A letter to 6 year old Julia in Kansas before Y2K:
Sunday, Nov. 7, 1999
The Great Divide
Good morning, Julia.
I’m sitting here in the cool dawn, sipping a cup of coffee, listening to the chickens crow and being heckled unmercifully by the blacks for favors. The two polish roosters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are beginning to try their hands at crowing without notable success. They tend to be off on their time and they cut the crowing short of the ur-ur-urrrrr of the more mature birds.
But enough of this chicken news. I began writing this to discuss the subject of fly swatting with you, certainly a more worthy focus of discourse when watching the birds in their activities, which reminded me how gratified I was by your interest in the various flock members during your visit. So I’ll finish the chicken component of this letter by saying you are right to be interested in them.
The importance of chickens in human life, now and in the past, cannot be over-stated. Even the great human philosopher, Plato, in the Socrates dialogues, put mention of a chicken in the final words of Socrates, prior to his death. Socrates, pacing, reflecting, and finally on the verge of succumbing to the hemlock he’d taken, spoke abruptly; almost as an afterthought, to Crito, (one of his yes-men): “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Please pay without fail.”
So there you are. In fact, one of the deeper philosophical questions of this and earlier times contemplated by wise men everywhere is, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
Why, indeed. However, as I’ve said, the subject of this letter was intended to be fly swatting, not chickens, and I’ll not have it compromised by endless meanderings on lesser matters. The prowess with the flyswatter you demonstrated during your visit demands nothing less.
I’ll begin by saying that when I was a youngster (back when the 20th century had only begun its interminable mid-life crisis), it was widely, almost universally, recognized that children are far more adept at killing flies than are adults. Probably because of their lightning reflexes and sharper eye. This wisdom has suffered neglect partly because of screen doors, refrigeration, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and other curses of modern life.
In my day, anytime there was a gathering of adults for dominoes or canasta, picnics or outdoor parties, even if there was only one child present, he would quickly be given a fly swatter and put to the task. When more than one child was present, usually it was thought that the rowdiest, most rambunctious child, the one most likely to lead the others to acts of courage, bravado, or cunning, would be the best suited to ridding the affair of the fly nuisance.
I can promise you that in those days my fly swatting skills were second to none. However, over the years I’ve lost my razor edge. My reflexes are no longer as sharp, and the keenness of eye is largely gone, as the case with most adults.
Of course, the proper tools are also the victims of disuse. There were giants in the earth for fly swatting tools back then. For a dime you could purchase a fly swatter with a limber wooden handle and a flap of heavy rubber or leather that was equal to the most severe fly nuisance. My granddad had one he’d made himself of tooled leather that could sometimes send three or four flies at once off to the hereafter.
In those times the fly problem was probably worse than it is today. I’ve never seen it happen, but I was told many times by adults who had themselves seen it, of incidents where a child lapsed in the task he’d been assigned, fell behind, and was actually carried away by swarms of the angry insects.
Anyway, I’m sitting here, a burned-out has-been in the fly swatting arena, hoping to give you a few tips – the old worn out champ passing on a few tricks to a future talent who is yet a novice. Even with the fly swatting tools available in stores today, I firmly believe you can hone the skills with diligence and patience to become, as Marlon Brando coined the phrase in, “On the Waterfront”, a contender.
First off, it’s important to recognize that flies frequently jump backward or drop downward in their efforts to elude the slap. If you anticipate this and lead them a little, you’ll find what would otherwise have been a useless swing that did little more than knock over a lamp or a porcelain knick-knack, will result in the satisfying trophy of a fly in the dishwater or in a large bowl of coleslaw underneath the target area.
Secondly, you need to always keep in mind that while fly killing is a high priority to adults when they put you to the task, the priority invariably changes when they see a dead fly dropping into their drink. So, unless you do it unobserved, I’d suggest you’ll be more widely acclaimed for your skills if you steer well clear of anything but the most subtle or inadvertent trajectory of a defunct fly into any food or drink which is in view of an adult or older child who can’t be trusted to remain silent in the shared joy of secret knowledge. Most can’t, I myself learned in the hard school of experience.
Thirdly, the swing, or swings. Usually the fly swatter, (the tool, not the child wielding it) works best with short abrupt flicks of the wrist from an area only a foot or so above the insect. With the lighter tools of today’s world, the swing probably needs to be handled with vigor and with a little attention to the follow-through. On a window or other surface where the flies are thickly gathered, sometimes a series of rat-tat-tat slaps can net a goodly pile of carcasses and numbers for your growing record book.
Keep in mind that even on days when you are approaching previous records, adults are unlikely to be impressed when a previous record broken is accompanied by fly remains smeared across the front of the refrigerator or permanently embedded in a window screen. Fly killing is a matter involving politics, philosophy, and judgment, as well as the keenness of eye and lightening reflexes mentioned earlier.
I suppose the thing that got me started thinking of writing you about flies is the abundance of them in this house the last couple of days. I don’t know why. Usually they are attracted to areas where there’s livestock. But here there is no livestock. Just the three cats, the chickens, and myself.
You might tell your mom and dad I’ve been using my wood stove the last couple of days. It’s enough to roast a human out of the house with a single large log burning on a cold night. But getting it hot enough to cook food requires a lot of smaller wood. With large logs inside it won’t boil water between now and the day you, Julia, become the bride of some fortunate suitor.
Your dad will want to know the thing I went through the wall with did fine with normal fires, but when I determined to stoke it full of small wood for a breakfast fire and coffee this morning it charred the paper front on the insulation around the outer pipe. Of course, the stovepipe was glowing red through that episode, which is to be avoided.
You might also mention that trying to erect a stovepipe along a wall by one’s self is a thing you haven’t really lived until you’ve done. Cartoons used to show shanty houses with zigzagging stovepipe. I never knew why until now.
Hanging the kitchen cabinets alone was also one of those experiences which, like the man who decided to carry a cat home by the tail, will most likely remain burned in memory for a while.
I’m not inclined to regret anything in my recent past and hope I never will. The person I now am differs from the person I was at your age as a result of cumulative lessons I’ve learned from choices I’ve made between that time and this. However, there’s nevertheless a temptation to gnash my teeth a little for not having taken advantage of your dad’s kind offer to help with the electrical wiring from the windmill, solar panels, inverter, and batteries, into the house. I’m reminded of that offer each time I fiddle with the connections and the hidden short somewhere shuts down the inverter.
Hmmm… this letter has gone on and on. There’s nothing particularly personal or confidential about it, except the tips on fly killing, so feel free to share it with your family. Or keep it until you are able to read better and read it yourself.
Best wishes to your brothers and your mom and dad.
Note from Julia in 2008:
I honestly don’t remember this at all. This is by far the best letter ever written to me, I’m just glad I can read it and appreciate it now!
Burl Ives– Blue Tail Fly