The worst thing about the East Texas summer isn’t sunburn, heat or humidity – its chiggers. They were commonly called “red bugs” when I was growing up during the 1940’s and 1950’s. There were times when I went fishing and the next day those annoying red bumps began to appear on my legs and torso. Then the itch began, and grew in intensity. From my feet and ankles upward, and especially at those tender locations my mother told me not to scratch in public, the maddening itch took hold. The itch would last for days, and even weeks. There was not much one could do to relieve the itch but grin and bear it.
I knew a man, an unusual man, who seemed to be immune to these juvenile forms of a mite, akin to a tick. His name was Ben Woods, my uncle. When my father’s sister, Margaret, married Ben, he was a candy salesman in the late 1930’s. Uncle Ben worked for a candy company. He would load his car trunk with all types of candy and traverse the dusty country roads of East Texas and western Louisiana. Aiming for small communities in the back woods, he would park his vehicle under a tree and honk his car horn repeatedly. Kids showed up in abundance to purchase his nickel candy, and earn a chance to try their luck at a punch card. If they punched out the right hole they could win even more candy or other prizes. He never seemed to attract any chiggers while working the back roads.
In the late 1940’s Uncle Ben got a job with the Texas Highway Department, the perfect job for him. His task was to search for gravel on private land that the department could lease from the owner then use it in new road construction or maintenance. This required Uncle Ben to roam through the forests of East Texas, parts of which required a machete to get through. Day after day he searched for gravel, often finding Indian arrowheads and other relics of the past. Still, he never seemed to be bothered by those small, red pests.
Perhaps he knew something that I did not know about them. One day I asked Uncle Ben a question, “What do you use to keep the chiggers off you?” He looked at me, a cigarette hanging from his lips, and chided me, “Well, son, it’s simple - bacon grease.” Surprised at his answer, I replied, “Are you kidding? Bacon grease? Just how does that work?” He flipped the ashes off his cigarette, put his hand on my young shoulder, and explained, “What you do is smear bacon grease from your ankles up past your knees, a real good coat of it.” Was he kidding, or serious? I could not determine. “So, do the chiggers not like the smell or something?” I queried.
“Nope, it works like this. When the tick or chigger starts to climb up your leg he can’t get any traction, and simply slides back down. After a while it just gives up and jumps off.”
As a youngster I figured that this advice had to be real. After all it was from a man who practically lived in the thickets. I actually tried it a few times but stopped when my mother loudly complained about my greasy pants, and her lack of bacon grease to cook with. I think I finally figured out his secret – he used powdered sulphur, called sublimed sulphur.
Chiggers hate sulphur and definitely avoid it. Available at most pharmacies, it works well when it is dusted around the opening of your pants, socks, and boots. Some people rub on a mixture of half talcum powder and half sulphur on their legs, arms and waist.
I recently asked a local surveyor the same question I asked Uncle Ben so many years ago. He told me that he uses ordinary flea and tick collars usually seen on dogs. They are placed around his ankles and thighs, according to him, and they keep the ticks and chiggers off. I wonder if that is an “Uncle Ben” answer? What do you think?