Over the course of my life, I’ve had a number of frightening experiences, from learning that I was Hitler’s son, to being diagnosed with five lesions on my left lung, to falling off the world’s tallest active volcano. I’ve also had a number of painful ones. They included having reams of gauze rammed up my fractured nose, surviving numerous bouts of Montezuma’s Revenge, and spilling Jalapeño juice on a rather sensitive part of my anatomy. Rarely though, have these experiences been both frightening and painful at the same time – that is, with the exception of the earworm.
I grew up on a small farm just outside of New Orleans. We raised horses, goats and chickens, and we grew tomatoes, bell peppers and figs. I had a number of chores. They included collecting the eggs, cleaning out the stalls, guarding the fig orchard against marauding birds, and plucking downy feathers from prepubescent squab.
My least favorite, even more so than removing baby pigeon feathers, was weeding the garden. The job was excruciatingly tedious. I would pull up a clump of weeds, shake off the dirt, and then toss it into a wheelbarrow – again, and again and again. When the wheelbarrow was finally full, I would empty it into the composting bin, or feed the contents to our ravenous and appreciative chickens.
One day while I was working in the garden, I shook a large clump of torpedo grass above my head and a clod of dirt sailed into my ear. I tried to dig it out with my index finger, but, instead, I forced the dirt deeper inside. Then, the clod mysteriously began to move. I screamed like Shelley Duvall in The Shining, and ran for the house.
My mom did what just about any mother would do: she prodded me with a Q-tip, and the poured alcohol down my ear. This, of course, only frightened the alien invader inside. To escape the miniature ramrod and stinging liquid, it bored deeper into my skull. Eventually, it reached those three little bones you learn about in high school biology class, and it started pounding them like Rocky Balboa in a meat locker.
The sparring produced a deafening cacophony, seemingly consisting of 1) fingernails on a blackboard, 2) a wailing baby on a red-eye flight, 3) a jackhammer, 4) a car alarm and 5) a riverboat calliope that played the same &%$# song over and over again. Only my own glass-shattering shrieks rivaled the tortuous racket inside my head.
My parents threw me in the back of the family station wagon and rushed me off to Slidell Memorial Hospital. There, a doctor used a number of sinister tools and foul-smelling chemicals to extract the creature burrowing into my brain.
“Looks like a juicy grub found its way into your inner ear,” exclaimed the doctor. “Poor little fella, he musta been terrified in there.” Author’s Note: If I had known the meaning of the expression, “bedside manner,” and the definition of the word, “empathy,” (and if there had been an Internet at the time), I would have given the doctor a piss-poor rating on Healthgrades.com.
Back home, once I had stopped whimpering, my older sister whispered in my good ear a line she had lifted from The Twilight Zone: “Yeah, the doctor may have gotten the grub, but it was a female and she definitely laid eggs!” Tears immediately welled up, and I resumed my whimpering.
My parents tried to console me by telling me it wasn’t true, but my sister was sadistically persistent. After a week or so had past, she pulled me aside and said, with an air of authority, “They’re probably just dormant?” I didn’t know what the word, “dormant” meant, but I figured it out using context clues from her follow-up statement: “You know cicadas can stay under ground for years! You could be in high school by the time the little zombies hatch…”
So, I lived in abject fear for almost two years. It wasn’t until fourth grade that my sister’s claims were definitively debunked. My teacher, Mrs. Grey, did a unit on life cycles. She brought in all kinds of critters. There were guinea pigs, turtles, frogs, and butterflies. She also brought in a terrarium with different types of beetles. She explained how the adult beetle laid eggs in the soil or a rotting log. “After a while,” she said, “the larvae hatch. They root around in the soil for weeks or even months, eating and growing. Then they pupate and become pupa.” We, of course, all snickered when we heard, “pupate.” She quickly brought us back to attention and continued, “After a time, the adult beetles emerge. The process is called “metamorphosis.” Don’t be surprised if this term shows up on your next spelling test…”
I raised my hand and asked, “Can a beetle larva lay eggs?”
“No, Folwell,” she said, “only the adult female can.” I ran up to Mrs. Grey and gave her a big hug. I had never been so happy to learn something new!**
While swimming in the bayou later that summer, something nicked my upper thigh. “That’s not good,” my older brother said. “I hate ta tell ya, but it was probably a candiru.”
What’s a candiru?” I asked.
“I’m not sure you want to know,” he replied. But then, of course, he proceeded to tell me – in gory, exaggerated detail…
* There are more than 350,000 species of known beetles, that’s one fourth of all creature on the planet! The larval stage of a beetle is commonly referred to as a grub or a worm. While there is an order of insects called earwigs and a moth caterpillar called a corn earworm, there is no earworm among the many beetles. I used the term for the title because of the euphemism for a song that get’s stuck in your head. Considering what happened to me, both the grub invasion as well as the paranoia brought about by my sibling’s deliberate misinformation, I figured the term was nonetheless accurate.
** In the world of education, we often talk about the importance of rigor and relevance. My fourth grade life cycle lesson was definitely a testament to the latter.
Folwell is an educator, artist, and Beatles (with an “a”) fan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Folwell Dunbar is a New Orleans educator, artist and survivor of many things, from roaches to German U-boats and heartbreak. He is putting together a collection of these short stories and survival tales called He Falls Well (his name is pronounced “fall well”). NolaVie is honored to preview some of those stories here. Email him at email@example.com.