Our backyard is full of June bugs these days. You know them: a fig beetle with shiny green shells, hints of brown, and black limbs. With the abundance of rain in the past two weeks, making July one of the wettest in years, the bugs have invaded the patio, slowly buzzing the chicken coop with more than a few of them dangling on the chicken wire that they inadvertently crashed into.
Seeing the bugs brought back a memory of a long-ago summer evening, when the air and ground were damp and the desert smell permeated our senses. My father caught one of the insects, which is easy to do because they are not the fastest bugs on the block. He tied a thread to one of its hind legs and let it rip.
Like a toy helicopter, the bug sliced through the muggy air in circles, its wings generating a slight whirring. It circled and circled, creating a brief moment of backyard entertainment.
But we didn’t call them June bugs, growing up on the west side near St. Mary’s Hospital. We had another word for them which I don’t want to repeat.
“That’s not a good word,” said my brother-in-law, Frank Gonzalez, when I reminded him of the foul word we used to call the June bugs, which is a misnomer because they don’t appear in June.
He didn’t recall what he called the bugs while growing up on the south side near C.E. Rose Elementary School on South 12th Avenue but he remembered when he got hold of one.
“I know we used to catch them and fly them around like a remote control plane. One time a cat came around and ate the bug. So the cat was walking around with a string coming out of its mouth and bug in its stomach,” said my cuñado.
Whether you were born in Tucson like Frank and me, or arrived more than one monsoon season ago, the summer provides enough memories to last a lifetime. My bank of recuerdos brims with biting insects, gushing arroyos and a favorite seasonal food.
The other day when 17 hikers were rescued from Tanque Verde Falls, trapped by a sudden swollen river, I remembered the admonishment we heard every summer: stay away from the arroyos.
One of my childhood homes, on North San Rafael Avenue, fronted an arroyo. The wash was dry for 360 days of the year, but on the remaining days the arroyo was filled with an angry rush of convulsing muddy water. My running buddies, Oscar, Gordo and I would stand on the edge marveling at the roiling water, knowing we’d get an earful if we were discovered. It was best to watch the rare show from the safety of the old Congress Street bridge, the concrete span with arches and lamps on its two flanks.
Earlier in the month, when the annual Fourth of July fire erupted on the tender slope of Sentinel Peak, I recalled that the pyrotechnics used to be shot off at Arizona Stadium. And thinking of that led to the memory of a never-to-be-forgotten Fourth when my younger brother Mario and I gathered with other Back Street kids on St. Mary’s Road where it ended by the hospital at the arroyo.
We sat facing east on a kid’s wagon — directly over an ant hole. We didn’t get to see the end of the fireworks as the stings of the ants sent us running and crying to the house.
Another fireworks of a different kind was the one at rancho El Ocotillo, the homesteaded Sahuarita-area ranch of the family of Casimiro Gallego. We visited the ranch several times, including one memorable pre-monsoon visit when we went out with Gallego and others. They lit the dry arms of the ocotillos and within seconds the spines burned off, creating a Christmas tree-like effect. The spine-free branches became cattle forage.
And, of course, a recurring summer memory, as with many of us in Baja Arizona, is the making of green corn tamales. We don’t make them any more because, sadly, we abandoned the tradition and instead buy them, but that doesn’t erase the memory of shucking the corn and removing the silky corn hairs — and an occasional worm. My maternal grandfather, Miguel Bustamante, was usually in command.
After the corn kernels came back from being grounded into masa, if we were old enough and tall enough, we joined the tamal assembly line. We spread a layer of masa on the washed corn husk, added a strip of roasted green chile and a slice of yellow cheese and wrapped up the husk. My steamed cooked tamales were not the prettiest but they tasted as good as the others.
The rains will continue for another month, giving the June bugs more time to fill our backyard, and encouraging the loud croaking desert toads and their smaller frog cousins to emerge from their earthen bunkers. The desert is always alive but more so now with our seasonal soaking. We welcome the rains and relish what they bring us.
Now about those mosquitoes.