a hot dog and Coke and some free time on the barber’s pool table. And so I did: three or four in about an hour, and then I stopped after the crow went down.

Maybe I should’ve felt more like a sinner than I did, but actually I was quite impressed with myself. To drop a bird of that size with an air rifle would require a shot right between the eyes, though it’s possible he just died of sheer surprise. I found him in the tall grass and made sure he wasn’t just injured, and in pain, but he was dead alright. If I’d known then that Alfred Hitchcock had just released The Birds, I might have wondered whether my crow had any relatives in the cast, and if they knew where I lived.

A few days later as we were heading back east I looked back and saw a dark cloud on the western horizon. It was low to the ground and seemed to be gaining on us. It could have been just plain old big prairie weather, or maybe a few million more gregarious grasshoppers, or could it have been…  swallows…  crows? I began to think about how Dad’s Chevy would most likely run out of gas somewhere near Starbuck, and how we’d be stranded for an hour or so on that lonesome highway, just twenty miles short of home. I recognize that moment now as an early encounter with my inner Tippi Hedren, but I couldn’t have known that then; I was just knee-high to, oh…  let’s just say it was a grasshopper.

The Castrato Cowpoke of Kingston County

In Stephen King’s Joyland, Devon Jones mentions in passing, “…another summer mopping cafeteria floors and loading elderly Commons dishwashers with dirty plates didn’t hold much charm for me…”

In the summer of 1969 that prospect held all kinds of charm for me, though, because it meant I could have two months of complete independence for the very first time. My after-school job as busboy at the University of Manitoba would become full-time for the summer, and as a full-timer I was allowed to rent a bedsitter in the bowels of Mary Speechly Hall, the big hall of residence. There was a medium-security special wing for The Lifers: the full-time and somewhat damaged cafeteria staff who chose to live on-site. So for a summer I lived among the The Lifers. I came out of it unscathed and unsullied, possibly because I was utterly oblivious to what I now assume was going on down there.

Across the corridor was the self-nicknamed Fat Barry. “Howdy! Ah’m Fat Barry an’ ah’m from Texas,” he would say in a very high-pitched drawl from….well, if there’s a town called Kingston, Ontario in Texas then that’s where it was from. Occasionally Barry would slip out of character and lose the drawl, but the falsetto never failed him. When I became an opera fan years later, I wondered whether perhaps that wasn’t a falsetto at all, but actually his real voice, and how in demand he could have become had the baroque revival begun twenty years earlier. Of course he’d have needed to drop Texan in favour of a few European languages including English, and the ability to carry a tune—which he couldn’t—would have been a bonus too, on most if not all opera stages.

He spent most his spare cash on amazing satin cowboy shirts in mauve, sky blue and gold, festooned with embroidered lariats, spurs, guns and bullwhips. These billowed in shimmering rolls nearly down to his knees, so that no one including Fat Barry could see exactly where he hitched up his too-tight jeans with the rolled-up cuffs, or indeed whether that voice of his had been achieved surgically. Of course they hadn’t been performing that particular procedure down Texas way for, oh… decades!

The boots were absolutely real, really from Texas and glorious to behold. He didn’t need to tell me they were handmade, and I decided for myself that they had been custom fitted maybe a half-size too small, the better to facilitate a John Wayne-style pigeon-toed, mincing gait. I wondered how those beauties could be afforded on a busboy’s pay, but Barry confided to me that he did receive the occasional package of greenbacks from the family ranch. Oil, dontcha know…

I loved how Barry clearly got the joke that was his self-made persona. The occasional wink suggested that he knew I got it too, but that he was sure he had pretty much everyone else fooled, at least so long as he was the only Texan in town.

I could—won’t for now but will, soon—carry on about Fat Barry’s fellow Lifers, Crazy Albert and Little George Gage, but that would lead into a treatise on the mechanics of washing dishes for 1600 student diners in two hours, three times a day, and to a sidebar on the extended coffee break we all had one day that summer to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. And how much I loved to wheel steaming clean plates out to Sandy Schultz as she served up Salisbury steak on the servery line.