Couple who grew up in Everglades scoff at suburban mosquitoes

Published Nov. 23, 2013

TARPON SPRINGS — With summer rains come summer mosquitoes, lots of them, millions of them, maybe more. At least that's how it seems to city folks as dusk descends on manicured back yards everywhere in Florida. We feel the bite on our bare ankle and call in the big artillery from the local Mosquito Control Agency. Help us.

Ike House, 84, doesn't need help.

"I ain't no sissy boy,'' he says.

He grew up in the Everglades when the only control available was a Gladesman's big, tough hands. He slapped mosquitoes when he couldn't avoid them or stayed indoors. A commercial fisherman, he had to risk his hide sooner or later and did so, he points out, without a whimper.

Some called them swamp angels. House never saw anything angelic about the devilish vampires. Sometimes, he wore a bandana over his face to keep from breathing them in.

Modern Floridians, he harrumphs, are scared of nature. They couldn't survive without air conditioning. He and his wife, Mary, live in a modest house across from the Anclote River, where mosquitoes emerge from the marshes at dusk, sending the pusillanimous into a tizzy.

Mary, an Everglades gal who is every bit as tough as her grizzled husband of 63 years, remembers the time she placed her hand on a screen in the Everglades. Her paw must have smelled like a filet mignon to the flying hordes.

"When I took my hand away," she says. "You could see the mosquitoes on the screen. In the shape of my hand."

• • •

Forget about the great white shark. Don't even mention the crocodiles of Australia. The most dangerous critter on Earth is the mosquito. It's not even close.

Malaria, transmitted by mosquitoes, kills more than 650,000 humans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Yellow fever and dengue add to the misery in third-world nations.

In Florida we have 80 mosquito species, but most don't bother humans. A dozen species have the potential to make us sick, but government agencies whose mission is to ditch and drain mosquito habitat, spray chemicals and generally battle whatever screens and citronella candles can't handle.

Ike and Mary House lived in the Everglades before it became a national park in 1947. Air conditioning? They didn't even have electricity. They drank water collected in a rain barrel.

Their community was called Flamingo, the southernmost point on the Florida mainland and also the best place to experience the most ferocious mosquitoes anywhere. Stand next to the mangroves at dawn and watch your bare arm turn black — with mosquitoes. The USDA still tests repellents there.

Ike and Mary were luckier than earlier generations of their clan. They didn't have to hang palm fronds in the doorway to knock mosquitoes off incoming guests. Their windows featured screens. "The old timers,'' Ike says with a growl, "sometimes just sat in the smoke from a fire when things got bad."

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• • •

He no longer gets around like he once did. He can no longer help his son, Steve, pull his stone crab traps. Nor can he ascend the backyard ladder to pick the papayas or avocados.

But the old man can still smoke a tasty fish. He prefers a Florida mullet in the fall. In the summer, he'll settle for a salmon from Canada. He keeps the smoker across the street on the Anclote River. The breeze keeps down the mosquitoes, though not completely. He still prefers slapping to repellent.

Damned if anyone will accuse him of being a sissy boy.

For a while, he and Mary grew tomatoes in the Big Cypress, near a community known as Ochopee. The Houses harvested during heavy rains that knocked down the swarms. When the rain stopped, the mosquitoes started in again.

"But I loved it," Mary House says. "Even with the mosquitoes and the rattlesnakes. It was real pretty. You never knew what you was going to see or hear."

Once they came home to find the back door on the ground.

"Better call the law," Ike told his wife. "Looks like somebody broke in."

In the kitchen, cans of corn, tomatoes, you name it, lay scattered across the floor — all punctured by a sharp set of teeth. They'd been sucked dry.

"All except the spinach," Mary says now. "I guess bears don't like spinach."

Modern Floridians. We're soft.