Mack Williams: The boy, the moth, the mason jar and the bird

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 19, 2015

It’s been some time since a child last brought a “jarred” insect or snake into the science museum where I work asking, “What is it?”

Lately, many “little boys and girls” of social security age have done so. It’s good to know that some of those nature-loving “kids” of the 1950s and ’60s are still excited about nature.

One brought a garter snake from the floor of the movie theater he operates. Both manager and ushers “brought flashlights to the fight” (along with jar), evicting that potentially disruptive “theater-goer.”

I released it in a thicket beside the Dan River.

An older lady came in with what looked like an earthworm with the head of a snake. Not a freak of nature (nor the Barnum kind), it was a “worm snake,” which lives  underground and, appropriately enough, eats earthworms. Imagine a hunter going beyond camouflage to actually dress up as a deer (blaze orange cap, hopefully donned).

I eventually calmed her fear of harmless worm snakes burrowing in the earth beneath her yard. (That movie would be “Wiggles” instead of “Tremors.”)

I kept it temporarily for school children’s education, then let it go.

Another “Medicare kid” (sans cane) brought a “walking stick insect,” resembling a mobile twig. A fellow employee photographed it crawling up my arm for the museum newsletter. While crawling on me, it dropped two legs (but having begun with 6, it was, nonetheless, an insect).

Walking sticks drop legs as “offerings” when in danger of being consumed; but this one was safe, as I had just eaten lunch.

The gentleman found the walking stick eating an apple on a tree (also apple) in his front yard. When asked what he should do with it, I advised him to put it back on the apple to complete its meal.

To this group of insect and snake-toting seniors, another one now goes “retro” to cite his own sad case of “the boy, the moth, the mason jar, and the bird,” which occurred in his boyhood backyard just off the Old Concord Road in the late 1950s. (Like Senator Bob Dole, I too am fluent in third person.)

One afternoon, I noticed a beautiful, giant, brown moth attached to the outside of our old back porch screen. This porch later became the washer-dryer room of my friends Charlie and Pam, who live there now.

The great moth was a “Polyphemus.” In Greek Mythology, Polyphemus was one of the Cyclopes, and there are some circular, “faux eyes” on its wings (but more than one). Concerning mythology, I always think of Edith Hamilton, who “wrote the book,” and Mrs. Thayer Puckett, East Rowan’s Latin teacher who enriched our lives with it.

That nocturnal creature must have been on the back porch screen all day, suffering the daylight-stunned immobility of an eastern European vampire.

I put it in a Mason jar on the back porch, having first found a canning ring and punched some air holes in a canning lid with that indispensable childhood tool for aerated keeping of live insects, the ice pick.

By next morning, tiny edges of wings had been broken off as a result of the creature’s nocturnal, claustrophobic frenzy.

Some areas of remaining wing were as clear as cellophane, their previously attached color scales having “painted” the glass.

My mother said: “Let the moth go,” since a Mason jar made for a poor home (except for things blanched).

After I unscrewed the lid, the “prisoner” needed no coaxing to exit, rising with great leisurely “flaps” toward boughs seemingly parted by a fresh, energetic morning sun, different from its late afternoon “weariness.”

Daylight shone through its wings’ natural “eye spots,” as well as through colorless transparencies, the injuries from its “canned” struggle.

“Antheraea polyphemus” (Latin, not merely for science’s sake, but also in memory of Mrs. Puckett), almost made it to the treetops, when a bird flew down and scooped it up, either to feed its nest-bound offspring or itself (the first motive noble; the second, less noble but just as instinctive).

My young heart broke (or at least fractured)! If only the moth had become caught in a ground-based spider web, I could have helped; but its interception a few stories up made both of us the helpless recipients of something “unfair,” (the moth, more so).

Not long ago, I raised Luna moths (of “Lunesta” fame) from egg to adulthood; but having learned the tragic lesson of that bright, late 1950s morning, I did something different.

I released “night things” into the night, giving them and my feelings at least a fighting chance.

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