“Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”
― Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
“Craig, there’s a bunch of kids with bikes on the front lawn calling for you.”
“Ok, Mom. I’ll go out the garage door.”
“I don’t know why they don’t come in. Why do they just stand there and yell. Now, don’t stay out too late, I’m cooking dinner.”
“Yes, Mom. OK, Mom.”
Craig went out through the kitchen and the door to the garage. He lifted up the heavy door and pushed his Sears Spaceliner bicycle out through the opening onto the apron, then turned and pulled the door down behind him.
“Hurry up slowpokes!” Bill Bradbury yelled out. “Let’s get going. They’re spraying for mosquitoes!” Spread out below him along the street were a half-dozen kids on bicycles, waiting for him. They all had spider bikes in a rainbow of colors with tiny wheels and big curved banana seats. The best bike was Bill Bradbury’s – a bright purple spider with sparkly metallic flakes embedded in the plastic of the seat and, best of all, a round car-style steering wheel instead of the usual high rise bars.
Craig hated his bike and wanted one of those spiders so bad. His dad had taken him to the big Sears store downtown and insisted on the gigantic, heavy Spaceliner. After only a few months the chrome was starting to rust, the paint starting to peel and the plastic buttons on the big dashboard that controlled the horn and built-in lights were broken and hanging out. Worst of all, the bike was way too big for him.
“Let’s get one plenty big, so you can grow into it and it’ll last a while,” his dad had said.
He had to push it to get it going, at least rolling down the slope from the garage to the street helped. After the wheels were turning fast enough, Craig had to climb up the side of the bike like it was a fence or something and haul himself over the top bar and onto the seat. Even then, at the bottom of each pedal stroke, the big, heavy pedals disappeared from under his PF Flyers and he’d have to fish for them as they came around and back up.
The thing was a heavy steel beast and hard as hell to pump up a hill but at least once it got going it was hard to stop and he tore through the gang of kids who whipped around on their little, light bikes to get going and catch up to him.
“Come on!” yelled Bill Bradbury as he passed Craig, standing and pumping furiously, hands gripping tight on the steering wheel (the thing looked cool but was a bitch to control, Craig knew), “The sprayer is this way!”
After a couple of blocks they heard the distinctive putt-putt-putt of the bug sprayer and then, around a corner, there it was. The City handyman, Stan Pencil, was driving a little Ford tractor down the street pulling the sprayer in a trailer behind. There was a small diesel motor on the trailer and a big tank full of chemicals feeding into the hot exhaust – leaving a thick blue cloud of oily smoke pouring out backward. This cloud spread out and drifted across the yards and driveways where is, supposedly, killed off all the disease carrying mosquitoes that were starting to swarm in the summer evenings.
With a chorus of loud yells and whoops the kids swung into the street, riding right up behind the trailer into the thickest cloud of smoke.
“Dee Dee Tee Baby!” yelled Bill Bradbury as he stood on the pedals and sucked in as much as he could. “It smells so gooood!”
Craig couldn’t loop around like the others because of his huge bike, but he could keep up and ride in the smoke for a block or so before he’d have to peel off and come around again. He loved the smell of the smoke just like the others. Chasing after Stan Pencil, The Mosquito Man was the best thing in the summer evenings, especially after spending the day at the City Pool.
“Love this stuff!” Bill Bradbury was still yelling. “Breathe it deep enough and you’ll get drunk!”
“Hey! You kids! Get outta there! You’ll kill yourselves. Nobody can see you in all that smoke!”
Mrs. Cunningham was out on her front porch yelling. She was always out there yelling. Craig looked over at her red face above the handkerchief she held over her mouth. The kids all laughed.
“Listen to me! To hell with you! All of you!” Mrs. Cunningham was really working herself up into a lather this time. Craig thought about splitting off and riding home, but he knew he had a little time before dinner, so he kept going.
He made it home in time for dinner, but just barely. After he wheeled his bike back into the garage and washed his hands and face, his mother was peeling the foil off his dinner. He was happy, it was his favorite – two pieces of fried chicken in the big compartment, peas, carrots, and corn on one one side, mashed potatoes on the other and some apple cobbler at the bottom for dessert. His little sister had a smaller, kid’s dinner with spaghetti and meat balls and his Mother had turkey. His father held his fork over a bigger foil rectangle – one of the Hungry Man’s Dinners. It had two oval grayish Salisbury Steaks swimming in a dark brown sea of gravy.
Craig’s father attacked the steaks like he was starving. He always ate that way. He said it was because he grew up on a farm with lots of hands and if you didn’t eat fast, “You didn’t eat enough.” Craig was only half finished, with still a chicken leg, a couple spoonsfull of potatoes and his dessert to go when his father pushed the empty foil rectangle away, lit a cigarette, and started to tap the ashes off into the remains of his dinner after each satisfied puff. He burned the cigarette down to a butt without stopping and stabbed out the hot end into his dinner. Then he lit another.
His mother was still eating, but when her husband lit his cigarette, so did she. She would puff, take a bite, then puff again. She used a little ceramic ashtray that Craig had made for her as a summer camp.
“Connie Cunningham called over here this evening,” she said and then looked at Craig with a raised eyebrow. He knew better than to answer, and stalled by putting a bit of cobbler into his mouth.
“She said all you boys were following the mosquito sprayer on your bikes again.”
Craig shrugged a shoulder.
“Don’t talk back to your mother!” his dad said, as he crushed his second cigarette and lit a third. Craig thought about retorting, “I didn’t talk back, I didn’t say anything!” but knew better.
“She says that you follow too close and that the cars can’t see you in the smoke. She was pretty upset.”
“Now, I don’t want you doing that any more, you hear me,” his father added.
Craig glared at his little sister who was smirking at him.
“Ok, Ok. Now can I be excused?”
“Yes, take out the trash, please, and then go up to do your homework.”
Out by the alley with the trash bags Craig had to swat a half-dozen mosquitoes off his arm.
“Damn thing doesn’t even work,” he said as he trudged back inside.