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Monday, August 22, 2011

O, Say Can You See (Spiders!)?!

My sister and I, being the only female children in our family (that we knew of anyway), slept together in a double bed. We grew up very poor in the working class town of New Britain, Connecticut  during the "Golden Age" of American life; a time when most people found their lives in a far better state than that of their own parents. It was the early 1960s and 15 or more years had passed since the end of WWII. Baby Boomers were still being born, at least for a few more years. But, my family struggled to make ends meet. So, with 5 kids and only 2 bedrooms to put us in, there was a girls' room and a boys' room.

We were lucky, in that, our bed was big and comfy and we kept one another warm by snuggling all night. It was a good system, for the bitterly cold Connecticut winters were equally cold inside of our home. We didn't have heat.

We children were assigned age and gender-specific jobs, not unusual in that era. As the youngest, my job was to clean the bathroom. It always took me the entire day, every weekend, owing to my procrastinistic nature and ability to be easily distracted by absolutely everything. My sister had several jobs, being older (and quicker) than I. One of them was making our bed and straightening our room. I think I was around 5 years old.

I was cleaning the tub, when I heard my sister let out an audible, "Look, a spider!" I ran to the room, adjacent to the bathroom, only to see what appeared to be an enormous brown, spindly and very quick-moving spider on the bedspread. My sister wasn't afraid of spiders, but she wasn't anxious to touch one, either. She just watched it scamper across the bed. I was shrieking, transfixed, "I'm not ever, EVER going to sleep there again," as if I had numerous options. Our mother raced up the stairs, trying to determine who was bleeding or bruised from all the commotion. Satisfied that neither of us was, she inquired as to why I was carrying on so. "Mommy, there's a spider in my b-bed," I stammered, tears filling my eyes. "Oh,'s probably just a daddy long legs...and it's probably already gone."

Now, as convincing as the sound of her words was, the tone was something else entirely. I never realized till later in life that my Mom was also fearful of spiders. OK, not as much as I am, but still...she wouldn't have sought out the offending arachnid. She merely pooh-poohed my fears in a common-sense sort of way. "Mommy, I will never, EVER sleep in that bed again." She smiled at me and just quietly said, "We’ll see."

When it was time to go to bed that night, I pitched such a fit that my mother was forced to disassemble the bed linens to prove to me that the spider was gone. After that, during my growing up years, there were awful instances of spiders dropping onto my head when I'd play in trees, crawling on me while I lay on the floor to watch TV and just be the endless source of fear-inducing torture treatments for my older brothers to mete upon me. Yes, they thought my arachnophobia was just GREAT!

I recall seeing the "Incredible Shrinking Man" at the movie theatre as a kid. We had 3 theatres in our downtown: The Strand, The Palace and The Embassy. On weekends, usually the Palace and/or the Embassy would show double- or triple-features (for the young among you: that would be 2 or 3 movies in a row, preceded by cartoons and usually graphics of dancing sodas and hot-dogs to inspire your visit to the concession stand). Back then, the cost of a movie ticket was about 25¢. It was the absolute best babysitting deal for kids back then. Our parents knew we were safe for an entire afternoon while they relaxed or did projects. We reveled in the giant screens and ornate theatres of the day, complete with balconies and pay toilets with ultra-violet lights that purportedly 'sterilized' the seat! (Of course, the u-v light was located under the seat, so it was difficult to understand how, in any way, that could actually sterilize the surface). But, it cost an additional 10¢ for the privilege!

During the movie (for those who haven't seen it), a man who was exposed to dangerous chemicals, begins inexplicably shrinking. There is a point at which he becomes so tiny that as he is trying to escape the housecat (who thinks he is a playful treat), he falls down the stairs and into the cellar. In the basement, there is a ginormous, hairy black spider, many times the size of the now quite-shrunken man. He learns to hide from the spider by ducking into a match box, but finally realizes that the spider WILL eat him if he doesn't do something. In a moment of rarified bravery (or foolishness) he finds a hat pin and, when the spider alights atop him, he impales it, spider blood gushing forth. It was the most terrifying and disturbing thing I'd ever seen. I think I might have been 7 years old. From that time forward, I had repetitive night terrors with giant spiders alighting atop my sleeping body. I'd wake up; screaming in terror and sweat dripping down, and the spider would still be there for several seconds, until the hallucination would dissipate. But, I just couldn't even bring myself to tell my mother what was wrong. Even thought I was crazy--surely she would have me committed!

My night terrors continued, literally, into adulthood.

I remember working at the Kelsey-Seybold Clinic in Houston while I was a nursing student at the U of Texas in Houston. I'd gotten a job there even before starting the clinical part of nursing school, to help pay my way through. I worked in medical records, which was in the basement of the building. The basement. Just like in the Incredible Shrinking Man!

On Saturdays and in the evenings, I worked late and often was the last person out of the building. I was not afraid of being alone there. I wasn't afraid of anything. Except for spiders! Luckily, I didn't see any. Well, except that one time. I needed to find a chart that we'd sent to Dr. Pranke's office. Because I was alone in the building and it was nighttime, I needed to ride the elevator up to the 4th floor to get it. I pressed the elevator button and, there inside, was a GINORMOUS tarantula! I had never seen one, but just like in the Incredible Shrinking Man, it was hairy and looked very threatening. I didn't know what else to do. I ran back into medical records, grabbed a Houston Yellow Pages (which weighs about 10 lbs!) and tossed it atop the giant spider. Please do not send the ASPCA to arrest me. I was only 18 years old and I was petrified of spiders that were tinier than my baby fingernail. This was traumatic! I shut the elevator door, grabbed my purse and left the building, using the stairs for safe measure. I just couldn't stay, knowing that spider was still lurking dangerously close.

A few years later, early in our marriage and while living in Colorado, my husband would humor me...slaying the dragon, so to speak, even if the spider was an itsy bitsy one. I felt much protected! But, as time marched on, he became a bit less tolerant of my fear of even the most innocuous spiders. He could handle that I didn't want anything to do with the black widows in our cords of firewood and stone piles...less so of the miniscule arachnids who managed to find the part of the ceiling directly above my head, waiting till I climbed into the covers to drop...or worse, suddenly disappear from view, so I wouldn't know where they'd gone, exactly!

Yes, Chuck put up with a lot! Finally, a neighbor clued me in to a WONDERFUL solution. It didn't get rid of spiders altogether, but it was a solution for when they appeared. Get the vacuum out! I started leaving the Electrolux assembled, lying in wait for the next victim. Chuck might be sound asleep at 1:30am, when I'd suddenly see a spider on the ceiling, through my peripheral vision, while reading a book. No problem! I'd get the vacuum and suck the little bastard up! What a great system. Chuck wasn't too thrilled with it, though. And, then, there were the times when, instead of sucking the spider into the vacuum, the vacuum arm knocked it down and into the bed. Then, I'd have to vacuum the bed...otherwise, I couldn't sleep in it! Really.

I ended up realizing it was silly to have a giant vacuum to get rid of spiders. So, I bought myself a Dust-Buster mini vac. It was a perfect size and seemed the best solution. Plus, the model I bought had an extension arm that increased the reach...perfect for those midnight monsters on the ceiling!

I can't tell you how many of the spiders I vacuumed up...but, I can tell you it was a lot! A few months later, when I went to empty the vacuum chamber, sure it would be brimming, it was EMPTY. Yes. Empty! No little spider corpses within. Suddenly I realized that, either I had: 1) a bunch of pissed-off, oft-vacuumed spiders in my house 2) One giant, monstrous specimen had been eating all the spiders in the vacuum and had now escaped...OR...3) I'd been vacuuming up the same spider over and over again! Horrors!

In that same house, we had an honest-to-goodness air raid shelter. And, for those of you too young to know or remember: back in the early 60's, during the cold war with Soviet Union, we had 'air raid drills.' These were designed so that more people would allegedly survive a nuclear attack by those pesky Russians! Most people would go to a designated Air Raid Shelter (usually a school or public building) and gather. However, some people, like the paranoids who'd previously owned our home, just built one into the house. Now, we weren't too worried about a Russian nuclear threat in 1992--we had, I just decided to use it as a room to store wines, the beer that Chuck brewed and the fruits and veggies I'd canned.

The problem was, being dug out of the ground, and with barely any structure, it was mostly a radon-filled spider habitat. Now, this is why I had decided to bear children: my son would gallantly go forth and fetch beer, wine or any canned good I might have stored. I don't believe I ever retrieved anything he didn't grab for me before he left for college in 1996. I left it all there for whoever would move into the house after us. I just couldn't make myself go in there.

In 2004, we left Colorado for Southern California. Both of our kids ended up there, so it seemed like a good plan. We moved to Del Mar, just north of San Diego. Chuck and I would go on daily walks. We marveled at the fact that we could walk in our shorts in October and November, when our friends in Colorado were digging out from early season snows! It was great. Mostly, earlier in the summer and fall, we'd walk along the beach near Torrey Pines. But, as the weather started getting cooler near the ocean, we took it inland and would walk a 3-4 mile stretch near our apartment. It was an area lined in trees and bushes and had lots of gorgeous flowers.

I remember the first time I saw one: a GIANT orb spider that dropped down from a tree we were walking under. I screamed and shoved Chuck out of the way. No, not to protect him. It was my egress route! There was no way I was getting anywhere near that thing! Then I realized, starting around October, they were EVERYWHERE. I don't know if they had previously been too small to notice or what...but, never did I see one till October...They would string webs across the sidewalk and dart back and forth across, hang from trees above and to our sides. I felt like I was under siege. How could Chuck walk KNOWING that they were all about? Was I the only one who saw them?

A year later, we bought a home in Orange County, about an hour north of Del Mar. We had a lovely yard, filled with all sorts of fruit trees: lemons, limes, kumquats, oranges, pears, apples, and figs. In addition, we had roses and all sorts of other flora. I absolutely LOVED our yard. We moved there in June, just in time for the birth of our first grandchild, living in nearby Newport Beach. I now had a new focus that dominated my attention (and digital camera space!). It was glorious to be a grandma.

Rancho Santa Margarita (RSM) was built around a man-made 'lake.' It was really a beautiful spot and there was a concrete path around the lake (about 2 miles around). It was tree-shaded and just lovely. However, as fall approached, when I looked upward at the canopy formed by the branches of the trees, there were the dreaded spider webs and large dangling spiders up above. At first, they weren't particularly large or threatening. However, by October's end, they were humungous and dropped precipitously down from atop their high perches, ostensibly to gather a morsel for storage in their vast webs. I had to start wearing hats, to guard against the dropping arachnids. I wanted to carry a tennis racket, with which to protect myself, but mine was packed in the garage from the move still. I started to wonder if this was why spiders are associated with Halloween...since this seemed to be an October phenomenon? Or maybe it's why autumn is also called 'fall,' because of the falling arachnids?!

I found that I just couldn't make myself do these autumnal 'obstacle courses.' Other walkers and joggers would stare as I'd bat at (what probably looked like) empty airspace, with seizure-like efficiency and grace. As good as walking is for the heart, the terror that spiders inspired in me was likely to be equally bad. I couldn't do it! Instead, I retreated to the solace and quietude of my lovely back yard.

I was sitting on our patio, when I saw something large and yellow moving very quickly in some of the tall border plants to my right about 30 feet away. I got up off of my chair and moved toward the plants, looking intently. Suddenly, I saw the biggest ass spiders I have seen outside of the Houston tarantula experience! These were orb spiders with an attitude! Their bodies were about the size of the palm of my hand, their legs, long and sleek. They had black and yellow markings. They were intent on capturing the Africanized bees that had formed a nest in our back yard. To be honest, I was able to appreciate these particular arachnids...they were smooth and efficient in dispatching the bees, seemingly catching them in mid-flight as they bumped their webs. But, mostly because they were where they belonged : not in my home or above my head in the trees, ready to drop down and terrify. They were far enough from my house to not pose a threat, they were serving a useful purpose (as all spiders do), but they were also quite lovely, in their own way. Their webs were architectural marvels. As long as they stayed there, I could deal.

Then, almost 2 years ago, we ended up moving to Seattle. I'd been quite amazed, my first year, at the fact that there didn't appear to be spiders here. I was elated, in fact. If I had to live in a place with this much rain and coffee, it was nice to know that at least I didn't have to co-exist with spiders! But, I grew to see that it is probably because we bought the model home in our subdivision. It was probably heavily sprayed for the time it was being used. My neighbors say they see some spiders. And, in this second year, while I haven't seen more than an anemic-looking tiny specimen indoors, I have started seeing some small-to-medium-sized orb spiders outdoors on the trees and webs that travel from bushes to raspberry plants. I was doing fine. Until. Until I went to the hardware store to buy some organic plant food. There, on the shelf, someone had misplaced a bag of "Hobo Spider" killer. WTF?!

I went on the internet and did a Hobo Spider search. Holy Moly! This critter is also known as the 'aggressive' house spider. GREAT! Turns out, this is a spider whose forebears hitched a ride on a boat from Asia to the Port of Seattle with cargo, and set up housekeeping, probably mating with some native species. They are large and ugly and evidently have the same skin-sloughing potential as the brown recluse! Lovely!
So, now, every night when I go to bed, I check the wall, I check the ceiling and I think, "Mommy! If I see that spider in my bed, I will NEVER sleep there again!"

© 2009 Ryb Katz. All rights reserved

Big Ass Spider in Rancho Santa Margarita backyardAnother big-ass spider in RSM!

A smaller Renton, Washington spider for comparison.OK...I am NOT sure what is contained within this treetop web on our walk along the Cedar River...but, I'd hate to see the big-assed spider that built it!

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