Swatting Flies in the Last Century

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.

Old Jules

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!
~ Julia

Burl Ives– Blue Tail Fly

13 responses to “Swatting Flies in the Last Century

  1. What a great letter! Although I am an “Oldster” I still appreciate the tips on fly swatting. I’ll have to practice my swings….when there are flies around. So far my home is flyless.
    Blessed be….

  2. Jules, this is great for me on a couple of levels. Howard Hughes hiring a fly catcher was a great piece I read somewhere years ago. ‘I Was a Fly Catcher for Howard Hughes” The stovepipe imagery evoked memories of my Appalachian home (R-0) insullation factor and Daddy building fires. We kept a slop bucket, for the pig man, and that drew flies which we massacred by the zillions with our swatters. Great fun!!!

  3. Hi Momlady: Good seeing you stopping in this morning. Thanks for the fly report, also. Summer here’s been a strange one in that regard [fly abundance] and I’ve wondered about it. I’ve eaten two watermelons outdoors over the past couple of weeks and wasn’t troubled by a single fly, not one. Might be the drought accounts for it, or more likely the flies are off somewhere planning future activities intended to score better stuff than watermelons. Conspiring in ways to over-winter, storm the cities, rain chaos on fast food joints, inside passenger airplanes and automobiles. Thanks for the visit. J

    Hi Cletis: Good having you here. Never heard of the Howard Hughes thing, but I do recall reading he was a sanitation enthusiast. Dovetails nicely with keeping down the fly population.

    Yeah, the skills involved in the use of a flyswatter are probably worthy of preserving in the body of human knowledge and they’ve been sadly, ominously neglected for the most part. Gracias, J

  4. My experience is that flies in Texas are easy meat. Slow, ruminative, and fatalistic. Mostly they are too lazy to bite. Many are more sits than flies. You can sneak up on them while they are dozing.

    But if you want to really hone your swatting skills – if you want to go pro – go north. New Mexico might be far enough:


    But for the really big leagues, I recommend Alaska. In the Walmarts up yonder, you can find technological innovations like electric flyswatters. Sort of a battery powered insect zapper with a handle. You don’t aim the thing. You just wave it about in front of your face to clear lanes, for breathing purposes.

    You may claim that’s cheating, down here in the Soft South, where flies are torpid and largely disinterested. People have gotten spoiled. But up in the land of the Midnight Sun, you gratefully accept any edge you can lay yer hands on.

    And don’t even get me started on mosquitoes.


  5. Hi Bob. Thanks for stopping in and for the link. I don’t know much about Alaska flies, but I’ve thought for some while Texas flies aren’t as good as New Mexico flies. Your New Mexico flies description’s good as far as it goes. But New Mexico flies have the ability to sense water of any sort and go there rapidly enough to command respect.

    No flies? Pee and immediatly the air around you will be full of them. Sweat, here they come.

    I’m going to watch the thrift stores for one of those electric flyswatters. Just in case the Alaskan flies don’t respect our borders.

    Gracias, J

  6. Before I was forced in to wearing glasses, I’d grab them outta the air and often take them out and put in the big ole wood spider web!! Course you know the trick? 99% of the time they take off backwards. Now days I and stuck with the plastic model of swatters, but did score one of the metal ones from the farm house while we were moving out the last of stuff from there.

    • Hi Anonymous: Good trick snatching them out of the air. I don’t know as I was ever able to pull that off, though I once had a dog pretty good at snapping them out of the air. After thinking about this entry in the back of my mind during the day I’ve been thinking I might come up with a better fly swatter than what they’re selling now I can put together here. I’ve got some rolls of metal window screen I picked up at a garage sale that might serve on the business end if trimmed to a size and shape I have in mind, maybe duct taped along the edges with a baling wire stiffener under the duct tape. But I haven’t decided what to use for a handle. Needs some spring to it.

      I surely like that spider web thing. But I’m fond of spiders under the worst of circumstances.

      Thanks for stepping in. J

  7. Speaking strictly for myself, one fly is worse than a herd of mosquitoes. That one fly, on the lam, can wreck my nerves. I try hard to accept them, ’cause Native American’s believe they have messages to tell us or some such thing. I’ve never heard any secret spiritual codes, never allowed them to stay alive long enough to listen for them. The place I bought last year came equipped with several swatters, including some that look pretty vintage. I’m well-armed.

    What a great letter you wrote to young Julia.

    • Teresa Evangeline: Thanks for coming by and commenting. I’m personally against whichever is buzzing around. I don’t mind mosquito plagues when they’re somewhere in Dallas or Alaska and it’s flies bothering me here. But if it’s mosquitoes here and flies there my tolerance of flies skyrockets and my love of mosquitoes fades.

      Gracias, J

  8. This is great lol, thanks!

  9. I will probably return for your thoughts on the chickens.

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