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One of my Grandfather’s favorite places to find fishing worms was behind the old Freelandville, Indiana Mill, where tons of spent grain husks and chaff had piled up for decades. The resulting heap of decomposition produced layer upon layer of truly bizarre habitat, and one that to a small boy was downright frightening. Although “Papa” did most of the digging, he always brought along an extra small shovel and encouraged me to find my own worms. “Bigger fish will bite on worms you dig yourself,” he explained.

So, off I’d wander into the rank, steaming mounds of the old Freelandville, Indiana Mill, with coffee can, toy shovel, and teddy-bear in tow.

Whoa!

One day I had just uncovered a particularly nasty patch of compost. Underneath, was the biggest worm I’d ever seen. Even with small, kid’s fingers, the worm was twice as big around as my thumb. “Papa!” I shouted, grabbing hold of it. “There’s a great HUGE worm over here!”

Papa rushed over, thinking I had found a garden snake. He stared down at the worm. “Let’s see what you’ve got there,” he said, stooping as I let go of my discovery. The worm-thing began to pull itself deeper into the compost, its slimy coat glowing faintly as it contracted and expanded its body segments in an attempt at getting away. Papa grabbed it and began pulling on it. The worm tightened, giving up a foot or two, then broke in half, the severed ends exuding an awful smelling pea-green fluid. In his hand was a three feet section of— what?

The front end disappeared down the 3/4-inch diameter hole.

Papa examined the elongated tail section for several minutes. “I’ll be dog-gone if I know what this is!” he exclaimed, dropping the still squirming THING into my can, wiping his hands on his coveralls. (Meme wasn’t going to like that!) Then, we packed up our shovels, hopped in Papa’s 1950s  Ford, nicknamed “the Green Hornet” (based on the radio show series), and went fishing. Later that day I learned something very important to a fisherman’s way of thinking: not only do bigger fish bite on worms you dig yourself, even bigger fish will bite on BIGGER worms you dig yourself!

Thing in a Can Planet

Papa never mentioned the thing in a can again, and to this day, when I lie in bed, tossing and turning and unable to sleep, I sometimes think about the bygone Freelandville, Indiana Mill and wonder…

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“And the Moon be Still as Bright”*.

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I’m not what you might call a cat lover, but several girlfriends and ex-wives have been. One day my tolerance for ammonia and bathroom kitty poop boxes reached an all-time low, which was about the same period in my life that I grew tired of spent kitty litter pellets sticking to the bottoms of my bare feet after stepping out of the shower.

So I decided to construct an outdoor “privacy area” for the felines, a project that would, once and for all,  free up the bathroom for humans like me who don’t poop in boxes.

I designed a conveniently hinged laundry room window exit that opened to a rabbit wire full enclosure cage (approximately 4x4x8-feet tall complete with a cheap bar stool step for a kitty landing) extending from mid-window to ground level underneath our carport roof. I snipped open an access doorway at the bottom of the rectangular litter cage,  allowing easy removal and dumping of oversize litter pans. In the process of clipping the thick doorway mesh with a pair of wire cutters, the last snip action slung a hooked piece of galvanized wire completely through my right nostril — impaling me quite fashionably yet hooking me unceremoniously onto the rabbit-wire panel. Try as I might, I was unable to disengage my bloody nose from this rather large piece of jewelry. Humiliated beyond belief, I was forced to bellow for my wife’s assistance: “MAUREEN, come QUICK — I’ve almost finished the kitty litter project!”

Eventually, Maureen stopped laughing long enough to unhook the hooked wire from my nose. For a week or two I wore a bandage similar to the one Jack Nicholson sported in the movie Chinatown.

The window cage was a smashing success. The cats loved to perch on the stool inside the cage, observing all that happened in the fresh outdoors all around them — especially the chattering birds, who loved to laugh at the curious caged animals pooping in a pan of gravel.

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It was late afternoon and the sun was setting along a distant tree line; it looked like an iridescent ping pong ball on fire. Below it, dancing in squiggly lines on the surface of the lake, orange reflections intersected in a tirelessly changing pattern as same and as different as each rippling of the molten waves.

This was my favorite time of day — one to be shared with a glass of wine and light jazz drifting through the deck’s screened patio doors. As I leaned against the rail and breathed in the gauze-like serenity of twilight, the buzz of the renegade deer fly replaced the meandering lacework from an intricate Hank Jones piano solo.

Ah, HA! My pulse quickened.

As the fly drew nearer, I carefully set down the glass of Pinot Noir and turned my head slightly, zeroing in on the approaching flight path. Just as the greedy fly circled for the kill, I slipped a tennis racket from behind my back and instigated a 100 mile-per-hour practice swing along a perfectly intersecting arc. There came an infinitely pleasing “PING” as the racket made brief but solid contact with a fuzzy, foreign object.

Two separate fly-pieces spiraled all the way out to deep water.

I sipped my wine and wiped the gritty residue from the tennis racket’s webbing, replacing the racket in its neat, zippered case. As the sun dipped into the still water, somewhere in the distance a bass jumped.

Twice.

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From the fly’s perspective 300 feet above Lake Gaston, the pate of my bald head must have looked like a pink dot bobbing in a quiet cove as I dog-paddled several hundred yards beyond my dock during my afternoon swimming exercise. The fly ran the fleshy dot-shape through its labyrinthine memory receptors located deep within its gritty little fly brain — and found a perfect color match to the same pinkish pattern that had flicked it into the water earlier that same morning. Gleefully, the fly tucked its wings back and dove down for a closer look.

YES, thought the fly while circling the flailing swimmer. THE PINK HEAD SHAPE IS AN EXACT MATCH!

I heard the fly’s loud buzzing approach long before I could make out the hairy triangular shape. Pausing briefly while treading water, I spun tiredly around in the water. Out of the corner of my swimming goggles, I caught sight of the dive-bombing terrorist just before it pulled up from its 90-degree attack angle. I thrashed my arms blindly in an effort to fend off the assault, the action of which caused me to sink like a stone. I inhaled a mouthful of lake water. Sputtering and coughing, I clamored to the surface.

The fly was gone.

I paddled around in a cautious 360-degree sweep of my surroundings. Overhead, a bank of gray clouds parted and I could feel warm sunshine puddling up on top of my head. And then I felt something else: a red-hot deer fly proboscis burrowing into my scalp!

I screamed and slapped my head with both hands, knocking my goggles down around my neck. The fly escaped safely in a near-vertical takeoff. But the buzzing sound did not go away. Instead, it circled like an errant electron in a wildly gyrating orbit. I gulped some air and snapped below the surface. I kicked and paddled in a straight line towards the far away dock, holding my breath until it felt my lungs would explode. Then I broke the surface, swatting maniacally in every direction, gulping more air, submerging again and repeating the process as if I were a breaching humpback whale.

From the safety of a boathouse piling, the fly rubbed its raspy fly-paws together and watched the spectacle through gleaming compound eyes. . .

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The insect can be 1 inch long and looks like a triangular spaceship. Although I realize it’s just some kind of nasty fly, I know it’s something much more evil. And it’s out to get me. It knows me by sight. Who knows — maybe even by fly-smell or some other fly-sense only another fly could appreciate.

Let me digress.

It all started one morning about a week ago while drinking a cup of coffee on the deck. It was a cold and colorless dawn, so cold that nearby ducks roosted with their heads tucked underneath their wing feathers; cold enough for that weird-looking, abnormally large mutant fly to squat on the top deck railing, waiting for a swatch of sunshine to warm up its hairy body to takeoff temperature; so cold in fact, that the stupid fly couldn’t even move while I mercilessly positioned my cocked finger just so. With a powerful flipping motion I flicked the insect over the edge of the deck.

“Buzz off,” I glowered in my best Terminator voice.

The fly’s dark silhouette spiraled all the way out to the lake, where it dropped down until it merged with a singularly reflected “PLIP” that swelled into tiny, expanding concentric circles. Instantly, the fly struggled toward the nearby bank — a stupid move on the fly’s part: miniscule distress vibrations drummed the surface. I waited for a hungry bass to happen by, and for a moment even thought about retrieving the fly and using it for an enticing bait. But, by the time I had finished my cup of coffee, the fly had made its way to the relative safety of a sunny, shoreline rock. The fly was lucky. It rubbed its raspy fly-paws together and angled its wings toward the sun for warmth.

It stared at me for a very long time. Unbeknownst to me — during this odd, recuperative process — the fly was burning my compound image deeply into the this-is-my-enemy area of its gritty little fly-brain. . .

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One of my favorite 1950s childhood toys was a shiny blue record player that had a huge round arm with a stylus as thick as a pencil lead. For hours every day, I sat on the floor in a pool of sunlight listening to the 78 rpm “The Flying Circus” album over and over again. Although I can’t be sure this is the correct title (I’ve searched for hours and it is not the Monty Python version!), I recall a particular opening scene in which a pin is dropped from a high trapeze. Down, down the pin hypnotically plunges into the center of a three ring circus, where a sinister ringmaster whispers: “It’s so quiet you can hear a pin drop!”

With eyes tightly shut, listening, listening, listening, I would drift away. A rustle of movement, a gray hulk of elephant the size of a mountain, the scent of popcorn and fresh manure. Sunlight tries to pry past my eyelids, where grease-painted clowns chase themselves in figure 8’s until they catch up with their own shadows. In a swirling cloud of sawdust, the circus tent is sucked into a diminishing spotlight like a black hole until the tent vanishes completely with me inside. A little boy frog materializes and discovers an ox grazing in a field. Awestruck by the size of the ox, the little frog hops home to tell his bullfrog father what he saw.

“Was he bigger than… THIS?” asks Daddy Bullfrog, inflating his balloon-like throat sac.

“Oh, MUCH bigger, Daddy, but—be CAREFUL!”

“Bigger than T  H  I  S ?” puffs up Daddy Bullfrog, even larger.

“POP!” goes the terrifying sound of Daddy Bullfrog exploding! Then, a kid’s song while the little boy frog happily patches Daddy Bullfrog up with a Band-Aid. There was an important “be who you are” lesson about life in those lyrics:

“Who wants to look like an ox anyway?
Hippity, Dippity, Dox.”

Although The Flying Circus allure — like most childish things — eventually wore off and the little blue record player was tossed away, the scratchy sounds and crisp images still swirl upon occasion inside my merry-go-round mind. And sometimes, very late at night, as I lie awake and secretly replay scenes from my childhood — imagining those grooves spiraling towards the center hole of that far away phonograph record galaxy — the darkness becomes so deathly still I can almost hear a pin drop.

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Tim says: the above lyrics are what I recall. When I searched on the Who wants to look like an ox lyrics, I discovered several references to the bullfrog analogy, none of which, unfortunately, pertained to my forgotten childhood album.

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