As I lay still in my bed, I could already hear them buzzing. First light had arrived and with it meant they’d soon be pestering me until I had no choice but to just get up.
I pulled the white bed sheet over my 12-year-old face to keep them away, but then the summer heat started to torment as much as the pesky flies.
Oh, how I longed for the luxury of air conditioning … then we could shut the windows that often had small holes in the screens which allowed those tiny demons inside.
Living on a dairy farm meant one thing was certain in the summer … flies. Millions upon millions. And while my mother tried to keep up on the holes in the window screens, it was inevitable that some would infiltrate the house.
And with having seven kids running in and out, opening and closing the doors, the common phrase we’d hear repeatedly, from the end of June until the snow flew … “Stop going in and out! Were you born in a barn?”
Well, every morning when the flies were buzzing around the room, I sure felt like I was not only born in a barn, I was living in one. And the only thing a person could do was cover up with a sheet to keep them off.
Oh, we had an array of weapons … fly strips, fly swatters, fly spray. But nothing seemed to work. They just seemed to multiply, once they arrived each year. We all had duties … three of us would be required to grab a swatter an hour before each meal and kill as many flies as we could muster. Whoever could swat the most would get a treat of some sort, and the loser would have to make sure that all the dead ones were swept or wiped away.
In the evening, my mom would make all of us go outside to play … and once we did, she got out the “dairy bomb” and sprayed away. Of course, we couldn’t go back in for something like 45 minutes, but it was cool outside by then.
Despite her dropping “the big one” on the multitudes before the sun went down, they’d still be there the next morning when the sun rose again . . . to crawl on our faces and buzz around our ears. It was unbearable … to lie under that sheet and sweat. But it was worse to be open game . . . because of my childhood phobia regarding flies.
That phobia stemmed from the tumultuous relationship between my Grandpa Andy and Grandma Onie. The two … well, they were married for a million years, but … they didn’t quite like each other that much. And any jab they could take at the other, they would.
One summer day, some of us kids were at the grandparents’ house, waiting for the folks to come in from the hayfield. Andy was sitting in his chair, in the corner of the living room. He told us a couple of times to “shut it up,” because he was going to “rest his eyes.” That really meant it was his scheduled time for a daily nap (he never admitted to taking one, although many witnesses heard him snoring). Onie made us come into the kitchen (which was only a few feet away from the old guy) and we were to help her pit cherries.
While we were pitting, the snoring started. It roared from the gray chair, like a lion and a tornado at the same time.
“Oh, old man, stop it!” she’d snap from her designated chair by the stove. “It is going to drive me crazy,” Onie would rant. “I can’t believe that the second he falls asleep, his mouth falls wide open like that. Especially after what happened,” she said, with a sinister-style tone.
When Onie was about to tell us a scary story, she’d get this strange look in her eyes and lean in.
“After what happened?” I asked, yet not really wanting to know, after hearing some of her past horrific stories that gave me nightmares.
“I can’t tell you, your parents will get mad,” Onie would say.
She always opened with that line … she knew we’d be intrigued, hooked and reeled in, and we’d never tell the folks that she scared us to death.
“Really, what happened?” my brother asked, wide-eyed.
“I shouldn’t tell you, but I’m going to. A while back, while Grandpa was sitting in his chair, just like that, I heard him start snoring while I was doing dishes,” she said, as the pitting came to a dead stop. “And he snored and snored until he woke up everybody in heaven.”
(Apparently, having the ability to wake up people in heaven was being pretty loud, as she always said that, too).
“But then, I heard him start to kind of choke, cough a little, choke a little,” Onie said. “So, even though I was busy and pretty much just glad that he wasn’t snoring so loud, I figured I better check on him. That’s when I saw it.”
We sat waiting, our hands and faces stained with cherry juice. What on earth did Onie see? And would we even believe it when she told us?
“When I went in, there he was, with his mouth hanging open just like it is now, sound asleep, with a whole bunch of flies crawling in and out of his mouth. They’d go down toward his throat, and run around his false teeth. Heck, one was even flying around in there. Some would crawl out onto his lips, some would just stay inside.”
Horrified, we listened as she spun a tale of flies making Andy cough while he slept.
“What did you do?” I asked her, hoping to God that she did something to make that stop. I must have forgotten how much they disliked each other.
“Well, I did nothing,” she said indignantly, picking up more cherries. “The old man always tells me to leave him alone when he’s sleeping, so I just let him sleep and choke and spit some more. When he woke up, he said he felt like he’d swallowed something, like there was something in his throat . . .”
And then she leaned toward us, our eyes wide and our stomachs sick . . .
“But I didn’t say a word,” she said. “That’s what he gets for leaving his barn door open.”
“Some day, when I grow up, I’m going to have air conditioning and I won’t have to worry about flies any more,” I told her, which was followed quickly by her comment that “only rich people have air conditioning. You’ll never have it.”
About then, we heard Andy cough and sputter in his sleep, but we were all too scared to look.
That night, I crawled in bed and thought about the story. I’m not sure I believe the tale today … but when I was a kid, oh, I did. I worried and worried, hours after I had crawled under the covers, about how I was going to keep the flies out of my mouth in the morning. And I wondered … what if they come out in the dark, and I just don’t realize it because I’m asleep? I tried to enter unconsciousness with my hands over my mouth, but every time I woke up, they had fallen down and my mouth was exposed.
I became even more dedicated to using the “sheet trick,” but it too would move while I was asleep. So I tried a heavier blanket, and would awaken to intense heat and sweaty hair . . . all to avoid the fly dilemma Andy had allegedly experienced.
For the longest time, my parents marveled at how early I got up every morning. But I knew the truth … I just couldn’t sleep knowing the flies were there with me, pestering me, wanting to not just crawl ON me but also IN me.
The other morning, I woke up and sighed with happiness at the feeling of cool air on my face. Ahh, the luxury of central air. And, just like that, remembered all those sweaty mornings fighting off the flies, how Onie said I’d never have air conditioning, how Andy couldn’t keep his “barn door shut,” and all of us kids were “born in a barn.”
“Well, Onie, we aren’t necessarily rich,” I thought with a chuckle. “I may have been born in a barn, but now, I’ve got air conditioning. And I’m not going to be attacked like Andy was, if that ever really happened anyway.”