The Night Has 1,000 Flies

IT was the summer of 1973, and I was just back in Michigan from a university semester in France. Before I had left, concerned that I might get back to find all the summer jobs taken, I arranged with a former junior high school teacher to staff one of his ice-cream wagons.

I spent that summer pulling an ice-cream wagon behind a car and selling nut-dipped ice-cream cones at carnivals all over the Midwest: from Port Huron, Mich., where I watched the late Karl Wallenda walk a tightrope several times from the county building to the YMCA without a net; to the Kentucky State Fair in Louisville, where I saw one of the most crooked carnival games ever; to Arlington Heights, Ill., and the wildly unsuccessful ``Future of America Fair.''

The routine was fairly simple: I would take a quart of vanilla ice cream and, using a special blade, quickly slice it into eight rectangles. Then I crammed a double-width cone over each rectangle and dumped the ice cream into a vat of chocolate and thence onto a tray of crushed peanuts. You could watch me do this for free; a crowd almost always gathered. For 50 cents, I'd sell you a cone.

It was my second week out. I had just finished playing the Algonac, Mich., Pickerel Festival and was now in New Baltimore, down the St. Clair River on the shores of Lake St. Clair, in the chain of lakes and rivers between Lake Huron and Lake Erie.

I was glad to have moved. I didn't have anything against Algonac, but on the carnival midway there I was parked across from a swing ride owned by a guy who apparently could afford only one tape - one long enough to hold four really bad country songs. After I'd heard ``Smokey Joe's Cafe'' play for the umpteenth time, I thought I would scream.

The first couple of nights in New Baltimore, everything went fine. Fine, that is, until the night the fish flies swarmed.

If you've never seen a fish fly, or at least this species of fish fly, they have a thin green body about an inch long and large diaphanous wings. They lay their eggs on Lake St. Clair, and about the first or second week of July, the larvae all sprout their wings at once and fly off. Like all insects, they are mesmerized by light bulbs.

That time of year, it doesn't get dark in Michigan until about 9:45 or so. We carnival people had no inkling of what was coming. As soon as it was dark, swarms of the fairy insects came teeming off the lake and across New Baltimore.

They flew in thick clouds around the street lights and carpeted the roads underneath. Cars made squishing sounds going down the road; I learned later that it is not unusual for accidents to occur when a driver tries to stop and finds himself skidding over the flies.

The carnival was a disaster. The flies made straight for the fluorescent lights on the rides and in my unscreened ice-cream wagon. They were so thick on the bulbs that you could hardly tell the lamps were lit. Racing to keep the flies out of the chocolate dip, I threw on the cover, shut off my lights, and tried to stay open, even though the Tilt-a-Whirl, the ring-toss booth, and other amusements were shutting down all around me.

I lowered the back end of the roof and soldiered on. ``Nut-dipped ice cream cones, 50 cents,'' I yelled. ``With fish flies, 75 cents.''

I got a lot of laughs, but sales were few. You had to really want ice cream that night.

After an hour, the insects had chased the mammals from the field. I brushed the remaining flies off my lights, lowered the roof of the trailer, and went off to dinner.

The next morning, only a few stragglers remained alive. Piles of flies littered the carnival grounds, the roads, and the rest of town.

The next night was pretty much business as usual. The life cycle of the fish fly is a short one.

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