Monday, December 22, 2008

The Claw of the White Ant

I was raised on the horror films of the 1950s where creatures exposed to radiation from atomic testing invaded secret government labs only to eat the scientists who had worked so diligently to protect us from the Red Menace. The beasts were metaphors for the creeping Stalinist thugs who hid under the bed, waiting to steal your mind and pervert your allegiance from, say, apple pie to borscht.

My brother--five years my junior--and I would camp out in front of the black and white television on Saturday nights, tuned in to Channel 9, the local Los Angeles station that aired spooky flicks. Creature Features. The opening shot drew in on a castle set in a craggy hilltop in the fog, its a single lantern aglow against the endless dark and creeping fog. Then a voice cried out: "Helooooo there!"

The idea, on nights that mom and dad went out, was to watch the show for a while, then chase Ted around the house and beat the crap out of him. Kind of a rehearsal for fratricide.

There is probably a tangled psychological explanation for displacing my pent up family frustrations onto him, possibly some genetic coding to re-enact Cain and Abel. Perhaps it's a learned behavior. My sister claims that Ted practiced his own (though more subtle) forms of sibling terrorism on her. In the animal kingdom, brothers scuffle to prepare to survive in a world where the Red Menace is real enough. Many of us believe that we have evolved from that point, but I can't be sure when I watch the evening news.

I loved to torment Ted with a game played on hot summer days. We'd gather in the vacant lot at the corner of Collett and Kingsbury. It was a huge lot, now choked end-to-end with apartment houses. But in the day, it had rolling terrain and weeds, and a great assortment of rubbish (cardboard, wood, old appliances) that you could round up for a fort. We held dirt-clod fights with other neighborhood kids. You tossed only caked hunks of mud, but grabbed a small rock when you were angry enough at the enemy.

What I told Ted was this: beneath the tumbleweeds, the piles of castaway lumber, and bits of broken glass in the field were armies of White Ants. They were down there, awaiting their chance. There are, of course, no such things, although exterminators often use the term to designate termites. But MY white ants were brutal carnivores with serrated teeth that could rip Ted into a bubbling pulp of flesh in a matter of seconds.

"Look out," I'd shout, "it's the white ants." And Ted would get a pained look, rise on his tiptoes, and scurry for the sidewalk, his flip-flops beating out time to the cadence of horror. I had assured him that the ants could not reach him through solid concrete, and they never did.

Over the years I turned out to be the creep that would sit beside you in a darkened theater as we'd watch a thriller and the moment the soundtrack hinted of looming terror, I'd clap my hands, or shout, or jab you in the ribs.

I don't remember ever having anyone do these things to me. But what I do recall is my father taking me out of a New York theater in the middle of Fantasia, where I had exploded in tears at the sight of the Devil in Night on Bald Mountain who scooped up lost souls in his green talons. I can see its face before me this very moment when I close my eyes. And later in childhood, after the first time I had watched Godzilla rampage through Tokyo, I had years of nightmares where the beast would find me where I hid beneath a stairwell. His mouth drew back in a snarl as he bent over and breathed fire...

It's amazing that we ever outgrow the boogieman. Ted has. Today, he's a great success, a partner in a leading architectural firm, designing structures impervious to White Ants, earthquakes, and stomping fire lizards. In my evening prayers, which have grown elaborate over the years, I ask to never cause him a moment's discomfort again.


tangobaby said...

I'm sure if he reads this, he will forgive you. Although I would be wary of watching a scary movie with you. Perhaps Tim will leave a comment here so that the world will be witness to your absolution.

I am an older sister by almost five years. For the most part, my younger sister and I got along pretty well and rarely fought. But she went through a phase in her pre-teen years where she got a big kick out of scaring me, standing in corners or behind doors. I pleaded with her to stop, for fear of having a heart attack. I finally had to fight fire with fire and I scared her so badly that it has made for a classic family story ever since.

Thanks for the memories of Creature Feature. And Night on Bald Mountain? I STILL cannot listen to that music. I guess some people don't outgrow the Boogeyman.

Gabby said...

He has forgiven me for that, I think. But I bet he had a harder time letting go of the fact that I yelled out "Play Ball" after the national anthem was played at my niece Jess's college graduation. Oh, man, that was a look.