Columns » Bob Lancaster

Dog-peter gnats

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I had intended this to be a column on baptism as the best of the Christian sacraments, the one offering the most bang for the buck. I saw the news reports about Pastor Floyd of Springdale getting whomped in his contest to head the Southern Baptist Convention, and therein was the revelation or allegation that his gigantic church up there in the hills had a fabulous Disney-designer children’s baptistery, made to look like a big red toy firetruck, in which urchins could take their requisite salvation dunk while sirens blared and cannons boomed out great colorful sprays of confetti. Having fun getting saved – could it get any better’n that?

Having grown up in a small orthodox church with all the usual grim symbols – the fountain filled with blood, and so forth — I thought the firetruck baptistery was about the dandiest thing I’d ever heard of. I was all set to rhapsodize about it, to send out congratulations, but something more urgent came up.

A letter poured in concerning a recent obscure entomological reference in this space. The letter was from Bill Myers, a former Arkie who teaches philosophy at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama. His flattering remarks about the intellectual high ground that this column nearly always occupies were much appreciated, then he went on to say that he and some of his philosopher colleagues and also members of his Episcopalian Sunday School class there in Birmingham would like to hear more about this rare insect I had mentioned.

“In this particular column,” he wrote, “you hit on a phrase that brought about an instant shock of recognition. The sentence in question reads, ‘And I knew this old boy who looked for Newtonian truths in the flight patterns of dog-peter gnats.’ I had not thought of dog-peter gnats since I was but a wee tyke hanging out at my uncle Willie D.’s farm in northeast Texas, and I merely noticed them then. It wasn’t then nor has it ever been, until now, a topic of conversation. But everyone I have mentioned this to instantly recalls seeing this phenomenon. And, we have decided, this requires much greater elaboration.

“For instance, are dog-peter gnat flight patterns reversed in the southern hemisphere? What else do dog-peter gnats do besides circle dog peters? If all dogs disappeared from the earth, would such gnats no longer have any reason to be? Do they have any other function besides orbiting dog peters? Could the flight patterns of dog-peter gnats be responsible for Ptolemy’s geo-centric theory, or, even better, for Copernicus’ Revolution? And the questions go on.

“One good old Alabama boy I shared your column with took to the concept immediately. That very day, he managed to work into conversation that a cohort of his was ‘as worthless as a dog-peter gnat.’ That set us to thinking, how many other phrases can we come up with using this particular simile? Thus far, our list includes ‘as useless as a dog-peter gnat,’ as crazy as, as confused as, as mixed up as, as pesky as, as dumb as, not as smart as, as persistent as, and as ugly as. I’m sure there are more, but this is at least a good start. …

“Bottom line, we think that ‘dog-peter gnats’ and its numerous formulations deserves to become a full-blown part of the Southern lexicon to the point that it is included in the various dictionaries of Southern lingo. We are pushing it, and we hope that you will too. We are indeed much obliged for this insight, and we are earnestly hoping for further help in this exploration.”

OK then.

First, “ugly as a dog-peter gnat” is unacceptable. The proper simile is “ugly as a striped-ass ape,” and the striped is pronounced with two syllables.

Second, I’m not so sure “much greater elaboration” on dog-peter gnats is really called for. Maybe it is, but really, you’ve seen one dog-peter gnat you’ve seen them all. I’m damned if I could ever tell one from the others.

I too remember as a boy pondering d-pgs. I didn’t know their formal name, which wasn’t even bestowed as far as I know until around 1980, by yet another philosopher named Mike Trimble. I’ve heard that their scientific name is Canus dongo agitatus, which is probably Latin, but I don’t know that for a fact.

Pap kept a succession of look-alike fice squirrel-hunting dogs at our place over the years of my youth, all of them named Jack. And all of them pretty much driven insane by irrepressible, ever bolder dog-peter gnats. You couldn’t swat d-pgs, and they were immune to any kind of spray or application. You could turpentine the dogs, causing them great agony, but the dog-peter gnats seemed actually to relish turpentine.They’d guzzle it like winos and swell up big as ticks. As I watched Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack, and the other Jack suffer, I resolved to one day get me a laboratory and do the research that would eliminate d-pgs from the earth forever, like polio or smallpox.

But I grew up and forgot about such foolishness. I decided that if I didn’t have bigger fish to fry than dog-peter gnats, then I was never going to amount to Jack Squat.

Maybe more on this topic later, depending on which Muse it is that supervises gnats.




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