When I was just a small, one-dog Sled, I had to spend two or three summers in the dormitories of the College of William and Mary, down in the swampy wetlands of Virginia’s Tidewater. My father taught there at a summer band school, and all the instructors’ families were allowed to eat in the college cafeteria and put up for the four-week session in old buildings smelling of dry rot, mildew and freshman apprehension. Air conditioning was still a new thing in those days, reserved for movie houses and drugstores which sported a Kool Penguin on the glass door to let you know it wasn’t sweltering inside. We used to drag down a couple of big double window fans housed in sheet metal which took up half the cargo space in the car.
The buildings, along with despairing and tired aromas, housed entire civilizations of palmetto bugs. These are the tropical relatives of the well known city cockroach, achieving sizes of three inches and faces capable of distinct expressions, given a nutrient-packed diet. Local stores were perpetually devoid of the coveted new Raid insecticide; seasoned regulars at the band school brought their own.
Up one floor a couple of the guys — Frankie Reid and George Horan, a drummer and a trumpeter — shared a room. Picture a building entirely painted an exhausted shade of institutional pea green, the floors a rippling brown linoleum, despite which every door was finished in a six-panel molding style still known as the Arlington. (This is, after all, the Old Dominion.) George and Frankie’s door sported an extra adornment — a trophy display of all the palmetto bugs they had slaughtered in the course of the summer. “‘Elephant Foot’ Horan,” read an adjacent typescript, “prefers to obliterate the invader with a single stroke of his mighty size 13′s, while ‘Jose Greco‘ Reid cancels their contracts beneath his heels to a passionate flamenco beat.” I saw grown men turn faint and pale at the spectacle of this exhibit. People left Frank and George pretty much alone at the end of the hall, which may have suited them fine; those were the days when bandsmen in general enjoyed killing a fifth on a weekend evening.
I got to thinking of them because I am dealing with an invasion of fecking palmetto bugs from my drains, courtesy of the renovations at the dead lady’s house up the street, which her having been a hoarder whose accumulated detritus filled two dumpsters before they could even get to the walls must have been a national sanctuary for the revolting things. Four cats and a knack for bug baits (peanut butter and boric acid; magic stuff) are a mighty defense, and these are nothing like the size of the bastards that occupied the drains of the long-ago Tidewater, but I could wish for Jose or Elephant Foot. Who I find is no longer on this mortal coil; sic transit gloria mundi. I wonder if the people who wrote his obit, or even his missus, knew about his prowess as a roach assassin.