The Fly Problem originally appeared in The Horsemen’s Journal, December 1983
I was reading an article about parasite control the other day, which certainly seemed learned enough in discussing such problems as ringworm, when it dawned on me that it didn’t really offer any solutions relative to one of mankind’s greatest pests and one of the horsemen’s most obvious external problems: flies.
I suppose it was because flies had been on my mind for several days. My wife and I had visited a couple of farms under a hot California sun earlier that week, and the nuisance aspect of constantly trying to chase away the plethora of flies that had seemingly found a home in the paddocks certainly detracted from our appreciation of the horses we were visiting. And, being the sentimentalist that I am, I was concerned about the horses who docilely accepted the presence of the pests as if they’d given up fighting them years, or possibly centuries, before.
Plus we had our own modest problem at home, the small air conditioner in the living room not being adequate enough to allow us to seal off our apartment on a warm afternoon. Open a deck door and you might get a soft breeze. What you’re certain to get is flies.
But mostly I was thinking about the horses, who lacked the ability to bang an intruding fly over the head with a rolled up newspaper, when I stopped by my favorite flower stand on the way home one evening.
Now, normally this stop is to purchase some carnations to set on the dining room table for the weekend or, if I’ve had a more lucrative week at the local racetrack, some roses. As usual, this was a carnation week, and as I was looking over the latest arrivals, some potted plants that had never been there before caught my eye.
“What are those?” I asked my flower vendor out of curiosity.
“Venus fly traps,” he responded before rushing off to sell someone a dozen nasturtiums.
I stood there for a minute and contemplated this discovery. After all, as far as I knew, a Venus fly trap was some sort of exotic plant that could only be found, assuming you were even looking for one, in some specialized botanical garden. Heck, I didn’t even know if it was legal to have them.
“How much are the Venus fly traps?” I asked the vendor when he finished selling the nasturtiums.
“Three bucks,” he replied.
“I’ll take one,” I said, digging three dollars out of my pocket. Besides, I reasoned, the carnations would cost eight.
“Tell me,” I asked, as he put some protective wrapping around the plant, “do they really eat flies?”
He looked at me curiously. “Why do you think they call them Venus fly traps?”
“Of course,” I said as my mind envisioned a horse farm surrounded by Venus fly traps. “But this one is pretty small, do they get any bigger?”
“Well,” he allowed, “I’ve heard about one in the botanical gardens up in the hills that you could stick your head in. Not,” he added, handing me my purchase, “that I’d advise it.”
I peeked into the package. Eight presumably carnivorous open pods seemed to be staring back in anticipation of at least a loose finger.
“Oh yeah,” the vendor hollered as I was walking towards my bus stop. “If you’re short on flies, give them a little hamburger meat every week or so. But make sure it’s raw.”
I sat on the bus, wondering if I’d really made the right decision to buy something that ate raw meat, while asking several subsequently arriving passengers if they could possibly find another seat, the one next to me being occupied by a Venus fly trap.
“You mean one of them plants that eats people?” one passenger asked me.
“Only if you’re David Heddeson,” I responded cryptically in reference to the movie The Fly.
But even more cryptic was my wife’s expression when I walked in the front door carrying what she assumed to be carnations or her favorite roses, except she recognized I was carrying the package carefully, as if I was afraid the contents might bite me. Which, of course, I was afraid it would.
I carefully unveiled my prize.
“What on Earth is that?” she asked.
“The answer to every horseman’s dream,” I said proudly. “It is only,” I went on expansively, “the greatest answer to parasite control ever invented by nature. And,” I went on more modestly, “you are looking at the first person in the world to ever think of it as a solution to one of the horsemen’s oldest problems!”
“That’s nice, dear,” she said nervously while glancing at the emergency numbers pasted on the kitchen telephone, “but what is it?”
“Why, a Venus fly trap, of course. Plant these around the farms of America and no horse will ever again be bothered by a fly. No more dangerous pesticides, no more unsightly mechanical fly traps that rarely work anyway. No more flypaper, which usually blows away if the horse doesn’t step on it first. In short, the optimum solution to an age-old problem that also offers an aesthetic benefit. All we have to do is test run this one on the flies that come into the apartment, and then I’ll write the results of our experiment and every horseman in the world will be forever in our debt. I’ll probably,” I added, “sell the article to The Horseman’s Journal first, but I’ll hold out for reprint fees in Reader’s Digest and Scientific American.”
My wife looked at me strangely, then started laughing. “Anyone else would bring home a fly swatter,” she said. “You bring home a plant!”
“Give it a chance,” I said, setting it on the dining room table. “Besides, I’ve already given it a name as a member of the family. After all, you have a name for all those strange plants of yours on the deck, and all they do is attract hungry pigeons. Say hello to Norman, dear.”
“Yeah, like Norman Bates in the movie Psycho. Remember at the end of the original when Norman, dba his Mother, said that she/he/it wouldn’t harm a fly?”
“Does that mean that this plant won’t either?” she asked.
“Don’t be cute,” I replied, “when I’m on the verge of the greatest discovery for horsemen since the creation of the horse.”
Just then a fly made a kamikaze dive past my ear and headed for the bedroom.
“Isn’t the plant supposed to attract the fly?” my wife asked.
“Well, of course,” I said somewhat indignantly, “but you probably scared the fly off. I’m sure it’s just a question of time. In the meantime, would you give it a little bit raw hamburger?”
She got a small morsel of ground beef out of the refrigerator and we tentatively offered it to one of the open pods with a pair of tweezers.
Chomp went the pod.
“At least we know it’s hungry,” I said encouragingly.
My wife, her curiosity aroused, gently poked the tip of a car key into another open pod.
Chomp went the pod.
“Yes, it certainly is that,” she said nervously while carefully extracting the key.
“Let’s leave it alone for a couple of days,” I said, “and see how many flies it catches. Then I can start working on my article for the horsemen.”
We checked the plant two days later. All the pods were still open, except the one we had put the ground beef in. It was completely black.
“I don’t think it’s supposed to look like that,” my wife observed.
“I agree,” I said somewhat reluctantly while snipping off the obviously expired pod. “But I’d sure like to know where you’re buying the hamburger meat these days, especially since you told me you planned to barbeque some tonight. Still,” I went on, “I can’t understand why it didn’t catch a fly.”
“Maybe it’s a vegetarian?” she offered hopefully.
“It’s a young plant,” I responded defensively, “it probably just has to be weaned or something like that. Get me a newspaper and I’ll get a fly for it, then you’ll see what I mean.”
I went out on the deck and, sure enough, returned a few minutes later with a fly that I had only managed to stun. “Let’s put this in one of the larger pods and see what happens,” I suggested.
Chomp went the pod.
A few seconds passed while the pod appeared to debate whether it had been given some more of that terrible hamburger meat or simply misled by another car key. Then, perhaps recognizing its heritage and understanding that what it held was, indeed, a fly, it clamped down a little tighter.
“I think it likes it,” my wife noted.
“What did I tell you,” I said triumphantly. “It just needed a little coaxing. We have just proven that Venus fly traps like flies, a unique discovery that will both beautify and sanitize the horse farms and barns of the world. Maybe,” I added thoughtfully, “we can rent a greenhouse and grow larger plants on our own to sell to the horsemen. Get in the ground floor, as it were.”
“Well,” she said skeptically, “it sounds like an interesting idea. But why don’t we give this plant a few more days to be sure it actually attracts flies?”
“That sounds reasonable,” I said, picking up the Writer’s Yearbook to check the reprint rates Reader’s Digest and Scientific American were offering.
A week went by and, although flies of all sizes had decided our apartment was the greatest attraction since Disneyland, our Venus fly trap seemed content with the fly I had given it. If the remaining open pods were supposed to lure flies, my only conclusion was that they all had a bad case of halitosis.
We studied the plant with some concern.
“Maybe you should catch another fly for it?” my wife asked helpfully.
“Are you insinuating that I bought the only Venus fly trap in the world that has to be hand fed?”
“Not exactly, dear,” she replied quietly.
“Do you realize,” I continued, “that I can’t solve one of the horsemen’s greatest problems with a profound article about something no one else has thought of, and maybe make a few bucks in the process, if my experimental Venus fly trap can’t catch its own flies?”
“That thought had crossed my mind, dear,” she said.
“I wonder if this is how Luther Burbank started,” I sighed as I picked up a newspaper and went out on the deck. I returned with a freshly caught fly.
“Open wide, Norman,” I said, putting the fly into a gaping pod.
Chomp went the pod.
I looked at my great experiment, thinking of the farms we had visited and how much nicer they would be surrounded by Venus fly traps. I reflected on the fame and possible fortune the idea could bring me.
And then I looked at Norman.
“Don’t throw out all the newspapers next week,” I hollered to my wife. “I think I’ll need one around Thursday.”