A tick-tale of terror — and tender love

I trace my phobia of ticks back to that day in the wooden rowboat on Lake Nicaboyne in northern Wisconsin. I was probably eleven or twelve at the time, and I was spending the day as usual during our annual weeklong vacation: rowing by myself along the shoreline, casting for bass.

But I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the wind, which blew me a bit closer to shore than I wanted to be. It was too late to grab the oars and adjust — I would just have to drift under those low-hanging pine branches reaching out over the water.

I lay back as flat as possible to let the pine boughs pass over me.

And that’s when I saw them — the ticks, hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. They clung to the bottom of the pine boughs just inches above my legs, chest and horrified face as the rowboat drifted slowly…slowly…past.

I wanted to scream and leap up, but I knew the merest touch of a branch would cause the ticks to rain down onto the full length of my body. They would patter down like the hellish hail of a sudden summer cloudburst, each devil-spawn thirsty for blood and eager to latch onto my tender plasma-plentiful flesh.

And so I lay there and waited for the rowboat to drift slowly, slowly past.

Slowly….

Did I mention how slowly the boat drifted past…?

…under…those…hundreds…and…thousands…of…ticks…?

In time I drifted free, and I rowed frantically out away from shore. I pulled off my tee shirt, wiggled out of my shorts, brushed my naked skin with my hands, shook out my clothes over the water and examined every inch of my body and the boat for ticks.

Miraculously, not a single tick had dropped from those pine boughs. I had escaped with no damage whatsoever.

Well, no damage except for a lifelong horror at the thought of sharing any part of the planet with a tick.

I managed to avoid them pretty well for a few years, until that day when I was seventeen years old, sitting on the couch at my high school girlfriend’s house, watching TV with her…and her mom screamed from the kitchen.

We dashed in to see her poking at some little round ball on the floor, about the size of a small grape.

“It fell off!” Mary Jo’s mom was screaming. “I was going to take the dog to the vet to have that growth removed, but it fell off!” Their little white lap dog stood a few steps away, wondering what all the hubbub was about.

I bent down to look at the little ball on the tile floor. “It’s not a growth,” I said, and I pointed to the tiny legs jutting out from one end of the bloated ball. “It’s a tick. And it’s so full of blood it couldn’t hold on any more.”

I studied the dog from one end to the other, and sure enough, it was infested — its anus ringed by dozens of tiny ticks, each sucking greedily for blood.

I recognized the look that Mary Jo and her mom had on their faces. They looked as if they were drifting slowly, slowly under tick-furred pine boughs just inches overhead.

But it was Saturday night, and the vet wouldn’t be in. What to do with a little pooch being slowly sucked dry by devil-spawned vermin?

I asked Mary Jo’s mom if she could get me some tweezers and a little cup of alcohol, and I spent the next half-hour or so plucking ticks from that little doggy derriere and dropping them to their alcoholic deaths.

As I worked, my skin crawling under cold sweat, Mary Jo’s mom said, “You know, not many boyfriends would do something like this.”

Love can make you do crazy things, you know?

(And maybe — who knows? — Mary Jo would find some way to thank me later?)

Alas, she broke up with me soon thereafter. It’s hard for a girl to love a guy who would so eagerly spend an evening tick-plucking a dog’s butt, I guess.

Oh, the ticks probably had nothing to do with her decision to part ways with me. I’m sure she had plenty of other reasons. And in the end, it was all for the best, because I moved on and found the girl I’m still with after 48 years of happy, tick-less marriage.

Some guys spend their marriages sadly dredging up happy memories of that old high-school sweetheart that they let get away. Not me. Whenever some random thought of Mary Jo pops into my head, I remember that Saturday evening lying on her kitchen floor, plucking ticks from her dog’s butt, my tick-phobic skin crawling under cold sweat as Mary Jo and her mom looked on.

But as I labored under that loathsome task so many years ago, I remember that little dog would reach back and give my hand a tiny tender lick of thanks. It was a gesture of loving gratitude that kept me plucking another tick, and then another, and then just one more, until they were all gone, sunk to the bottom of that little cup of alcohol.

Because, as I said, love can make you do crazy things.

Author, musician and storyteller TR Kerth is a retired teacher who has lived in Sun City Huntley since 2003. Contact him at trkerth@yahoo.com. Can’t wait for your next visit to Planet Kerth? Then get TR’s book, “Revenge of the Sardines,” available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online book distributors.

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