John McCain's fighter jet was shot down over North Vietnam and he was locked up in a Viet Cong prison where they beat him, broke out his teeth and subjected him to all manner of inhumane torture and privation. When they learned he was the son of a U.S. Senator, they offered to release him. He declined, saying that he would go home when all the American flyers went home.

This can only mean one thing. There are no chiggers in Viet Nam. Otherwise he would have been out of there like a shot.

If you want a preview of hell, here's what you do. Find yourself a balmy July morning in Arkansas. Lie down in a shady spot in the tall grass and have yourself about a four hour nap. When you wake up, go down to the sporting goods store and buy yourself a pistol and one bullet, because that's the only cure for chiggers.

Chiggers are the larval form of the harvest mite. The adult feeds on the juices of plants, but the larva requires a meal of mammal protoplasm in order become a nymph. You whisk through the shady tall grass. Hairs on the legs of the chiggers catch in the fibers of your clothing and now the chigger is on you. Instinctively the chigger crawls upward. Thousands are bounced back to earth by your physical activity, but those that have found your skin continue to climb until they find soft skin with hair on it, like the backs of your knees or your ankles or your groinal region.

Here comes the gross part. The chigger latches onto one of your hairs and pukes into the follicular pore at the base of the hair. Chigger puke contains an enzyme which dissolves the cell wall of those lower skin cells. Cells rupture and protoplasm runs out. The chigger laps up the protoplasm, burps, releases his grip, falls to the forest floor and begins his transformation into a harvest mite nymph.

The itchy red bump is your allergic reaction to chigger puke. By the time the bump appears the chigger is long gone and there's not much you can do but suffer with it.

If you've never been the victim of a serious chigger attack, you probably wonder why all the fuss. At any given time during the summer I'll have on my body ten to twenty chigger bites, one or two spider bites, several mosquito bites, poison ivy welts or what have you. That's just the cost of doing business if you enjoy the outdoors. Sure, chigger bites itch, but so what? Lots of insect bites itch.

Well, pilgrim, ten chigger bites is not chigger bit. When chiggers come at you in a serious way, it's like the Chinese at the Yalu River; and if a thousand of them nail you, you've got a thousand itchy bumps for two weeks. Contrast that with a mosquito bite that itches for a few minutes or a spider bite that raises a welt and a bruise for a couple of days. You're not going to sleep well for two weeks. You will become desperate and people will take advantage of your desperation.

There are a number of over-the-counter medical preparations marketed which just don't do anything more than deprive you of your cash. Lye soap, calamine, soda based poultices, cortisol creams, medicated fingernail polish dabs all provide momentary relief at best. You might find a friend true enough to paint a shell of clear nail polish over every chigger bite in your butt cleavage, but ten minutes after you fall asleep all that shellac is going to be under your fingernails. I've heard good things about a product called "Chigger Digger," but I've never tried it myself.

So what can you do if you get chigger bit? Rule number one is DON'T GET CHIGGER BIT! Avoid shady areas covered with thick vegetation. Wear long pants and sweat until your clothes are wet. A glaze of sweat is pretty effective chigger repellant. DEET works, too, but degrades rapidly and must be reapplied every hour or two and is not really any more effective than sweat. Take a shower at your first opportunity after you get in from the woods.

But if you break rule number one and DO get chigger bit? Resign yourself to your fate, keep a stiff upper lip and determine not to scratch. Secondary infection is the only real danger from getting chigger bit. Keep yourself mentally distracted and your hands occupied. It's the absent-minded first scratch that triggers an itch cascade that leads inexorably to a mind bending chigger freak-out.

If you do get chigger bit, you're about to learn things about yourself you're unlikely to learn any other way. For one thing, you're about to find out just how much self-discipline you have and just how valuable it is. You'll become mentally and emotionally vulnerable. You're about to discover that you'll mutilate yourself because of a tiny but persistent itch. You'll find yourself spending loads of money on patent medicines you know to be ineffective and you'll try any improbable home remedy anybody suggests. A good friend will tell you that coyote urine will stop the itching. Out of desperation you'll try it, much to the amusement of your good friend. And by the way, your own dogs will growl and bark at you because now you smell like coyote urine. Good ol' boys think that kind of joke is reeeeeeally funny.

My best advice is tough it out. Keep the welts clean. Resist the temptation to scratch. If you do break the skin apply a little antiseptic.

While we're on the subject, here's advice for poison ivy. As soon as possible after you realize you've come into contact with poison ivy, spread vegetable oil over the affected area. Let it sit for a couple of minutes and wash it off with soap and water. The poison ivy toxin is an oil and will diffuse into vegetable oil whereas it won't diffuse into plain water.



Wouldn't you just know that after I'd written an essay passing myself off as a wiley outdoorsman I'd go and get myself chigger bit. Here's how it happened. Learn from my mistake.

I was out in the woods in really obvious chigger territory. Of course I figured my usual precautions (Sweat like crazy and bathe as soon as you get in from the woods) would do the trick. And sure enough, I was fine. The very next day I drove to Hot Springs and by the time I returned I was covered with chiggers. The little SOB's had overnighted in my car seat and in the floor carpet.

See you in two weeks. Aaaaarrrrrghhhhh!


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