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Antagonism Gives Way to Appreciation

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As longtime readers of this column probably know, I am not exactly on toothbrush-sharing terms with the ant community. If there is ever an insect war crimes tribunal, they’re going to have charges against me ranging back to when I was 4 years old and started whacking big red ants at Lake Arrowhead with a Zorro sword, which, by the way, is not especially labor efficient.

I am the only person I know who has used a steam iron to slaughter ants. In my youth, I’d employed magnifying glasses, lighter-fluid flamethrowers and sundry other means with an unfettered, Reagan-like enthusiasm.

But all that has changed now. Ants that once would have tasted the wrath of my Zorro sword are now feeding on Dolly Madison Zingers I give them. Not only that, but I went to some ship-in-a bottle-like efforts to extract several Zinger particles from their home, for fear I had overfed the little darlings.

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What happened is I bought a Giant Ant Farm. It was at a swap meet, new in the box for $1, and I’m such a sucker for bargains that I’d probably buy plague germs if they were cheap enough.

So we put it together here in the OC Live! little acre of The Times’ palatial offices, and mailed off our coupon--plus $1.50 postage and handling--to Uncle Milton Industries for our genuine live ants. Though they arrived mere days later, they looked as if they’d been through at least $8 worth of disgruntled posting and handling. It was one sorry glop of ants that we poured from their cramped plastic tube into their new home the other week.

“Isn’t this fun,” we said, looking at the shriveled, dehydrated, all-but-dead insects lying where they had fallen. Meanwhile, the chipper little guys on the Giant Ant Farm box were shown gleefully driving tractors, gathering crops, collecting federal tobacco subsidies and such.

We could have been saved needless worry if we’d only thoroughly read “Uncle Milton’s Ant Watchers Handbook.” On page 8 it assures: “If the ants appear to be ‘lazy’ the first few days, don’t worry. They’ll soon become accustomed to their new home and ‘wake up’ to put on a good show for you.”

Not for nothing is Uncle Milton Industries the accepted leader in ant-related products! True to Uncle Milty’s word, these lifeless fellows were soon up and crawling, and in no time at all they burrowed their way into all our hearts.

They’ve left no one here untouched, stirring memories and speculations alike. Some are kind of touching, such as one editor’s tale of her son’s Ant Farm. Their ants arrived so antsy that they couldn’t figure how to peaceably get them into the plastic-walled farm. So to slow them down, they put the ants’ little tube in the freezer. Uh huh, for a little too long.

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They were motionless when they were poured into the farm, and for her son’s sake, the editor began praying, “God, don’t let them die,” at which point their little antennae began to vibrate, teaching her son that mom was pretty well connected. The ants roused to live for months of fruitless activity. A certain free-lance drama critic here sure warmed us all with his Ant Farm recollections: “After a while, they just start dying. They always bury their dead, and it gets a little sadder every day watching them haul the latest deaths off to where the other little bodies are. Finally there’s only one ant left, huddled up all by himself, with no one to bury him when he finally goes.”

“It all seems so futile, their trudging back and forth endlessly, and for what?” pondered our music critic, a man who commutes daily from Hollywood to The Times’ Costa Mesa office.

Indeed, the ants are so much like us that I wish there were a way to make them pay their share of the rent. They build roads and homes, raise monuments, eat Zingers. There’s a world of common interests there, expressed in Uncle Milton’s handbook with chapter headings like: “Ants Are Very Sanitary!” “Ants Have IQs!” “Ants Are Scientologists!”

OK, it doesn’t really have that last chapter, but when we taped a photo of one of our Calendar editors to the rear pane of the farm, the ants built a hill up to his neck line, making it look spookily as if his head was gushing out of the Dianetics volcano.

The point when I began to feel that we and the ants might actually have some common ground came when I was watching them tunnel one afternoon and one struggled up the narrow way with a big piece of sand. Like the ants ahead of him, he needed to squeeze past a cluster of ants on their way down, and as he drew close I was able to observe the precise instant when he thought, “Oh, the hell with it!” and dropped his sand to amble away in the opposite direction.

I like to think it was this same slacker I saw a few days later, carrying the first of the as-predicted dead ants to a burial spot atop a hill. He kept falling off the treacherous peak and having to start over. I stopped watching for a while, and when I checked back he had ingeniously chewed the deceased into several sections and was easily transporting the severed head to the top. I thought that was pretty brilliant, even if such portion-controlled pallbearing seems unlikely to catch on with humans.

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As much as kids seem able to torture and slay ants all day, I can still see how it might be traumatic for them to spend months watching their earnestly working Ant Farm community slowly give up and expire, like so many mandibulate Willie Lomans.

I placed a call to Uncle Milton Industries in Culver City--I picture it as just a mail box in a field, next to a real big ant hill--and spoke with director of marketing Howard Rosenman. When I asked if they get many letters from traumatized kids, he seemed surprised that anyone would think youths might be upset by deaths on the farm.

“No, we just get requests for more ants,” he said. “Most of the letters we get are just delightful. Probably the funniest one we ever got was a letter from a kid asking for more ants because his little brother had peed in the ant farm and killed them all.”

There actually is an Uncle Milton, though he’s now retired. Milton Levine, who had previously marketed shrunken rubber heads, got the idea for the Ant Farm while on a family picnic on July 4, 1956. His invention is now honored by a national holiday featuring fireworks, and the company has sold some 14 million ant farms and shipped roughly half a billion live ants.

Surprisingly, they don’t breed their own ants but rather have professional ant collectors gather them in the desert.

“What desert?” I asked.

“I can’t disclose it. That’s proprietary,” Rosenman said.

“How does one professionally collect ants? Do you use tweezers?”

“I think they use vacuum cleaners.”

Mothers will be pleased to know that Uncle Milton uses harvester ants.

“They’re not toxic like fire ants. They’re not going to kill you,” Rosenman promised. I thought I heard the clacking of huge mandibles on his end of the line.

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