Bug Money

I reached between the thorns of the rose bush and delicately picked up the Japanese beetle between my thumb and forefinger.  The beetle clung to the leaf he had been gnawing on, then flailed his legs in confusion as I lifted him through the air. His black body, with its purple, pink and green iridescent highlights, might mesmerize me on another day, but today I didn’t notice his beauty.  I carefully dropped him into a jar I was holding in my left hand, 1/3 filled with yellow odorous gasoline.  I watched the beetle thrash with its short skinny legs, then become numb with fumes and stop moving.  Soon he was just a floating oval, and I turned back to the rose bushes searching for the next beetle.

I was seven years old, and my grandfather, Pop-pop, paid us one penny a beetle to pick them off his prize rose bushes.  Pop-pop tended his rose beds with tender care, planting new hybrids each year and entering his roses in competitions. The pale pink “Violet Carson”, the deep lipstick-red “Ingrid Bergman”, the whitish yellow “Sunsprite”, and dozens more.  Each labeled with a small metal tag thrust in the ground at the base of the plant.  He was a member, and for a few years the President, of the local American Rose Society chapter.  Rose bushes filled every corner of his backyard, with grassy paths between the beds so he could easily trim, fertilize and pick the roses. The yard sparkled; a wonderland of reds, pinks, peaches, yellows and whites. He nurtured them as you would a delicate child.

The beetle wars took place many years before I explored Buddhism and its sacredness-of-all-life beliefs.  I didn’t carry any guilt about my job; drowning beetles in gasoline was my pathway to money, modeled after the attitudes of my grandparents.  Both Pop-pop and Nana grew up on farms, where bugs that ate crops were dispatched post haste.  Pesticides arrived as miracles for farmers, and they would have scoffed at the notion of “organic”. Killing bugs was not a moral question:  it was the bugs versus the farmer, and the farmer’s livelihood depended on winning that battle.

To me, dead beetles simply equaled money.  At 25 cents a week, my allowance was much too small to buy my objects of desire at Sine’s 5-and-10 Cent Store: paper doll cutouts, embroidered hankies, puzzles and games, and whirly gigs.

Sine’s 5-and-10 Cent was not the only place I could spend my earnings.  Pop-pop and Nana ran a General Store on one end of their house, and the centerpiece next to the cash register was a glass fronted penny candy display. Bubble gum, licorice, Tootsie Rolls, candy dots on long thin strips of paper, Bit O’ Honey’s; it all was within my reach with my Bug Money.

If I worked diligently for 30 minutes, I could get 50 beetles. Pop-pop smiled when I showed him my jar full of beetles, carefully counted the bodies with me, then dug into his pockets for change.  Two quarters!!

As the years passed, my Bug Money became less important as my allowance increased. At twelve I started baby sitting and mowing lawns for family friends.  Pop-pop and Nana would also pay me $3.00 to mow their lawn – mostly just well-worn grassy paths between rose beds – which took much less time than picking off 300 Japanese beetles.  Secretly, I was glad to be able to earn money in a less violent way. The accumulation of dead beetle bodies began to weigh on my mind as I lay in bed at night. Shiny blue green iridescent bodies floated through my dreams, and I was there with them, fighting the yellow noxious liquid in which we swam.

In high school I considered becoming a veterinarian.  I would heal the sick and repair the injured animals.

The killing of animals or any living thing has become more repugnant as I age.  I’m fond of dogs and cats and horses and bunnies and chickens and even squirrels. I watch them as they live, their lives not so different from ours:  looking for food and shelter, caring for young, and playing.

When I see a Japanese beetle now, I can’t bring myself to kill it.  I put it in the lawn, knowing it might crawl back up on the rose bush as soon as I turn my back.  I encourage it to move to my neighbor’s yard, so THEY can be the beetle harbinger of death.

I remember my Pop-pop’s lined tanned face, full of concentration and tenderness, as he bent over a rosebush to trim it, and the vase of pink, red and yellow roses which always graced their kitchen table. I loved him, and so I loved the roses.

This joy and beauty demanded a sacrifice, one which, at seven years old, I was willing to harden my heart to. The lowly beetle, with an unfortunate taste for rose leaves, paid the price. But I also paid a price, forming a young heart that did the practical thing:  Protecting my Pop-pop’s roses by earning a penny apiece for the beetles’ last breath. Was I penny-greedy, or just supportive of Pop-pop’s passion? I suppose a little of each.

2 thoughts on “Bug Money

  1. Mary Ann, I didn’t know anything about those potato rows, or if I did, I had forgotten. You should write up your memories of that time. Because they will never come back. The number of people who grow their own potatoes is shrinking very fast! Even the number of people who know anything about starting a vegetable garden.
    I think Pop-pop DID compete at the Allentown Fair, but I don’t know if I ever went to see his entries, and don’t remember being told about his ribbons. I do remember seeing the ribbons displayed in their living room. I should write something about their living room, which was a favorite place for us to hang out. I remember lying on the couch when I was sick and being cared for by Nana -not sure what my mother was doing at the time. Good memories!

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  2. Ginny this piece really stirred some memories. When I was young, before our family broke up, and we were all living just down the road from you and your grandparents, we had an enormous “truck patch” out back, with long rows of vegetables. My sister and I had the job of patrolling for potato beetles and knocking them into jars of gasoline, but I’m pretty sure there was no monetary price on their heads. I do recall digging the potatoes with my Dad, filling the wheelbarrow with a vegetable that I actually loved and somehow the cycle of unpleasant task being followed by the reward became instilled. His practicality and willingness to sacrifice a few beetles came from a childhood where the need to produce food was much greater. My Dad embraced the postwar explosion of chemical products available to modern gardeners and farmers and used DDT and its many successors to grow beautiful unblemished fruit in an area where plant diseases of all sorts flourished.
    After collecting many hundreds of potato and Japanese beetles and watching their bodies marinate in gasoline I was still callous enough to go to work for a chemical company in their agricultural research division and there finally became completely disenchanted with attempting to control nature with chemicals. Even though we sprayed the formulations we were testing in a vented chemical hood wearing respirators, we still accumulated unacceptable blood levels of the toxins. Knowing that the agricultural workers using the products and harvesting would not be nearly so well protected was the final turn off for me.
    Your piece also made me regret that we didn’t really know your grandparents better, and didn’t even know about the roses. Did your Pop-pop compete at the Allentown Fair? Now there’s a subject for you…

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