Clarence is the name I gave to an insect I took home from Meriden in June of 1996. I’ve never been fond of bugs, but Clarence was special. He’d been alive since Jimmy Carter was President.
This year, I hope to meet Clarence Junior. But more on that later.
I named my bug Clarence for a good reason. The only other Clarence I ever knew was a drunken carpenter who used to live next door to us in New Hartford in the 1950s, when Clarence the bug’s grandfather was alive. Both Clarences had red eyes. Both worked a lot with wood. Both were kind of creepy.
My bug Clarence was a cicada, one of the large brood of 17-year “locusts” that surfaced in south central Connecticut in 1996. His life began in the summer of 1979, the year Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” was popular. As Clarence and his billions of brothers and sisters were hatching, and preparing to survive for more than 16 years underground, President Carter was approving the $30 billion MX missile program. The SALT II treaty was signed but failed to be ratified. Margaret Thatcher had just become Britain’s first woman prime minister. “Kramer vs. Kramer” was about to win Best Picture. The Department of Education was being created.
When Clarence was first beginning to suck tree sap as a young nymph, Iranian revolutionaries had not yet captured 52 Americans and held them hostage. The first IBM Personal Computer had not yet been marketed. The first U.S. space shuttle flight was two years in the future. The Dow Jones average was under 900 (yes, that’s nine hundred). There was some disagreement about Elvis’s existence, but John Lennon was very much alive.
If he’d paid attention, Clarence could have witnessed a lot of history. Instead, like some leftover Sixties radicals were doing in those days, he chose to go underground.
When I first went looking for Clarence, at Hubbard State Park in Meriden on Memorial Day weekend 1996, he was still sucking tree roots. He and 40,000 others at Hubbard Park hadn’t yet made that simultaneous decision to surface all at once. He hadn’t yet crawled out of his tunnel in the earth, climbed up the nearest upright object — usually a tree — and crawled out of his skin. I didn’t yet hear the high-pitched whine some people have compared to a distant pack of motorcycles. All I heard were the real motorcycles, racketing up the mountain road to a stone turret known as Castle Craig, a grand lookout point on treacherous red cliffs with spectacular vistas.
Clarence was not really a locust. He was a “periodical cicada,” apparently meaning he liked to read magazines. (His favorite was Seventeen.) He was of the order Homoptera, which I think means he would “opt to stay home.” His family is Cicadidae, meaning “sick of the day,” which explains why he and his cousins spend so much time hidden from sunlight. His genus and species is Magicicada septendecim, which of course means “magic arcade of September,” probably a reference to the ceremonial underground games of chance cicadas are rumored to play every autumn, the one bright spot in their dreary subterranean existence.
Clarence has declined to confirm or deny any of this.
Two weeks after Memorial Day, I finally found Clarence near the cliffs by Castle Craig. Others were hunting for him too, some with butterfly nets, others with cameras. When I saw hundreds of what appeared to be dead bugs clinging to tree trunks, I knew I was on the right track. I aimed my camera at them, knowing they weren’t really dead — just uninhabited. They were the nymphal skins of the cicadas. But where were the cicadas?
Then I heard the motorcycles.
They seemed to come from the treetops near the cliffs, and I followed the sound. It was a high-pitched whine, like a thousand two-cycle Kawasakis many miles away. As I approached the apparent source, the motorcycles slowed down and stopped. Then they started up again, seemingly several miles further, and in the opposite direction. I looked up, expecting the sky to grow dark with a gazillion locusts, forgetting that they weren’t really locusts and that they don’t swarm the way the locusts do in movies about the Dust Bowl. They fly around, whine, dine on tree sap, mate, and get eaten by birds.
Clarence was waiting for me. He was sitting on a leaf in a maple sapling, exactly at eye level, looking at me with red eyes. His wings were translucent with orange veins, and his inch-and-a-half-long body was black and sleek. I nudged him with a stick, and he crawled a little higher on the leaf. I nudged him again, and he flew to another branch and made that high-pitched whine.
He did it by raising his abdomen to a rigid, horizontal position. Then, for 15 or 20 seconds, he beat two inflated drumlike organs on either side of his abdomen. Just to be different from grasshoppers and katydids, cicadas don’t make their sounds by rubbing body parts together, but by self-flagellation. Little wonder they put it off for 17 years.
Clarence was still within my grasp, and so I took the plastic lid off my empty McDonald’s soda cup and approached his perch. Clarence didn’t flinch. Slowly I raised the cup to just under the twig he sat on, and I tapped him in and slammed the lid on. Easy as pie.
To make sure he had food and moisture, I tossed in a leaf with one of those dead-looking bug shells stuck to it. It may have been the nymphal skin he’d just crawled out of, but the odds of that being true might be greater than the odds of winning Powerball.
When I got Clarence to my home in Harwinton, I transferred him to a glass jar and punched air holes in the lid. That’s when I noticed the big dark W on his back. Legend holds that the emergence of the periodical cicadas is a harbinger of war because of that letter W. The previous time the 17-year cicadas emerged in Connecticut, in 1979, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. The time before that, in 1962, our Vietnam involvement was on the verge of escalation. Before that, in 1945, World War II was ending but the Indochina War was beginning.
But leafing through my Book of Chronologies, I see that wars were being fought somewhere on the globe almost every minute for the last 3,000 years, not just once every 17 years. So if someone starts a war tomorrow, don’t blame Clarence. Most likely the W stands for something else. Probably something to do with his Web site.
The day after I brought Clarence home, I released him. I had shown him to the family and the neighbors, and they had all dutifully said, “Well, that’s, um, nice,” and changed the subject. Now it was time for Clarence to be free again. I unscrewed the lid and shook him out, and he crawled onto the end of my finger. I walked to the edge of our property and held him up to the branch of a tree. Clarence crawled onto the leaf, then beat his wings and fluttered away, up to a branch 15 feet high, and disappeared. I expected to hear his high-pitched mating call again, but he didn’t oblige. Perhaps he knew there were no mates to be found in Harwinton.
I don’t know if Clarence had the chance to mate before I captured him, but I’d prefer to think he did. If so, Clarence Junior has probably just emerged after about 6,200 days and nights and 221 full moons. In his 17 years in exile, he missed about 34 million violent crimes in the U.S., from the Tyson-Holyfield ear-biting to the Boston Marathon bombings. He missed 9/11, the Iraq War and every episode of “Glee.”
He has also missed some good stuff, including “Mad Men” and “Downton Abbey.” And if he’d had anything to invest in the stock market, he could have bettered himself — maybe found some nicer digs than second ash tree from the big rock.
Too bad Clarence Junior won’t be able to advise Clarence III to stay connected. But, even if cicadas could take tiny tablets or cell phones underground with them, I’m not sure how strong the wi-fi signal is at Hubbard Park. Maybe by the time Clarence III emerges in 2030, we’ll have the technology ready for Clarence IV in 2047. I hope to find out.
Jack Sheedy is a journalist and the author of the memoir “Sting of the Heat Bug,” the title a reference to a different species of cicada.