LET'S DEAL RIGHT AWAY WITH THE OBSESSION ISSUE. I WOULD MAINtain that I am not properly described as being obsessed with chiggers. Interested in a rather intense way, yes -- but not obsessed. It's true that I've never been able to think of summertime without thinking of chiggers. It's true that I talk about chiggers constantly, even in mid-winter. It's true that I once responded to hearing about some refusenik being sent to Siberia by saying, "Well, at least it's too cold there for chiggers." So what?
While we're at it, we might as well deal with the morbid fear issue. I would maintain that it's not really accurate to say that I have a morbid fear of chiggers. In my opinion, an unwillingness to approach high grass in the summertime -- even in Nova Scotia, where we spend our summers in a place that is, not by accident, a full thousand miles from the nearest chigger -- does not reflect morbid fear but simple prudence. Of course, "morbid fear" is a fuzzy phrase anyway. A fear that is fully justified, for instance, is obviously not a morbid fear -- unless, of course, what is feared involves morbidity. Now that I think of it, maybe we should deal with the morbid fear issue a little later.
My wife is the one who's responsible for the impression that there's something unnatural about my interest in chiggers. She grew up in the Northeast, which is a chigger-free zone, and she doesn't understand why I'm afraid of chiggers. This is more or less the equivalent of someone from North Dakota wondering why someone who grew up in the swamps is afraid of alligators:
The simple fact is that we've seen the damage these beasts can do. My wife has a clear position on my interest in chiggers. She says that I might well have been bitten a lot by chiggers when I was a boy in Kansas City, Mo., but that I am no longer a boy nor in Kansas City and that my constant mention of chiggers therefore amounts to an obsession, or maybe even a morbid fear.
That's what my wife says now. There was a time when she did not believe in the existence of such a thing as a chigger. There's a lot about Kansas City my wife doesn't believe. On visits to Kansas City, for instance, she has seen the bull on top of the American Hereford Association building with her own eyes, but she still does not believe that its heart and liver light up at night. She has never believed that the largest body of water near Kansas City, Lake Lotawana, goes up a foot and a half on the Fourth of July, when everyone gets in at once. She was particularly skeptical about chiggers, I think, because I told her that they were too small to be seen by the human eye -- even a human eye wide with fear.
The fact that a chigger can't be seen may have something to do with why it's not better known to the general public -- although every time I read about the concentration of the national media in the Northeast, I toy with a conspiracy theory or two. Chiggers have missed out on the folklore that keeps mosquitoes in the public mind -- folklore that is not based on itch-power but on pure size. Storytellers are always talking about mosquitoes large enough to carry off a full-grown man; what they don't tell you is that if the man were bitten during his kidnapping, the bite would only itch for an hour or two. The duration of chigger-bite itch is, as I have pointed out in a scientific treatise on this subject, "just short of eternity."
The only folklore I've ever heard about chiggers is a poem that was recited to us once by my friend Tom Chaney -- who grew up in Horse Cave, Ky., which is chigger country. It's based on the disparity between a chigger's size and its impact:
There was a little chigger,
And he wasn't any bigger
Than a point on a very small pin.
But the bump that he raises
Just itches like the blazes,
And that's where the rub comes in.
I thought it was a pretty good poem, even though it seriously understates how much a chigger bite itches. (According to my research, carried out with my usual scientific controls, the average chigger bite has an itch of six to eight milamoses -- a milamos being the itch power of 1,000 mosquito bites.)
But my wife reminded me that poems are written about a lot of subjects that are, strictly speaking, imaginary. To prove to her that chiggers exist, I had to show her the definition of chigger in the dictionary: "a 6-legged mite larva (family Trombiculidae) that sucks the blood of vertebrates and causes intense irritation." The person who wrote that definition, by the way, has obviously never been the vertebrate whose blood was sucked or he wouldn't describe the result as "intense irritation." It's the equivalent of say- ing that being hanged and quartered is the sort of thing that can smart. I sus- pect most dictionary writers are from New York.
I live in New York now, and I can't tell you what a relief it is for me to live in a chigger-free zone. In fact, it has occurred to me that the absence of chiggers in New York may have something to do with why New Yorkers are always saying how refreshingly unneurotic Midwesterners are: Most of the Midwesterners New Yorkers meet are those who have moved to the Northeast from the Midwest and who are therefore so relieved to be in a place where they can walk in high grass in August that they sail blissfully past the ordinary trials of life.
My wife wondered why she had never heard of chiggers before. That's easy: A lot of people who spent childhood summers in the Midwest have blocked chiggers out of their memories. They'd simply rather forget. I often come across passages in books by Midwesterners describing those hot, lazy August evenings spent in a Midwest back yard, sipping lemonade and chasing lightning bugs. Lightning bugs! Nobody cares about lightning bugs. All of that lightning bug talk is just a way of avoiding the subject of chiggers. People who write lyrical descriptions of summer evenings can't bear to write about what's lurking in the grass, no bigger than the point on a very small pin. They can't stand to think about the tension of facing an enemy that cannot be seen and may not even be out there.
I don't blame the writers of those passages. There have been times when I've tried to blot out memories of the vacant lot next to my Cousin Kenny's house. What the Serengeti is to lions and the Atchafalaya Basin spillway is to crawfish the vacant lot next to my Cousin Kenny's house was to chiggers. I know what you're thinking: Why didn't he simply stay away from the vacant lot next door to his Cousin Kenny's house?
Fine. You're right, of course. I should have simply stayed away. I knew perfectly well that there was no way to protect yourself from chiggers. Protective clothing? Chiggers scoff at protective clothing. (A chigger scoff cannot be heard by the human ear.) Chiggers, in fact, like the most protective parts of protective clothing. They often bite along elastic. They burrow inside. They like soft spots. They love warm spots. They crave creases.
But I knew all of that then. I knew that scratching could mean infection and infection could mean spending hot summer days lying in bed, waiting for the swelling to go down. Why did I go into the vacant lot? Well, there was a lot of good stuff there. At this point, I can't remember just what, but I do remember there was a lot of good stuff. And there were no chiggers in sight. Why not risk it? There we went -- my Cousin Kenny and I, walking into the vacant lot on a steamy July afternoon. There we went -- two vertebrates, about to have our blood sucked by six-legged mite larvae. Dummies!
You're thinking that even if we got a lot of chigger bites we could simply put something on them to make them stop itching. Wrong! I've said again and again what would stop the itch of a chigger bite: amputation, sometimes. Not that we didn't try all sorts of remedies. During my childhood, summertime in Kansas City was a frenzied, doomed search for chigger nostrums. The one I remember best was something that came in a tiny square bottle and had a name like ChiggeRRid. It had a lot in common with clear fingernail polish. For all I know, it was clear fingernail polish. When you applied it, a sort of crust was formed on top of the chigger bite.
I remember when it first came out. A miracle cure! I was at Boy Scout camp at the time -- Camp Osceola, B.S.A. Somehow, we got the word about ChiggeRRid. My mother assured me that she would bring me a supply when she came to Osceola for visiting day, and when my comrades heard that, they all put in an order. There was my mother, like someone with a fistful of Portuguese visas as the Nazi armies neared Paris. She was surrounded by desperate Boy Scouts who were clamoring for their tiny square bottles.
ChiggeRRid didn't work, of course, at least not in my case. I painted it on dutifully. I spent a lot of time sharing scientific theories about how it would stop the itching by shutting off the oxygen. (We knew that a lack of oxygen could stop burning. Why not itching?) But it didn't work. I was still up all night with chigger bites -- the only difference being that the crusts on my skin made a slight crackling sound as I tossed and turned in my bunk. The bites continued to itch. And itch. The itch was horrible, made more agonizing by the knowledge that it was just short of eternal. I just realized that I'm not quite ready to deal with the morbid fear issue. Maybe later.
Calvin Trillin is a staff writer for the New Yorker and writes a syndicated column called "Uncivil Liberties."