I noticed a particularly large anthill one time near the house, on the warm, south side.
I had plenty of time on my hands at that point in my younger days here in the hometown. So with a scientific curiosity and 11 years of age under my belt I determined to try some experiments with the hill’s large, red ants.
First I fed them some sugar. They dutifully took it down their ant holes, one grain at a time.
When they seemed to tire of sugar I tried a Japanese beetle. They took down the beetle, but then it must’ve broken free as it crawled right up through the ground to the surface. He had to excuse himself from dinner quickly, I suppose, particularly when he found out he was on the menu.
I tried all sorts of things. I soaked the ant hill with water. I tried dropping some black ants at the red ants’ holes. The two sides were supposed to fight but the black ants just walked away, ignored by their red brethren.
They used to sell ant farms in stores. The comic-book ads for the ant farms looked exciting, showing a terrarium with ants crawling through little tunnels and with a little toy windmill on the surface and with kids staring on in fascination.
I wanted a store-bought ant farm but never could find one here in the Elkin stores.
Then I finally saw one in an old Kress five-and-dime store in downtown Asheville. We didn’t have a Kress here. But Mom would not get me an ant farm.
“But it’s an educational toy,” I pleaded. I guess the Harris education budget was short.
So contrary to an insidious rumor floating around here, I in fact did not get everything I wanted as a child.
Absent my having a store-bought ant farm a buddy offered a couple of old panes of glass and some scrap wood, and we set out to build our own ant farm.
I collected some black ants and put them in. But nothing happened. “They must’ve climbed out,” Mom said. No, I didn’t think to put a lid on the terrarium - how else could the ants breathe?
I put the contraption away. Then one day Mom said, “Have you seen your ant farm?”
I hurriedly ran downstairs and there was one solitary ant in a tunnel slaving away. I was at a bit of a loss at what to do next. I tried to feed and water the ant, but he looked so desolate and lonely. I finally took pity and let him loose and gave up on the project.
Ants held a fascination because of all the stories I had seen and heard about them. There’s the ancient fable of the busy ant and the lazy grasshopper. And there were all the science-fiction stories of monster ants terrifying the heroes of movies and comic books.
Mom would spend hours at grandma’s in Austin, and with nothing else to do during my long waits there I’d find an old jar and collect black ants.
I’d let them go before we left. But, boy, think of the hit I would had been had I taken all of those ants to school the next day. And let them loose at an opportune time, say during lunch.
I expect the ants didn’t appreciate my attention.
I gave up my youthful fascination with ants and went my way, grew up and paid ants no further mind.
But the ants were just waiting patiently for the right opportunity to get me back.
They saw the chance a few years ago when I was in South Carolina as a guest at a picnic. I was sitting at a picnic table in a public park. It was the middle of summer and insufferably hot. They have no cooling breeze coming off the mountain down in South Carolina.
I was getting hotter and hotter and more and more uncomfortable and wondering if I should cut out early. Then my feet started hurting. I tried to take the load off by sitting down with a plate of catered barbecue, the highlight of the picnic.
But soon my feet would not allow me to ignore them any longer. They started throbbing.
I looked down and saw nothing. Then I put on my reading glasses and saw something tiny on my sandaled feet.
I was having my first encounter, I finally figured out, with fire ants.
I’d heard of fire ants but did not know how tiny the little buggers are. And what a wallop their bites pack.
Perhaps you’ve heard of them. Technically, they’re called the red imported fire ant, and they entered the country in 1929 at the port of Mobile, Ala., from South America. They’re bad news.
Over the decades they’ve moved north to roughly the I-85 corridor in North Carolina, according to N.C. State University.
In South Carolina those ants were biting the fire, pardon the pun, out of me. I tried brushing them off. And then I got my tarheels out of South Carolina.
I could just hear the ants back home break into wild applause.
Sorry to break this to you, but they say the fire ants are continuing their relentless move north. And I have a good idea where they are headed.
To my house. It appears they have some unfinished business with me.
In memoriam: I was saddened to hear of the passing last week of my onetime Elkin barber, Olin Lyon. He seemed tickled after I mentioned him in an Aug. 8, 2011, “Hometown” column, “A hair-raising tale.” Here’s what I said:
“Olin Lyon was at Elkin Barber Shop on West Main where the Wachovia (now Wells Fargo) parking lot is now. He’d leave my hair long enough in back to lay flat down to the hairline and not leave short little hairs sticking up. I loved him for that. That was important to a young guy in the late ’60s.”
Some time later I came across Mr. Lyon at a funeral home visitation. He invited me to sit with him for a spell, and I told him I had been too particular about my hair when I was a teenager. But Mr. Lyon insisted, no, it was important to get my haircuts just right. What a guy.
My condolences to his sister and my cousin Faye, his son and my former classmate Dale, and the rest of the family.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road