Those aren’t ants in my pants
It’s a little more than 17 miles of county roads–open fields, farm land, red barns, private air strips, luxury homes, views of the Blue Ridge mountains, moo cows, and lose-yourself hairpin turns–between Campbell’s covered bridge and my new home. I spent 16.8 of those miles with my left hand shoved in my pants.
Nearly 100 years ago, a man named Charles Willis (no relation, best I can figure) built Campbell’s covered bridge, a 38-foot long span over a shallow creek in northern Greenville County, SC. Around 30 years later, a cargo ship from Brazil docked 474 miles away in Mobile, Alabama. Stowed away on that ship were some litte bugs we eventually came to call the red imported fire ant (or, “those little sons of bitches,” for short). By 2011, the fire ant had infested the land around Campbell’s covered bridge, as well as most of the American south. Of the 40 million people who live in the region, it’s estimated that around half of all people are stung each year. Most of those people suffer the stings, burns, annoying little boils, and itching that comes with getting got. For one percent of those millions, something else can happen. I tend not to think much about people who fall into one-percenter categories, as I’m too terribly average to end up at the far end of any curve.
These days, that covered bridge north of here is the last of its kind in South Carolina. It was closed off to traffic a while back and is now public property. Some smart-minded recreation district folks carved out a half-mile trail around the stream, put up some signage, and laid down enough gravel to make the place look presentable. It’s a tourist attraction, or as much of one as a 12-foot-wide bridge can be. It’s nice enough that a husband trying to give his wife a break from a noisy house might take a kid and 65-pound puppy for a half-hour drive into the foothills for a little tadpole fishing and rock skipping.
“Hey,” said the six-year-old in me, “let’s run up that big hill and see what the bridge looks like from there.” I didn’t stop to listen to the more reasonable real six-year-old behind me who questioned running through knee-high grass up an unknown hill to heaven-knows-where. At his own peril, he followed me and Big Girl Dog the 50 yards to the top. We agreed the bridge didn’t look much different, after which I began swatting ants off my ankles and shins.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been stung by ants in the 12 years since I moved to the south. I hate fire ants on par with racists. They’re ignorant annoyances that leave pain and scars wherever they go. Nevertheless, I’ve never suffered more than your average victim. The usual sting hurts for about 20 minutes, itches for two days, turns into a small boil, itches for another day, and then may or may not leave a scar. Or as I wrote back in 2008:
For those of you who live in areas not blessed with the fire ant, the process goes like this:
1) Mild irritation akin to “Hmm, something feels a little odd. I think I’ll ignore it.
2) The feeling off a thousand tiny needles pricking you at once. “Hmm, that hurts like a mother. I think I’ll scream like a little girl.”
3) Scream like a little girl.
4) Several days of itching and ugly boil-like things on the affected area that make you say, “I am a very good husband.”
I had the kid and dog in the car before the anaphylaxis kicked in. What’s that, you say? Oh, yes. Apparently in one percent of fire ant sting victims, anaphylaxis can be a problem. It starts with some pretty serious itching, moves on to a fairly impressive case of swelling, and can eventually lead to airway closure and death. It’s a real treat, especially when you’re a half-hour from the nearest hospital and have no other adult with you to mind the kid and dog.
I drove with one hand on the wheel and the other itching at parts I didn’t know could itch. At some point I managed to call my wife and tell her what was happening. I requested Benadryl and a consult with Dr. Google. Panic eventually set in, which led to a tightness in the chest that could’ve been mistaken for airway closure. Oh, and if I didn’t mention the itching, think about what might happen in hell if you’ve been a really, really bad boy. That’s the itching.
I made it as far as the kitchen before I stripped naked and started dancing around like my ants were on fire. My wife’s face told the story. She looked down…oh, how do I put this politely? She gazed upon my groin in a way that made me think, “What horror has she seen?”
This is the point at which anyone squeamish or anyone who has never wanted to hear about my man-parts should turn away.
I looked down to see massive lemon-sized swollen spots where lemon-sized swollen spots should just not be. These, in addition to the full-body hives and red swollen face, were the result of about a dozen ant bites on my lower legs. Though I’m a man who refuses to go to the doctor unless he thinks he might actually die, I didn’t put up a fight. I actually begged my wife to go faster on the way to the urgent care facility. After the nurse at the counter saw my face, I was admitted without filling out a single piece of paperwork or showing an insurance card. If she had seen my crotch, I might not have to had to pay at all.
The rest of the day was fairly boring. Blood tests, blood pressure, blood oxygen tests, and a nurse that looked a little like Penny Marshall sticking a big needle in my ass. I ended up with two prescriptions, neither of which I could sell on the street. Now, I have to go see some doctor about getting something to carry with me in the event I run into the ants again–which I will, because I live in the south and the Brazilian immigrants aren’t going anywhere.
And if you were worried–as I most certainly was–my crotch is back to normal, or as normal as it ever was.
Someday, I may make a postcard to sell at the local Mast General Store. On the front will be the photo below and the caption: I visited Campbell’s covered bridge, and all I got was this lousy anaphylaxis.