In the fourth grade I became a card-carrying member of the Dooly County 4H Club. My affiliation came about when Mrs. Carolyn Cromer visited the Unadilla Elementary School cafeteria on a recruiting mission. When she mentioned we would occasionally be excused from class for club activities, the sign-up line quickly expanded beyond the metal lunchroom doors to our foot-powered merry-go-round. The roundabout’s speed was limited only by how fast one could run before jumping aboard.
During the enlistment frenzy Miss Carolyn sat at a table where we could discuss options for individual projects. Some of my friends chose areas which seemed rather mundane, while I scanned the list for something impressive. That’s why I selected entomology.
“Are you interested in becoming an entomologist?’ Miss Carolyn asked.
“Yes ma’am,” I confidently replied. “It seems like an interesting field.”
As I proudly recorded my name and choice, she handed me a brochure which described the entomology project. It was a terrible shock to discover entomology involves insects. I had thought it sounded like a specialty field in medicine, something a family physician might determine was needed. “There’s nothing more I can do for you, Mr. Smith, but I’ll refer you to our esteemed entomologist. I feel certain Dr. Joiner can provide the help you need.”
I considered changing projects, but my name was on the dotted line and the eraser on my pencil was already down to the metal. As soon as I got home, I walked up the road to Joiner’s Store and asked Uncle Emmett for a couple of cigar boxes. He gave me a King Edward and a Swisher Sweets.
On Saturday, Mama and I went to the Harmony-Smyrna Cemetery where we salvaged some green Styrofoam from the discarded flower pile. I carefully carved it with my Barlow pocketknife to fit snuggly into the boxes, then began my insatiable quest for bugs.
The hunts were quite productive the first few days. I trapped or swatted a house fly, horse fly, blow fly, dragonfly, yellow fly, and butterfly. The only one I felt a little guilty about was the butterfly. She was a beauty, orange with black spots and a wingspan twice as big as the common yellow variety. I felt a tinge of remorse for ending her life prematurely but was reconciled by the way her bright colors enhanced my bland assemblage. Featuring her in a centerpiece role helped temper my regrets about her demise.
My insect collection efforts soon transitioned from relentless to sporadic. Over the next few weeks, I only added a grasshopper, cricket, and June bug. Thankfully, my mother and grandfather supplemented my lackluster approach. Granddaddy Hill bravely captured one of every winged insect which God armed with a stinger. A bumblebee and hornet ranked near the top finds of that group with a common wasp and honeybee for variety. He also somehow snagged an elusive water bug and a rare praying mantis who died peacefully with his arms folded.
Mama contributed multiple spiders and a ladybug, which she explained with intensity was a beneficial insect that normally should not be euthanized. She also caught a daddy long-legs, a unique addition that looked splendid until I closed King Edward’s lid too forcefully. Elmer’s Glue allowed a reattachment of his skinny limbs but two of them somehow ended up pointing toward heaven, an oddity which I suggested during my presentation to the club might be due to a rare mutation.
Thirty-seven insects were precisely arranged and secured with pins from Mama’s sewing box. I cut tiny strips of Blue Horse notebook paper for labels and realized too late it was impossible to write legibly on those little slivers. The bug names should have been penned before the paper was cut, but I stuck with the originals rather than wasting another sheet. My efforts were clearly reflected in the completed project, for which I was awarded a prestigious “Certificate of Participation.”
When I first realized entomology’s connection with insects it bugged me. But I learned new things on that unplanned path, so the next year I again ventured beyond my comfort zone by registering for public speaking. As my sweaty hands nervously gripped a podium on an Americus stage, my stomach winced from the flutters of a thousand butterflies. And I knew that a once lovely monarch centerpiece had been amply avenged.