The Best-Fed Pests

THE Beatitudes notwithstanding, the Potato Bugs shall inherit the earth. I have it on good authority, and will relate the details of the Big Swindle. I already have over $18 tied up in the deal, and nothing to show for it, and I'm talking about the Colorado Beetle. I speak of the true beetle, which preys upon the potato vine and will, if allowed to pursue his gluttony, reduce the crop to a grand total of nil. He did so last summer, and for the first time we had to buy potatoes at the store. The other potato bug, which is never going to inherit anything, is something of a local joke here in Maine and is worthy of a few words in passing.

But first, I will quote a remark of the late Capt. William Alexander, only because many years have rolled by and I never had an excuse to quote him before. The captain, in his time, commanded the Hortense Alexander with which he set three consecutive records from Boston around the Horn to San Francisco. He retired to the old Alexander Farm at Bunganuc and kept a small garden between his kitchen door and his clam flat.

One summer potato bugs intruded, and when the captain found this out the leaves on his plants had been chewed until only the stems were left. In describing this deplorable result, Cap'n Bill said, ``They was all spars and no sails!''

The other kind of potato bug, referred to above as a Maineism, has pretty much passed from the scene and only us oldsters will remember. When railroads hauled freight back before highway taxes were thought up, the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad Company owned a considerable fleet of ``reefers,'' which were insulated boxcars meant for moving produce.

In Maine, these were usually called ``line cars'' and hauled potatoes from farm to market. In the cold months, when Maine potatoes were in season, each line car had a small stove to ward off the severity of a northern Maine winter. In the summer, when potatoes were few, the Bangor & Aroostook used to lease these cars to western railroads to move summertime crops, and it's entirely possible there was more profit in renting the cars than there was in hauling potatoes.

As each train of line cars moved south from Aroostook County, the crew included a man to attend the little stoves. Every so often he would crawl along the catwalk and go through a scuttle, car by car, to check temperatures and refuel the little stoves. Since he passed most of his time in a heavy drench of CO, he would grow pallid and listless as the train moved along. Once the train reached, say, New York City, this custodian of the stoves rode back to Maine in better atmosphere, recouped nicely in time to make another trip. These stove tenders were called ``potato bugs.'' Their day is gone, and any inheritance is conjectural.

A year ago, when I found the true potato bugs had moved in on my patch, I went to our farm and garden store and bought what they recommended - an insecticide made by a ``leading'' firm and all that. The only thing this insecticide did was to make my little potato bugs joyful. They loved it. I squirted them and they rejoiced. The next time I went to squirt they leaped hilariously about and cheered. I used up the whole bottle, and by now potato bugs were coming from great distances to disport in my presence and tell me they loved me. As I have said, my crop was a failure. I dug a pint or so of potatoes like marbles, and the harvest was over.

So this year, when my patch sprouted, I went back to the same store with deliberate intent and I spoke thusly: ``I want whatever will take care of my potato bugs. Last year you sold me something that wouldn't and didn't, and you said it would. This year, don't sell it to me unless it'll work. Do you have an ear impediment?''

He said he did not, and I paid him in good faith and went my way. He showed me on the label; it said, ``Potato bugs (Colorado Beetle).'' The results were the same. I squirted, and the beasties throve. After three applications a day apart, with the bugs reducing things to spars, I returned to the store and I shook the bottle under the gentleman's nose. ``You are a swindler,'' I said.

``Now, now,'' he said.

Then he told me potato bugs have become immune, that nothing deters them. I reminded him that he might have said so last spring but didn't. I showed him that his label was a liar. I remonstrated with intense villification. Then I went home again. I submit pleasantly that an eradicated potato bug may or may not be immune. Those not yet eradicated could be. From now out, the meek don't stand a chance.

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