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Bug Play

By Mike Braswell

Hundreds of blackbirds noisily flocked in the trees above our heads. Barely noticing the noise from above, we filled Coke bottles with sand and caught the little red devils with our fingers. We quickly threw them into the top of the greenish glass bottles. The big-headed 'workers' were the prize catches. Colonies of these red menaces were all over the place back then. I see very few of them these days if any at all. We simply called them 'red ants, ' and they were huge compared to most other ants. It hurt as bad as a wasp sting when one got us, but that was never a deterrent.

'Pong,' the first video game ever, was still a few years away. We were already being programmed, however, for the future. These homemade ant farms kept us entertained for hours. They were handheld and interactive to a degree. Shaking the bottle was akin to using a game controller to manipulate the characters (ants) of the game. Adding other types of ants or insects to the bottle set up battles between opposing forces. The constant song of the blackbirds provided the soundtrack to our immersive gaming experience.

In a way, these 'games' were more interactive than today's high-tech junk. There was an added sensory experience that hasn't come about yet in the modern gaming world. In today's video games, if you are injured, there is merely the sensation of 'vibration' from the controller. When a red ant got you, it was excruciating pain that lasted up to an hour. We can only hope that modern games will not evolve that far. Still, we played the 'game' for hours and hours. Little did we know it then, but we were on the cusp of discovery. We held in our own red clay-stained hands the very first prototype of the 'Gameboy.'

Those menacing red ants with the fiery sting were not our only interactive games. There once were these giant metallic green beetles that thrived down here in the South - 'Junebugs,' we called them. They were terrific fliers. Our fathers educated us on their use.

We would tie a six or seven-foot-long piece of sewing thread to their hind leg. At the other end of the line was a loop. You placed the loop around your finger while holding the great beetle between two fingers of your other hand to prevent it from taking flight too soon.

Before releasing the bug, you had to hold your 'looped' finger above your head. If you didn't do this, you could become entangled once bug-flight was achieved and could very well end up with a mouth full of beetle. With finger raised, and after one final check of your string to ensure it wasn't tangled, you were ready. You had to gently throw the tethered beetle into the air with a precise flip of the wrist. Thinking itself free from captivity, the bug would take flight on a straight course. When the slack in the string was spent, the beetle was yanked abruptly into flying in circles. These bugs could fly more than twenty minutes on a single 'charge.' This game was rough on the bugs. That may be why we don't see many of them today. In our beetle juice-soiled hands, we held the prototype of the first drone while the great flocks of blackbirds swarmed above.

'Doodlebugs,' as we called them, were another interactive game piece of those days. Unlike the red ants and Junebugs, I still see Doodlebugs or Ant-Lions. They have just fallen out of popularity as an interactive game-piece, luckily for them, I suppose. We used a short piece of pine straw to entice the hidden pincher-faced bugs out of their lonely sand traps. A poem was usually recited as a part of this ritual, but I have long since forgotten the words. It was also fun to catch tiny ants and throw them into the conical sand traps of the Doodlebugs. The little round Doodlebugs would devour the ants one by one. Kneeling in the sand on 'skint' knees and with runny noses, we had created the Beta version of the first 'Pac-Man.' All the while, the noisy blackbirds were ever-present above us in the sky.

Last but not least were the Roly-Polys, which lived under rocks, especially around flower beds. Yes, they are still around but have lost their attraction as toys. These were not the most popular of the game bugs of the day. There was not much you could do with them, but they were fun for a few minutes. Just forcing them to curl up into tiny balls was fun. Throwing them at your cousin would bring a little more pleasure.

There were drawbacks to all of the insect-centered games. The ants would bite or sting you. The Junebugs often tangled the string around your finger, causing them to slam into your face somewhat hard. One hit me in my eye once. Somebody saw, so of course, I had to cry. The Doodlebugs were not always cooperative. They learned the difference between a thrashing, trapped ant and a piece of pine straw early in the game. They became pretty dull after only a few minutes. In my own experience, though, the tiny Roly-Poly or Pillbug proved to be the most dangerous of game pieces.

I think that the delay in launching the projectile was a significant error. I had devised the innovative idea of using a plastic straw to launch the tiny round bugs, much like a spitball. Those little bugs do not like to stay rolled up very long. After enticing the little bug to roll into a ball, I placed him into the straw. Before launch, I took the time to call my cousin a name (skunk face, I believe) before taking aim and firing. Placing my mouth onto the end of the straw and preparing to fire, I met with a distraction. My ammunition crawled into my mouth, throwing my timing off considerably. I inhaled when I should have exhaled.

I recall coughing violently for what seemed like forever upon inhaling the throat-tickling bug. I fell onto my back and was struggling to catch a breath. I may have even passed out. I know I laid there for a long time coughing before my cousin, who had disappeared when the ordeal began, ran out of the house with grandma in tow. I was breathing better by then but was relieved that my cousin had gone and gotten grandma out of concern for me. She would make it all better.

"Did you call Joey, Skunk-Face?" My grandma said, a little too harshly for my liking. "Yes, ma'am,' I replied. "Go pick out a limb from the Willow tree. I have told you not to call people names." I did as she said, and I knew not to get a wimpy limb, or she'd pick one herself. She spanked me so hard that it roused the thousand or more red-winged blackbirds that had settled in the Willow just after I had plucked the limb of execution.

Those birds briefly swarmed into a tree in the next yard and then flew away forever. They had always been a part of growing up here in the South, but that was the last time I recall ever seeing the enormous flocks of blackbirds settle in our southern trees. Things were beginning to change.

Just a few short years after the blackbirds ceased to flock, so it seems, did kids stop flocking together in backyards to join each other in play. The age of technology was creeping in upon us, and we'd never be the same. Children moved away from the outdoors and sequestered indoors, where they have remained ever since. You barely ever see the species in their natural habitat these days. Insects seem much more lonely and depressed and, as a result, have gotten meaner. I sometimes wonder if the Junebugs and red ants lost interest in living in a world where children no longer pay them any mind. Perhaps, along with the blackbirds, they moved on to another place where children still make their own fun. A land where kids don't miss out on the world around them while staring blankly into screens, growing pale and fat.

Time has moved on and has taken much of life's true pleasures along with it. Let's get back to where we should be. Let's give the insects purpose once again.

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