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Column: Head in the (DDT) clouds

Not too long ago, I took a gallon of DDT pesticide to the recycling center in Detroit Lakes.

The gallon came from my parents’ farm in Iowa; I still had it because I chose not to let it go on auction, lest it be used. As we all know, DDT was banned from production many years ago, due to the harm it could cause to animals and humans.

So it was pretty amusing to me to recently run into a neighbor even older than I am and exchange stories about DDT use back when we were coming of age on the farm, him in the ‘40s, me in the ‘50s. As a young boy, just able to be something other than a flaming nuisance on the farm, one of our first jobs was to spray the milk cows in the barn with a half-quart, hand-held, pump sprayer. Full of straight DDT.

I went after those damned flies with a vengeance, enjoying the white vaporous clouds of noxious DDT that I could force out like a baby storm by pumping as hard as I could. (Note that an Asian Beetle –you know what they are, they look like ladybugs – just crawled across my keyboard. Hah! He wouldn’t be so arrogant if I had some of that DDT.)

Anyway. “Spray their bags good, too,” Dad would say to me. And I did. Sure, he wiped off their teats with soapy water, but as we now know, that probably did very little good. Spraying the cows kept them from kicking at flies biting them on their bellies, and flicking their tail at flies on their backs.

Keeping cows from kicking was pretty important. Grandpa had one short leg because a cow went to kick at something – likely as not a fly – and put her leg through the shoulder-strapped bib overalls he was wearing. The ensuing chaos process shattered and ruined one leg for life.

How they saved the leg at all back then, with bones sticking out, was a miracle, but he walked with a huge limp the rest of his life.

So I sprayed the heck out of them. Dad – and I – considered my spraying a success if you couldn’t see three cows away, what with the clouds of DDT floating over their backs. How old was I? Probably around eight or nine.

My neighbor remembers his ma opening up the summer kitchen to begin baking. It was full of flies, he said. She would maybe cover a few pans with a dishtowel, and proceed to spray DDT around in there, close the door, and come back in 10 minutes. “The flies lay thick and dead everywhere in there,” he said.

At the movie drive-in theater in Iowa, where I went as soon as I could drive, the owner had somehow converted an old 40s Ford into a DDT sprayer. He would creep around slowly in it, with us parked there, before the movie commenced, huge white clouds of insecticide billowing from the tailpipe. We’d roll our windows up, and hold our breath as best we could, eating popcorn, waiting for the clouds of insecticide to dispense.

We didn’t spray DDT in the house, but we did have enough sticky fly strips to make the kitchen look like a cave full of stalactites hanging from the ceiling. It was many years before they changed the formula for the insecticide that was embedded in those things, and I don’t think they’re still approved for kitchen use.

“How’d we survive all that?,” so asked the neighbor, who has 10 years on me.

I don’t know how we survived. Lucky, I guess.

The Prairie Spy, Alan "Lindy" Linda