My pal Tom called me one day and asked If I would be interested in going to Mississippi with him.
What? Why would I go to Mississippi?
"To go to school", he said, "my dad bought a plantation down there and he wants to put cows on it. He says Mississippi State University is only about 20 miles from the plantation."
What's a plantation, I asked, picturing some kudzu-ridden manse out of Gone With the Wind. It is the same as a section of land in Montana, he explained. In Montana they call it a section, in Mississippi it is a Plantation.
In Montana a section might run 25 cows, in Mississippi a plantation might run 150. As a side note, I think ranching is easier in Montana; it rains more in Mississipi, sure, and grass grows year around. But it turns out that while the cows down there stand belly deep in grass, their ribs show. In Montana, they get fat off of the little bit of scant grass they find in the dirt. At any rate, I inquired a little of the school, over the next few weeks, and found that their MSU, like ours, is a "cow college." MSU, down there, is famous for ringing a cowbell after a touchdown on the gridiron. These guys might be even bigger hicks than us, I thought.
The school said credits from here would transfer there and vice versa, so after a year there I could return to Montana with no problems.
What's more, the school said since they had no students enrolled from Montana, they would waive out-of-state fees. To sweeten the pot a little more, they promised a scholarship to cover half the tuition and assured me (these were different times, you understand) that the Southern Belles who graced their campus were among the prettiest in the nation.
So in the spirit of cultural enrichment and to test the veracity of some of those claims, I ended up at Mississipi State University for my sophomore year. It was an eye-opening cultural exchange during which I learned, ate some truly delicious food, sweated a lot in the heat, and discovered that it doesn't matter how good-looking the girls are if they don't think you're good-looking. Moreover, and this will come into play later, I couldn't tell what they were saying. And besides, I was too busy living in terror due to the insects to make woo.
In fact, of all the exotic things that I encountered during those two semesters, I remember the insects most vividly. Now I'm no naturalist, but I reckon that there are maybe three kinds of bugs in Montana: butterflies, ladybugs, and grasshoppers, all relatively benign. Not so in Mississippi, where the bugs are big enough to menace a whole town, like in one of those old fifties movies where atomic testing breeds enormous, rubbery, six-legged horrors at which women shriek and the military shoots.
I tell you, the bugs were everywhere: big bugs, yes, but also tiny bugs, bed bugs, sticks that are really bugs when they start to move, slithering bugs, crawling bugs, hissing bugs, and above all, horrible, pulsing cicada bugs the size of silver-dollars, hanging from tree branches like ripening fruit. And they're loud. You have to sleep with earplugs until you become insensible to their droning cacophony - no modest, god-fearing Montanan crow or grackle can compete in sheer, bombastic noise-making with a cicada.
I was so mortified by all the Mississipi bugs that I didn't have enough energy left to consider the snakes. In Mississippi, however, they have water moccasins, copperheads, coral snakes, eastern diamond rattlesnakes, and canebreaks - in short, the most horrible nest of vipers this side of the book of Genesis.
More out of a desire to "know your enemy" than out of actual interest in biology, I, therefore, signed up for a class in Entomology. To my traumatizedupefaction, I discovered that the class required lots of bugs be captured and classified for the University's prized bug collection. The best collection turned in at the end of the semester was to become the property of the University's museum. I never met the folks who ran the museum but I imagined they were named Delbert or Cooter or Maynard and that their time was likely divided between the study of insects, banjo-plucking, and telling Jon Voight he's got a purdy mouth.
Anyway, I lived out in the sticks of Mississippi, about 25 miles from the University town of Starkville. The nearest village was a wide spot in the road called Crawford, elevation 312 feet, nestled in the heart of Lowndes County. Most of my award-winning collection was fearfully harvested right there on the plantation, but for some of the more exotic and elusive beasts, I roamed far and wide.
I partnered up with a friend I had met in school who was doing a similar class, only Arachnology instead of Entomology. He hailed from North Carolina, so his culture shock was somewhat less than mine. Also, I could just barely make out what the old boy was saying, which was better than my near-total failure to understand everyone else. So he proved to be a useful translator on our expeditions.
Without him, I was truly helpless. One afternoon the neighbor kids came to ask me some inscrutable question. Wincing, turning my head to and fro in case one ear would be able to decipher better than the other, I made them repeat their request over and over. It didn't help that they were real small, so that their deep south accents were seasoned with a pinch of marble-mouthed toddler.
"We ha' sum' p'aaars for a paa?".
I could not begin to understand what the hell they were asking. It was like we were different species from far-distant planets. Finally, I gave them a hand signal by which I meant 'whatever you want is fine' and hoped that I wasn't about to be a cast member in Mississipi Chainsaw Massacre.
About two days later, the nice lady from a mile or so down the road, their mother, brought me the best tasting pie I ever ate. That was the moment I realized the kids were asking if they could harvest pears from our yard for a pie. I didn't even know it was a pear tree. I realized at that moment something about cultural relativity - I understood that perhaps I had an accent too and that maybe, just maybe, these Mississippians thought I was a real dim bulb.
But it got worse. A few days later, on one of my expeditions, I saw a rangy older fellow in coveralls off in a field tinkering with his tractor. My spider-obsessed partner wasn't with me that afternoon, which made the task of communicating to this gentleman that I was collecting bugs and wanted to search through the wood piles in his field, an odd request regardless of vernacular, even more difficult than usual. Who collects bugs anyway? I'm sure he thought I was some sort of lunatic.
So I gesticulated wildly at him, making one hand crawl on the palm of the other, imitating a skittery motion with my fingers. "Bugs, see? I'm collecting bugs for school. Do you mind if I head over yonder and look for bugs?" When that failed, I switched to turning one hand into a pair of wings and going "buzz buzz."
"All y'all wanner look fer bugs? What ch'all wanner do that fer?"
"School, for school," I said, trying to write on an invisible chalkboard and miming sitting at a desk and opening a book.
Exasperated, he finally gave me a simple thumbs up. But before I was dismissed he pointed at my shirt. "Yer got th' backa?"
I wiped a drop of sweat out of eye. Despite the blistering heat, my skin went cold. The what?
"Th' backa! Th' backa! Y'all got th' backa?" Now he was patting his shirt and his pocket, increasingly frantic, trying to get me to understand.
He kept pointing at his pocket and then at mine, tapping his chest and repeating, louder but no more clear to me, "th' backa, th' backa!"
Now I understood. There was only one thing it could be. Slowly, I looked down at my shirt, willing myself to see what he was pointing at. And there it was, a thing about 3/4 of an inch long, crawling into my pocket. At that moment, it was the ugliest critter I'd ever seen, with horrible, almost iridescent green, with a nasty, slavering pair of pincers where God, had he been in a better mood, should have placed a mouth. For a moment, I had the impression of a scarab, and considered that in addition to whatever else it could do if it bit me, it was also, perhaps, capable of transmitting some Egyptian curse as well.
Here, then, was some kind of atrocity that, were it known to science at all, had not yet been covered in entomology class. Or if it had, I had been too busy eying Hazelene or Lurabelle to pay attention. But this farmer had a word for it - the dreaded, the incomparably deadly Backa.
I screamed and batted the thing away.
The farmer laughed his ass off.
"That was it? The Backa Bug? That was one of them?" I asked?
"What you talking about? Das' a junebug. I was askin' you if y'all got any tobacca!" He pulled out a tin of chew and opened it to show it was empty. "Y'all got any t'bacca?"
He laughed and laughed, tears running down his face. I bet he never encountered anyone dumber in his life. I bet he still laughs about it.
Incredibly, I won that competition, getting an A for the course and, I guess, improving the University museum in the process. I wonder if my semester's work is still there today, ensconced forever in the Shelton wing.
If so, there's one significant specimen omitted - the Backa bug, which, to escape the distraught Yankee swatting at it in panic, had already spread its shiny wings and taken flight.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.