Planes, Trucks and Idiocy: Growing Up with Mosquitoes in the Florida Keys

            Each morning, from at least middle school through high school, I woke to a Vietnam veteran chopper pilot flying a DC-3 or C-47 (the latter the military version).  Apparently, our street was used as a guide for his mosquito runs for the neighborhood and I could hear him come from the south around 6:45 a.m., the rumble of the twin radial engines getting louder and louder until the big silver WWII-era airplane filled my bedroom windows and the plane roared over the house at treetop level. The exhaust port of each engine spewed white smoke, like a scene out of Black Sheep Squadron or Twelve O’Clock High.  It was a morning jolt of coffee before I was interested in coffee, my personal air show performance every morning, after which I couldn’t manage to stay in bed.  This airplane, or another one like it, made rounds along the Upper Keys in the mornings and evenings, when the mosquitoes came out and, I imagine, when the malathion dropped from the air would have less chance of dispersing in the sunlight and heat.     While mosquitoes never make picture postcards about Florida (except maybe ironically) and are conspicuously absent from advertising copy pushing the beauties of South Florida, dealing with mosquitoes was a big part of growing up in the Florida Keys.

            One night, my buddy Mike and I had played racquetball at Coral Shores High’s outdoor courts so far into a summer evening that we could no longer see the ball.  Dusk was falling, the sky in the west still orange and it was still light enough to see ourselves, the trees, the buildings.  We heard the engines of the mosquito plane.  Soon we could hear it coming from the south and then roar up over the treeline as it made an initial run over the campus, which sat among mangroves and hardwood hammocks.  The pilot banked, made another run, this time with the bug spray pouring from the engines.  He’d come in from the ocean and open up the malathion as he came over land, fly straight toward the tall poles holding the lights for the football field and then bank impossibly at the last moment, or pull up almost into a stall as he cleared them.  More fun for a local was watching that airplane roar down US 1 at low level, smoke belching from the engines, as if he was mortally wounded and attempting to land on the road, while panicked tourist spun their cars off the road and onto the gravel right of way.

            There was a more practical reason I looked forward to that airplane in the morning.  I knew from watching from the kitchen window that those poisonous billows of smoke would come drifting down over everything, an acrid falling you weren’t supposed to breathe. That smoke would get into everything—bushes, up near the house, under the car.  And it would kill the mosquitoes I knew were waiting for me.  I knew they were waiting for me because there was a time when the mosquito plane didn’t come over our street right before I left for school.  I was maybe twelve and had a very cool black bmx bike with skyway rims.  I would ride this bike the mile or so to Plantation Key Elementary (which was K-7 until turned into a middle school many years later).  In those days, I had a plan for getting to school without getting attacked by the mosquitoes.  Once I was ready to go, I made sure my backpack was secure on my back before I opened the door.  Then, I made a mad dash from the blessed air conditioning of the house to the side of the garage where my bike was leaning.  Constantly in motion, I rolled my bike to the end of the driveway, where the bugs would have their one chance to assemble and plan their attack: the gate.  In the moment it took to open the gate, roll my bike through and close the gate, they would have sensed I was there—sweat, carbon dioxide, whatever—and assembled their little swarm.  If I stumbled or hesitated, they would be on me.  If I kept pace, they’d be frustrated and have to wait for my mom and little sister.  One particular morning they were buzzing around me, worse than usual, but not able to bite.  I leapt aboard the bike and started pedaling.  For some reason, I looked behind me and there was a little swarm, maybe the size of a beachball, following along behind me like something out of Bugs Bunny.

            Later on, they would supplement the airplane with a truck that would drive around the neighborhood in the morning and evenings.  I always assumed that it was driven by someone other than the pilot, but I couldn’t imagine him being relegated to driving the old pickup with the spraying machine on the back, tooling slowly around neighborhood streets, making it’s whining buzz as it spewed out its smoke.  Sometimes, actually, neither the plane nor the truck spewed out smoke and I never found out why it would be smoke sometimes and not others.  The bug spray was malathion, a neurotoxin developed by the Nazis originally and adapted as a bug-killer.  Its toxicity was apparently scaled down and it had a short half-life so it didn’t linger after it caused those mosquitoes to die their grizzly death.  Still, it was suggested that people not intentionally inhale that toxic fog, which made sense to sensible people—which leaves out teenaged boys.

             The truck didn’t just drive around like a boring delivery truck.  It made our whole neighborhood of Indian Waterways into a disco ball sort of fun house. If you were outside when it was happening.  Which we weren’t supposed to be. Which, of course, we managed to find a way to be.  It must have been one of those “I’m at Brian’s house” while Brian said “I’m at Greg’s house” sort of things.  I was a good kid and didn’t usually lie to my parents, but this wasn’t hurting anyone and I just couldn’t ignore the opportunity any longer. 

            We could hear the truck droning in the distance, cruising along at ten miles an hour.  We set off on our bikes, stalking it, seeing it a block down, crossing over streets, smelling the acridness of malathion.  Slowly, we began to find the fog hanging over the streets and then we could see the whirling yellow lights ahead.  We plunged in and out of the fog, the exhilaration of speed on our bikes, the lights, the fog.  We’d dart down side streets and then come upon the truck again with its lights and dash into the fog, knowing that this was somewhat dangerous and ill-advised but surreal and fun, until we saw lights coming towards us on one of the side streets and emerging through the fog.  My mom’s station wagon was sliding like a shark through that fog, her keener nose having scented the idiocy in which we were engaged.  Maybe she’d called Brian’s mom or maybe noticed I was late getting home and noticed the bug truck was out and did the teenaged boy calculus.  Brian and I split up.  I headed towards home, keeping away from the station wagon which was still searching for me, using the fog to hide, until I got home and stashed my bike in its usual spot.  At the entrance of our long street, I could see the wagon’s headlights turning towards home.  I dashed into the house and made for the bathroom.  I opened the faucet on the tub full blast and lathered my hair with shampoo and washed my body furiously with soap.  Safe.  Mom closed the front door.  She opened the bathroom door and said “was that you I saw driving around behind the mosquito truck?”  

            “What?  Oh, no, Mom.  I was taking a bath.”  I pointed to my lathered head.  Mom picked up my shirt which was laying on the floor and reeking of malathion.

            “Uh-huh,” she said.  “Make sure to put your clothes by the washer.” 

            Busted.  I knew it and she knew it.  I don’t remember any punishment.  Perhaps the idiocy of the whole experience defied a clear response.  Maybe she was just happy I wasn’t into something worse.