Ever since I was a kid and some old Greenbush sage told me cockroaches survived atomic explosions, I've had a fascination with insects of the order Blattaria. Of course, living in the Greenbush area afforded me many opportunities to see cockroaches up close and personal. There was the time one almost fell down my throat while I lay on the floor of an abandoned house, staring up at a ceiling full of them. As I grew older, the enthrallment to let them split the rent, eat at the same table, or even share my bed (no matter how drunk either I or the cockroaches were) dissipated to zero. Cockroaches as animated characters, now that's a whole other phylum.
Cockroaches have appeared as subordinates in such films as A Bug's Life, Twilight of the Cockroaches, An American Tale, Monsters and Aliens, WALL-E, and Men in Black, as well as dozens of television series, including one of my favorites, Oggie and the Cockroaches.
People sometimes ask me, "Greenbush Boy, where do you come up with your twisted concepts and are you featured on the Homeland Security Watch list because of them?"
"Beats me," I tell them; but my creative journey, much like removing oneself from the TSA Watch List, is circuitous and about as difficult to follow as footprints in water. I need a GPS system most of the time just to locate my shadow.
Take, for instance, Irwin, the cockroach star of Adventures on Marrs...Landfill. Around 1970, I first heard a song titled "Tennessee Bird Walk" performed by country western stars Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan. I was still living at home on Mills Street, next to the James Bowen House, in the family basement by the broken water heater and the old chicken coop. I had three possessions in life, none linked to my dignity: a broken hot plate, a pre-war sofa bed, and a rabbit-eared black and white TV that broadcast only farm reports, tele-evangelists, and country music programming. I liked "Tennessee Bird Walk." It was the kind of twangy, down home music I could really get high listening to without feeling too guilty about leaving the haze of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath for a few minutes. Amazingly, these two heavy metal giants are still out there flailing away in the 2009 cardiac arrhythmia tours. But I digress.
Several years after "Tennessee Bird Walk", Blanchard and Morgan came out with a song that fit perfectly into the singalong world of Doctor Demento. The lyrics of "The Cockroach Stomp" were so perverse that they made my other favorite song on death, Jim Carroll's "People Who Die," sound like a nursery rhyme. Country western music had immortalized cockroach destruction.
Several years ago I ran across this nonsense:
This video reminded me of the afternoon I sat in Brittingham Park watching a homeless man try to fish what looked to be parts of a broken terrarium out of Lake Monona. The man refused to go anywhere near the water and was using, not to successfully, an iron bar to coax his obsession to the shore. I was about eight at the time and I had just come from a hard day at Longfellow Grade School.
Without any hesitation I jumped into the nutrient-filled, algae-clogged lake water, teeming with bloated fish skins. Only when the water circled my throat did I remember that I had yet to learn how to swim (never did) and I was wearing my Sunday go to meeting clothes from school. Thankfully I had just seen Lassie basically do the same thing with Little Timmy, so I dog paddled this piece of broken flotsam ashore .
As soon as the westerlies blew me ashore, the old man grabbed the terrarium. A bunch of slimy bugs fell from their watery hiding places and scattered in all directions. Picking it up high over his head, he yelled something that sounded like, "Get thee back into the water, demon witch,"and flung the terrarium back out into the lake. He then began the poking process all over again with his iron pole.
I sat there soaked, with a dead fish in my back pocket, while the homeless guy banged away at the water, wondering what excuse I would give my parents this time for my appearance. The guy suddenly stopped walloping the water and strode towards me, snarling that I had poisonous water beetles climbing all over me. I looked down. There was one struggling to climb out of my pant cuff. That was enough. I ran screaming out of the park almost becoming roadkill on West Washington Avenue. I spent the next day and a half submerged in a bathtub, ignoring that fact that I had abandoned my school books and the next day's assignments in the park. I guess the homeless guy tossed them into the lake. They washed ashore in Hannibal , Missouri several months later.
Then, about the same time as the above video, I read an article about a grade school science terrarium mistakenly carted off to the city dump during the summer recess. The kids, the school board, parents, the mayor went nuts at this costly mistake. The article mentioned how the kids had lovingly taken care of the plants and the water filtration system and the bugs, slugs, grubs and other creepy crawlies for years, and now had no reason to live or at least attend class. One precocious child was quoted as saying she felt very worried for the safety of her "friends" because, like her house pet "Fluffy," none of the "glass house" occupants had ever had to survive on their own.
"Terrarium." "Glass house." "Pampered insects." That night I began working on Adventures on Marrs...Landfill.
This story is a simple tale of a daydreamer: A cockroach named Irwin, who has lived a pampered existence in a science terrarium in Ms. Goff's sixth-grade class. While all his friends frolic, doing bug and insect party things, Irwin sits attentively listening to all of Ms. Goff's lectures on science and outer space travel -- especially about those unmanned explorations on the planet Mars.
Irwin watches all the educational movies shown in class, and every night he studies all the forgotten homework left on top of his glass home. He hopes one day to be called by a Mr. Houston to rocket off into space and do some exploring of his own. He keeps a diary of his life in the glass house, which all the inhabitants call affectionately Casa a Pupae. Like every visionary, he doodles faces in his book.
One day Irwin and his friends wake up and discover they are no longer in Ms. Goff's class, but some place called Marrs which, as Irwin notes, was always spelled incorrectly on the blackboard. Unfortunately, the "Landfill" part of the sign had long since disintegrated; but to Irwin, his wish had come true. Obviously, Mr. Houston wanted his and his friends to explore the planet really badly because no advance warning had been given and certainly there were no NASA training sessions. He didn't even have to spin around in circles.
Irwin observes in his diary of the similarities between the Marrtian landscape and Ms. Goff's classroom floor. Perhaps being an astronaut will not be as challenging as it is made out to be. Perhaps Marrs and Earth are not that dissimilar after all.
Irwin's diary begins here.
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