No doubt you heard or saw news reports last week week about the “Magicicada” invasion that is about to hit the east coast, ranging from North Carolina all the way to Connecticut. Also known as the “Periodic Cicada,” these winged insects emerge from the soil in various years and in various regions of the eastern half of the United States every 17 years. You will recall we had our turn locally in 2004, and will again in 2021.
News of the east coast cicada extravaganza – also known as cicadamania,cicadapocalypse, and swarmageddon – brings to mind yet another event that occurred at the base of the old oak tree in Half Acre Woods back in 1953.
Having just turned seven, I had never heard of a cicada let alone seen one. It was fascinating to watch as tens of thousands of little bug-eyed insects started bubbling up out of the ground and then began to sing their zany buzzing song.
Mom said when they last emerged, back in 1936, times were tough so she and most everyone she knew scrambled cicadas in their eggs or put them in stews, and some folks even saved them in jars in the cellar to snack on during the winter. I told her that sounded good to me but she said she had sort of lost her taste for them. Dad said he remembered eating them too, but mostly he remembered using them for fish bait. He suggested I gather up a few for us to go fishing at the big pond over on the other side of Half Acre Woods.
Finding cicadas was easy enough. There were tens of thousands, maybe millions, to choose from. But nowhere were they more prolific than under the old oak tree in Half Acre Woods where they had been reappearing and multiplying every 17 years for two centuries or more. More importantly, Dad said the old oak tree was sure to be the best place to find a blue-eyed cicada. He said all cicadas have red eyes, except maybe one in a million has blue eyes. He was pretty sure only the females had blue eyes. “It will bring us good luck when we go fishing, if you’re lucky enough to find one,” he told me.
I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Dad’s knowledge about cicadas, but he said listening to the males sing the “Cicada Blues” reminded him of Hank Williams singing “Lovesick Blues.” With a big chuckle he added, “There ain’t nothing worse than hearing your baby say goodbye. All you want to do is sit and cry, especially when you know she’s going to be gone for another 17 years.” Dad had a big grin on his face as he finished this little story. I knew Hank Williams was his favorite singer, and “Lovesick Blues” was his favorite song.
Mom gave me a Mason jar, covered with a piece of wax paper with some holes punched in it and pulled tight with a rubber band, and I headed for the old oak tree. It was early June so most of the cicadas had already emerged. By the time I reached the old oak tree I was nearly knee deep in cicadas and the sound of their singing was so deafening I thought my eardrums would burst. The air was thick with cicadas and scores were beginning to land all over me. As I shook them off I thought to myself, “How in the world am I ever going to find a blue eyed cicada?”
Those words had no more than passed through my brain when I looked over toward the opening at the base of the old oak tree – the spot where I liked to hide when playing tag or hide and seek -and right there by the edge of the opening was a beautiful blue eyed cicada, sitting there all by herself as though she was just waiting for me to catch her. As I waded through the cicadas, I was afraid she might fly away but I needn’t have worried because apparently she had just emerged and was letting her wings dry before flying high into the old oak tree to mate and then lay her eggs, just as her mother and grandmothers had done for unknown generations.
I know it sounds silly to say a cicada is pretty, but you would have to have seen “Pretty Blue Eyes” – that’s the name I gave her. Her eyes sparkled and her silver wings glistened in the sunlight as I gently picked her up and placed her in the palm of my hand. Then, not wanting her to fly away, I placed her in the Mason jar. As she peered at me through the side of the jar, her eyes and face magnified to twice their size and I could have sworn the corners of her mandibles curled up into a little smile.
Returning home, I showed Pretty Blue Eyes to Dad and Mom and both were greatly impressed. “Well, shall we go fishing,” Dad asked?
“I don’t know,” I said reluctantly.
Dad could tell I’d had a change of heart. “I know son, it’s those pretty blue eyes, isn’t it?” Without waiting for me to answer, he added, “That’s alright, there are plenty of red-eyed cicadas to use for bait.”
I carefully placed the Mason jar containing Pretty Blue Eyes on the picnic table in the shade of a nearby maple tree. We then gathered our fishing tackle, caught a few red-eyed cicadas, and headed through Half Acre Woods to reach the big pond. As we passed by the old oak tree I paused and show Dad the exact spot where I’d found Pretty Blue Eyes.
We had a successful afternoon using red-eyed cicadas for bait, and while fishing a great idea came to me. When we arrived home Dad started cleaning the fish for Mom to fry for supper (along with some fried potatoes and cornbread), while I pursued my idea. I found the biggest red-eyed male cicada I could (I knew it was a male because Dad said only the males sing), then I removed Pretty Blue Eyes from the jar and placed her and the male cicada side by side on a limb of the maple tree, which was not far from my bedroom window.
By then it was time for supper. The fried fish was delicious and Mom had added something crunchy to the fried potatoes that made them taste especially good. When I asked what it was she just winked at Dad, smiled, and said, “I knew you would like them.”
I slept well that night and woke up early the next morning to the most beautiful rendition you of “Cicada-Lovesick Blues” you could ever imagine. I knew right away it had to be Big Red Eyes singing his heart out, knowing he wouldn’t see Pretty Blue Eyes for another 17 years.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.