Our Mom rocketed clean out of her slippers at the sight of a mouse and then, to make matters worse, she’d run in the opposite direction—shrieking and carrying on.
The mouse usually returned the compliment—and with a good deal less noise.
She played this same scene whenever she encountered anything that slithered, crawled or creeped—much to Dad’s disgust.
Mom was a city girl and Dad was a country boy who fearlessly fought across the Pacific during WWII. The Devil Dog Marine in him was offended by weakness. He didn’t want his kids to embarrass him by being afraid of anything and for the most part we grew up as good Marine Corps country kids—except for at least one critter.
My tough-as-nails younger sister couldn’t stand spiders.
At that time, my brother was too young to form an opinion, much less have a phobia.
With me, it was any naked caterpillar, grub or maggot-like creature and in this category, the obscenely big, fat tomato hornworm was the worst.
“You see that horn at the ass end,” Dad said, pointing to an ugly five-incher who was at that moment audibly gnawing its way through a tomato plant. “Just pick it up by the horn like this and then mash it!”
Dad dropped the green obscenity to the ground and stomped on it.
Dad was determined to force me into overcoming my fears and so he mapped out the campaign for the day—“Now I want you to start at this end and work your way through the garden and I want you to kill every last one of ‘em before supper.”
I looked out over our garden planted to tomatoes with a few other vegetables thrown in—and I could hear ‘em munching even if I couldn’t see them.
Tomato limbs gnawed bare of leaves stood mute testimony to the fact that the hornworms were there—and they had to be stopped.
Dad liked his tomatoes vine-ripened.
We’d can our harvest into tomato juice, tomato sauce and whole tomatoes—whatever we couldn’t eat—that is, if the hornworms didn’t get them first.
I was the eldest kid and the one with a hornworm phobia so I’d be the first. It was my duty that day to pick all the hornworms off the tomato plants and get over my fear of naked caterpillars—yes SIR!
Dad didn’t have just a little family garden patch. He gardened on an industrial scale and so his ordering me to go pick the tomato plants clean of all hornworms on a large plot was at least a half-day chore.
I went into the garage and came out ready to do battle—with a 10-foot bamboo fishing pole. I figured I’d stand on the outside of the garden and flick those green devils into eternity. I took the side row nearest the garage first and spotted a fat one that I could get clean and neat with the flick of my fishing pole.
I pulled back on the tip and once I had what I thought would be enough arc, I let go and with beginner’s luck I managed a solid strike that sent the horrible creature flying through the air and landing in an equally satisfying green splat on the side of the garage. So what if it meant a part of the tomato plant got decapitated in the process.
The rest of the row wasn’t as easy to clean but between bowed strikes and jabs, I managed to drop and kill without touching and that suited me just fine. The row of tomato plants was the worse for the wear though but a 9-year-old with a self-appointed Marine drill sergeant for a father doesn’t think of anything but following orders—and my orders were to kill those green uglies.
When I ran out of garden perimeter, I went back into the garage for some shears. The inner rows would be the hard part and my plan was to cut these obscenities in half. There was no way I’d touch ‘em.
I found that I had to scrunch down and stare hard at the plants in order to see them—these worms were so well camouflaged, so invisible to the casual glance. For the better part of the afternoon I snipped my way through the bushes—trimming and pruning tomato plants as well as killing tomato hornworms.
The day was humid and sweat rolled down my forehead in spite of the shade of the bushes. I wished I were anywhere but where I was—down on my hands and knees, and then rising up and then down in an effort to see these hidden horrors, listening carefully for their chewing sounds to give their location away, looking for telltale signs of denuded branches, and the sign of dark green pellet poop from the worms themselves.
Suddenly I felt something plop down on the back of my neck.
The next thing I knew I was outside the garden and somebody was screaming real loud and that somebody was me.
Dad came out to see what was going on and what he saw didn’t please him. His belt started to slither out of his pants loops and so I sobered up and saw what he was seeing. I stood there festooned in uprooted tomato plants, support stakes dangling down and behind me—and there was a path of near total devastation through the middle of the garden. I knew I had to talk fast.
I raised my right hand and the green remains of a hornworm dripped from it. I had done what he asked—I had killed a tomato hornworm with my hands.
Both Dad and the belt stopped dead in the dust while Dad had to think about it a bit.
It took him five long minutes of thinking—and then his fingers slowly worked the belt back into its proper position around his waist.
After he finished buckling the belt, he grabbed me roughly by the shoulders and told me to go into the house to see if Mom needed any of my kind of help.
He stood outside for at least a half hour—surveying the devastation—and he never again asked me to do anything with tomato hornworms. In fact, he didn’t even get around to curing my sister of spiders.
There are just some things that are better left well enough alone.