Monday, April 17, 2006

The Bug Truck

Yesterday I was on my way home from the office and passed an ice cream truck just two blocks from my house.

I can’t remember the last time I saw an ice cream truck in my neighborhood. It was probably sometime around 1974.

As a kid growing up in the thick heat of the South Mississippi summers, the circus-like jingle of the ice cream truck creeping down the street was always a welcome sound. It could be heard from blocks away and a mad dash always followed, with dozens of neighborhood kids running frantically to make sure they ended up on the same street as the truck before it passed.

There was an excited eagerness that preceded the advent of the truck that was unique only to that occasion. Hot and sweaty kids anxiously waiting for ice cream is an unrivaled enthusiasm. Those who anticipated the truck’s arrival earlier in the day were already packing pocket change. Others, unprepared, had to run beg money from their mother and hurry back before the ice cream man bolted. When the truck finally stopped, a swarm ensued.

The only other sound that generated as much excitement in my neighborhood was the hum of the bug truck ambling down the street.

The Bug Truck was a city-owned vehicle and the lone soldier in the battle for a mosquito-free neighborhood. It had a large white tank on the back that spewed a thick white fog as it slowly ambled down the block, sort of a crop duster on wheels. In those days, the fog that billowed from the back of the truck was laced with DDT and highly poisonous.

Wherever the bug truck traveled, a crowd of at least half a dozen kids riding their bikes in and out of the fog would certainly follow. No matter what was happening elsewhere in the neighborhood, weaving in and out of the thick white mist was THE place to be at that moment.

The bravest of our crew would stand on the bumper of the bug truck, their faces only inches away from the source of the insecticide, eyes watering, toxic fog blowing furiously in their faces. I am fully prepared to grow a second head and a third eye by the time I am in my sixties, just for breathing in a few summers’ worth of DDT.

My mother, a single mom, was an early warrior in the battle to save the environment. She subscribed to environmentally conscious magazines and had read a theory that the fog from the bug truck did, indeed, kill mosquitoes, but then the birds ate the mosquitoes and died, the cats ate the birds and died, the dogs ate the cats and died, and eventually everyone on our block was going to croak because the bug truck passed in front of our house.

One summer evening, my brother and I were eating an early supper when we heard the seductive sound of the bug truck turning the corner at the end of our street. We looked at each other and just as we were about to jump out of our chairs and head outside our mother yelled, “No! You boys sit back down. I’ve had enough of this!”

She stormed out the front door and stood in the middle of our street, feet planted, left arm outstretched in a Tiananmen Square-style tank-halting protest. My brother and I watched wide-eyed from inside the house as she walked towards the drivers-side window, and began shaking her finger, lecturing the driver on the long and drawn out birds-eating-the-mosquitoes theory. The kids cycling behind the truck scattered.

The mosquito lectures continued for a few consecutive nights, until, after a few weeks of environmental sermons, the bug man finally started avoiding our street altogether. Consequently all of the mosquitoes moved into our neighborhood and the St.John boys were the ones who returned to school at the end of the summer looking like they had a chronic case of chicken pox.

Nowadays they have removed the DDT from the bug truck’s tanks. The vehicle that travels in front of my house, today, spits out a weak stream of a barely visible mist, certainly nothing that could be considered fog. There are no children pedaling their bikes behind the truck or riding on the bumper. Consequently, all of the dogs and cats are healthy and accounted for; they might have my mother to thank for that.

We do, however, have an ice cream truck, and the next time I hear its alluring call, I’ll grab my two children and a handful of change and join in the chase.

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