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Sunday Journal: A camping horror story, or, not so snug with these bugs

My wife and I are out for our first real camping trip, complete with 10-year-old daughter. In the car on the way there, I'd told her one of my "when daddy was a little boy" true stories. Now I'm outside in the July dark on St. George Island — just off Carrabelle in the Florida Panhandle — reliving an adventure 60 years ago.

Down near Ruskin, south of Tampa, just after World War II, when the top halves of each car's headlights were still painted black — so the bad guys couldn't see us from the air — my dad let me and another 10-year-old buddy row out to Cockroach Bay for our first overnight campout alone.

Cockroach Bay. I should have read my father's slant smile better. This wasn't a state park. We got to that island in my daddy's caulk-seamed leaky flat-bottom boat. She was so old, the oarlocks wore out wide.

We'd rowed to a small mangrove island in Cockroach Bay, pulling out from the landing where the old diesel ferry hauled cars and people almost straight across the bay to St. Pete.

Centuries before, this was real Indian country — near where the Calusa fisher-folk ran into the coastal farmers of the Tocobaga tribe. Even today, Cockroach Bay, now an aquatic preserve, is nearly pristine, no condos teetering near the mangroves, just prop scars in the sea grass carved by boaters too dumb to tilt their outboards up.

Why call it Cockroach Bay? I'd heard that De Soto's conquistadors had seen the brown-shelled horseshoe crabs scuttling on the shallow bottom sand — thousands of them in 1539 or so — and said "cucaracha." Cockroach. But that was more than 400 years ago, and this was just after World War II, when no real boy was afraid of a horseshoe crab, even though they look like giant spiders when you flip them over.

No big deal. Snakes, those worried us. So we weighted the bottom sides of the Army-surplus pup tent with sand and slept on the safe dirt (no tent floors back then) and closed the flaps tight against mosquitoes, spiders, snakes and the little black fiddlers that crawled in the mangrove roots. Safe. Hot, but safe.

Just when we'd settled in, the scuttling sounds began. First at the bottom edges of the pup tent. Then, climbing the slope of the tent walls. Then running on the ridge line of the tent — so many and so heavy in their multitudes (oh, the King James Bible!) that the slopes of the tent bellied in and the tent stakes shifted in loose sand. It wasn't rain; it was some kind of bugs, not crabs, and we could hear (no, feel) their myriad feet pluck and climb on the canvas, and the tent was caving down like a newspaper hat in a frog-strangler rain. It was way too much, the pressure, the heat, the crazed scratching noise.

We scrambled out of the tent-fly, snapped on our official Army crook-neck flashlights, and there they were — thousands of real cockroaches, each one as long as a kid's thumb, swarming up and over our tent in a grainy moving mass, and every single roach trying to get to the bacon inside our tent. In only our undershorts, we ran — fast.

We'd anchored Dad's rowboat about 3 feet offshore, so the falling tide wouldn't strand us in the morning, but now it was dark, so we slipped over the gunnels soaking wet. No roaches out here. But then thousands of skeeters set in hungry. We heaved up the concrete block, our anchor, and set farther off shore. The skeeters followed us, and it was way too dark and far to row home.

Indians, we'd heard, slathered on bear grease to keep swamp angels from biting, but we didn't have any grease, only a pint of guava jelly, some peanut butter and half a loaf of bread. The bacon was back in the tent with the roaches. We curled up between the seats of the boat, and slapped and jerked and twisted and slapped mosquitoes until morning, but at least they weren't roaches. Finally the sun came up with a small breeze and those bugs swept back to the mangroves where they stayed.

Three score years later and some 200 miles north-northwest as the fish hawk flies, we're on St. George Island, with spray-on bug repellent that really works, in a fine state park that, like all of them now, bills itself as "the real Florida." Not quite, but close enough for me.

A longtime resident and local historian of Ruskin, A. McA. ("Mac") Miller is professor emeritus of literature at New College of Florida in Sarasota.

Sunday Journal: A camping horror story, or, not so snug with these bugs 08/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 4:31am]
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