“Listen…..Do you hear it?”
“Bzzzzzzz……It’s coming back……a buzzing creeping crawling nightmare of terror…..the return of the fly”
That may have been the opening trailer in the 1959 Vincent Price movie Return of the Fly but it was a real-life drama played out every summer of my childhood.
Flies have haunted me my whole life only to return last evening.
When a fly seemed to appear on my TV screen, I assumed one of these dastardly beasts had landed on my Samsung TV not the actual snowy white hair of Mike Pence. Grabbing my fly swatter always at the ready, it took a few moments to realize the pesky fly was not actually in my bedroom but at the debates. Despite that, I continued swatting. After several swats, the fly was gone.
Sadly that other deadly pest, Pence remained.
Flies were the nemesis of both my mother and grandmother. Protecting the home front especially the food supply against the dangerous fly became a cardinal rule for generations of mothers in my family.
Since summertime would bring the appearance of a squadron of house flies poised to infiltrate our suburban home turf, my father would lug up the cumbersome galvanized steel screen windows from the basement replacing the heavy glass storm windows that kept the winter world safely at bay. In the days before air conditioning was commonplace, open windows were a necessity and a window without a screen was tantamount to a door without a lock.
The screens served an important job in homeland security. They were our first line of defense against any flying predators big and small.
Dad brushed flies off as harmless nuisances who accidentally strayed into our space. But it was the look of terror on my mother’s face who would scream bloody murder if someone accidentally left the screen door open for too long letting a fly into the house that pointed to the dangerous creature she perceived them to be.
Jet setting flies carried germs from one port of call to another, their flight plan apparently very simple- a direct route from the slums to the suburbs, with pit stops along the way to refuel in piles of manure and all kinds of filth, only to land as an uninvited guest at your dinner table.
It was as if these buzzing green bottle flies were conducting aerial surveillance of suburban installations. Equipped with radar on their metallic blue-green colored chassis their electronically scanned antennae could locate just the right plate of food to land on.
As a deterrent against these disease-carrying predators, crumbs on counters were never allowed to linger, spills immediately wiped up leaving no traces of a meal eaten.
But it was her mother Sadie, my grandmother, who would be visibly shaken at the sight of a fly. Summer days spent outdoors at her Long Island beach club would bring both the flies and her fears out in full force.
The Fly- The Fear Factor
From the time she was a little girl, no insect put the fear of God in my grandmother like the housefly.
It was no wonder people of a certain age had a fear of insects and flies. These deadly pests they were told, were carriers of deadly diseases. All insects were bad, but houseflies were by far the worst since it was common knowledge you could get polio through an insect bite. This helped explain why even “nice people” who lived in scrupulously maintained homes could still get polio and other diseases.
Flies seemed to follow Nana even out to her breezy beach club on Atlantic Beach, Long Island.
Along with the sounds of the ocean waves breaking on the beach and the staccato click clack click of the Mah Jongg tiles was the constant sound coming from the fly swatter.
Sitting on a folding aluminum webbed chair outside nanas beach cabana, a fly zeroing in for a landing on me, Nana would raise her pink plastic fly swatter, like Hopalong Cassidy’s six-shooter. She was the fastest swatter in the west, knocking down a formation of enemy flies with one shot. “Who knew where that fly had been, gottenyu?” was a constant refrain heard all summer, because flying pests were carriers of disease.
As Nana nibbled on her cool-la-la fancy cottage cheese salad, the pineapple slices curled and twisted decoratively dusted with a shower of paprika, Mom mindlessly picked at her Seafarers Surprise plate, tuna salad festooned with fancy stuffed olives and creative use of pimento strips worthy of a Picasso.
Suddenly Mom let out an audible gasp, nearly dropping the bottle of Sucaryl lo-cal sweetener she was pouring into her iced tea.
Just as I was innocently about to sink my teeth into a downy yellow peach plucked from a brown paper bag in Nana’s straw tote, Mom swiftly snatched the fruit away from me before I ever got a chance to bite into the juicy flesh.
Sternly I was admonished to make sure it was washed or else I would get a tummy ache.
Perils of Unwashed Fruit
But it was Nana’s look of panic at the sight of that unclean flesh entering my pristine mouth, that told me some greater tragedy would befall me if I bit into an unwashed peach, maybe the very piece of fruit that God Forbid-a fly had rested on for a millisecond before being squashed to its demise.
The fly this most feared and dangerous beast that frolicked and feasted greedily in uncovered garbage cans, the gutter, rotting food, or a dead horse even, could have landed on your nice ripe peach wiping his poisonous feet on the food.
Diarrhea would be the least of your problems. For in the dirt and dust on the fruit I was warned by Nana, were many little seeds of disease.
Her fears were not unfounded.
My grandmother had lived through several epidemics where the fly was seen as the culprit
Two years before the deadly flu epidemic of 1918 the worst and deadliest polio epidemic in history struck New York City. The outbreak was unexpected. Health officials were in the dark about how to control it.
It brought panic, sudden death, and medical bafflement, causing suburbs to create roadblocks against city children. The effects on the people were calamitous. To them, this killer was not only a scourge but a new mysterious and frightening one. It didn’t matter how good you were, how clean or how rich or poor, polio was the great American equalizer.
Public health authorities could not agree on the right approach and the public knew it. Tempers flared and contradictory recommendations fed a growing hysteria about the epidemic. And ground zero was my grandmother’s beloved Brooklyn.
Only sweet sixteen when the polio epidemic struck, it haunted Sadie decades later.
Since the polio epidemics had occurred in hot summer months when flies were so prevalent, a popular theory circulated that in the hot sun, the skin of fruits nurtured the infantile paralysis germs which had been left there by, who else –the dastardly fly.
This is why, in my family, unwashed fruit seemed to elicit the same terror as flies.
When the front pages of the dozens of daily newspapers began printing the growing number of cases and deaths from polio in big, bold, black type, the public panicked. Suddenly anything and everything came under suspicion as a possible culprit from wet laundry to dollar bills. Danger could be lurking right around the corner- yesterday shared sarsaparilla in a soda fountain, today a sneeze on a shared seat in a streetcar, tomorrow-who knows- a borrowed book from the public library.
But the favorite source of blame was the fly.
If the FBI had existed when Nana was a little girl, there is no doubt in her mind its number one most wanted, most dangerous menace to society would be the American housefly more dangerous, in the publics’ mind, than the German or even the Bolshevik. San Francisco may have been traumatized by its anarchist bombings that summer at their own Preparedness Day parade, but to nerve jangled New Yorkers, uncovered garbage cans were a ticking time bomb of their own- breeding grounds for thousands of flies poised to crawl all over babies bottles and lips.
Ominous warnings appeared :
The Fatal Housefly. Swat him is the seasonal slogan- for this multitudinous Pest is serious a Menace to our soldiers as German Bullets and as deadly a blight on the whole community as Poison Gas.
The Swat Team
The anti-fly campaign was the cornerstone of the Board of Health crusade against polio and Nana honed her considerable fly-swatting skills at the numerous city-sponsored Swat the Fly contests held that summer. The fly swatter became summers must-have accessory as grown men and women walked the streets in syncopated rhythm swatting flies.
To this day, the same pink plastic fly swatter that my grandmother used all those years ago has traveled with me from house to house. It even came in handy last night while watching the Vice Presidential debate.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.