The Dead Chicken, the Bush Devil, the Lighting Man, and the Bad Dog

Gbarnga, Liberia where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1965-67. The photo was taken at that time.

Gbarnga, Liberia where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1965-67. The photo was taken at that time.

A dead chicken, a bush devil, a lightning man, and a bad dog walk into a bar… Just kidding.

Last week I asked for help from my blog followers, Facebook friends, and members of my book club to help choose a title for the book on my Africa Peace Corps experience. The choices were:

  • The Dead Chicken Dance
  • The Bush Devil Ate Sam
  • The Lightning Man Strikes Again
  • How Boy the Bad Dog Ended Up in Soup

Each title also included a subtitle connecting the book to Africa and the Peace Corps.

The input was great and there were many thoughtful comments on the various choices. There were also more general suggestions such as put the titles in the active voice and make them shorter. An example of the former is The Dead Chicken Dance might become The Dead Chicken Dances or Dead Chicken Dancing. In the latter, How Boy the Bad Dog Ended Up in Soup might be retitled Bad Dog Soup.

Here’s a pie chart that shows how people responded:

Book titles

What seems clear here is that the Bad Dog was not good. But let me note, Boy did have some strong support. Alison and Don felt the title had a “good hook to it.” And Kocart said, “Boy the Bad Dog. Of Course.” Naturally. Linda at Shoreacres, who lived in Liberia, made the interesting comment, “Boy the Bad Dog certainly evokes all of the collections of African folk tales that are out there.” On the con side, The Writing Waters Blog observed that the title might be “too much for this dog loving country.”

Pull Boy out of the pie and what we have left is close to a dead heat. The titles are running nose-to-nose. The dead chicken garnered 30% of the vote, the Bush Devil 33% and the Lightning Man 28%. It isn’t what I would call a clear mandate. (Grin) So how about the very thoughtful comments? Maybe they are too thoughtful! Strong arguments were made for each title. I found myself nodding, ‘that’s right’ over and over as first one title and then another worked its way to the top.

Some of the comments:

“The Dead Chicken Dance hands down. I would pick it up and look at it. That’s as good of a title as “Getting Stoned With Savages…” which was a damn good book!”

“The Dead Chicken Dance is my favorite…. A touch grisly plus touch of the familiar plus invitation to dance equals enigmatic… Strong short and sure of itself like The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, The Joy Luck Club, The Kite Runner.”

I would use the Dead Chicken Dance, but I’d change it from “The Dead Chicken Dance” to “Watching a Dead Chicken Dance.”

Personally, I like The Dead Chicken Dance best. They’re all catchy, but for some reason, this one jumped out at me most. My second choice would be The Bush Devil Ate Sam. In fact, now that I see them both side-by-side, I like them equally. Oh, boy, that wasn’t much of a help, was it? 🙂

“The Bush Devil Ate Sam” is definitely my favorite; short, catchy, intriguing, and feels more encompassing of a collection of African stories than the others…

“I am leaning toward the Bush Devil Ate Sam as I have met Sam, a doctor trained in the American University system, highly educated, yet “marked” by his right of passage to manhood.”

“ (The Bush Devil Ate Sam) is the most cogent, the most compelling.”

“Curt, these titles are all great and we love the stories behind them. We’re voting for The Bush Devil Ate Sam because we feel it embraces the mystery that is Africa…”

“Personally, the one that would make me pick up the book first would be “The Bush Devil Ate Sam.”  It has three things: something exotic (the bush devil), something familiar (the name Sam being a sedate, western-sounding name makes it more familiar and less threatening), and the mystery of how the two came together – you can be pretty sure something called a bush devil didn’t literally eat Sam, so what is this really about?  Of all of your proposed titles, it was the one that made me most want to find out the story behind it.”

“ …the one that was most immediately appealing was the Lightning Man Strikes Again and the most intriguing was The Bush Devil Ate Sam.”

“I read all of the stories to the boys and there was a unanimous vote for The Lightning Man Strikes Again. Very catchy and a fun story!” (The grandkids check in.)

“I loved all the stories but my favorite title is The Lightning Man Strikes Again. I usually choose books by the title and I’d pick that one up just because of the sound of it. Lightning is fascinating anyway and the title sounds interesting and humorous, which goes perfectly with those stories. I’ve always wanted to join the Peace Corps and can’t wait to read this now.”

“The Lightning Man Strikes Again: I like it because it has a double entendre..Is it about someone else or are you the lightning man helping to bring change to Africa… 
Can’t wait to read your follow up post!”

“Love The Lightning Man Strikes Again – can just feel the dread the Lightning Man induced. Do let us know when you make your choice.”

“The problem is that ALL the titles are intriguing; they all entice the reader to want to read the stories.  But, if forced to choose, I would go with the lightning man.  I’m not quite sure, maybe because it relates so directly with superstition and myth.”

Life's about choices, right. It may be about the title of a book or it may be about which piece of monkey meat you are going to buy.

Life’s about choices, right. It may be about the title of a book or it may be about which piece of monkey meat you are going to buy. The lady selling the meat held up a little head and said, “Very tasty.”

So… these are some of the thoughts you have shared. They represent views from people with widely varying backgrounds… including writers, the under ten crowd, and folks who have lived in Africa. Do you see my dilemma? Thanks so much for taking the time to participate. It means a lot.

NEXT BLOG: My choice and the reasons behind it. (Yes folks, I am going to drag this out for one more blog.)

Chapter 29: The Invasion of the Army Ants

Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story.

When I have finished, I will publish the stories in digital and print book formats.

Army ants cross road

A trail of army ants snakes across a road outside of Gbarnga, Liberia. Large soldier ants provided guard duty… 

Even more than termites, driver or army ants are appropriate subjects for jungle bug horror stories. There’s a reason. These guys are ferocious.

My first experience with driver ants was when I came upon a line of them crossing a trail. At first glance they looked like any other group of respectable ants negotiating a path and minding their own business. On closer inspection, however, I found myself facing a tunnel of knife-sharp mandibles, each one wide open and wanting to crunch down on something. The big soldiers had linked their hind legs and were facing out, creating a tunnel for the other ants to crawl through.

Always up for a challenge, I took a stick and applied it to the middle of the line. Chomp! I pulled the stick back. The whole line of linked ants came along and a high-speed foot race commenced. I was both the finish line and first prize.

Or at least I was supposed to be. I gave the ants a free flying lesson. It’s possible they are still searching for their lost comrades.

Army ants are noted for their bite. In some parts of West Africa they are reputedly used as sutures. Once their jaws clamp shut, they are locked. I can attest to this since one managed to get at me through a hole in my tennis shoe. They are also noted for eating anything that can’t move fast enough to get out of their way. I watched as they gobbled down an unfortunate mouse. Their squeaking dinner simply disappeared under a sea of black.

Villagers clear out of their huts when the ants come to town. The ants go through, eat all of the bugs, mice, occasional snake and anything else alive, and then move on. It’s a good deal for the villagers and the ants. My attitude about our house being invaded wasn’t nearly as positive.

It all started on a quiet tropical evening. I was working my way through a James Bond novel, Jo was being good and preparing lesson plans, and Sam was glued to our phonograph, still trying to get Charlie off the MTA. Since bugs were such a central part of our lives, we normally ignored them. It was the hoard of tiny insects hopping and crawling under the screen door that caught our attention.

“Ants,” Sam said.

“No, Sam,” I said, assuming my teacher role, “these are not ants.” I was rewarded with an exasperated ‘I know that’ look from Sam.

“They are running away from ants that want to eat them,” he jumped in to interrupt any further explanations on my part. He was right, as usual. I turned on the porch light. Anything that could hop, crawl, walk or run was seeking sanctuary in our house. Behind them came the ants. They weren’t organized in a neat little line this time. They were spread out across our yard and coming on like a tsunami.

Jo and I held a hurried council of war. It was time to bring out the big gun, SHELLTOX.  Shelltox was one of those marvelous nerve gasses created by the pesticide industry that was so potent it was banned in the US even though this was still a time in America when DDT was considered as important to controlling six-legged life as butter was to making food taste good. The tiniest spurt of Shelltox and a cockroach rolled over and begin kicking its little legs in the air. We used it liberally.

Each of us armed with a can stomped off to war. The stomping was serious; it kept the ants off. Back and forth along the enemy line we marched, cans firing, filling the air with whatever odor Shell incorporated into its brew to let us know we were poisoning ourselves. The ants died by the hundreds and soon by the thousands. But still they came on. Our cans begin to sputter. Exiting stage left was rapidly becoming an option.

I pictured us packing up the cat and descending on the Peace Corps Rep like the ants had descended on us. First we would eat all of his food and then we would tackle his liquor closet. Unfortunately, the ants blinked first. Their buglers blew retreat. We had won the battle but the war was far from over.

That night, visions of monstrous ants visited me whenever I closed my eyes. Every hour we arose from bed to check if the attack had been renewed. Happily it hadn’t. By morning we were allowing ourselves to hope that the ants had figured out we were dangerous adversaries and moved on to easier targets. The ants had another plan. Mr. Bonal was wandering around outside so I went over to tell him our invasion story.

“Ah, let me show you something, Curtis,” he said. He walked me over to an old pile of mud bricks buried in the grass twenty feet away from our front porch. I looked down and all I could see was a moving black mass. The area was carpeted with a layer of driver ants several inches thick. There were zillions of them.

“Welcome to the ants’ home,” John explained. “They have moved in for the rainy season.”

The Bonals, it turned out, had been invaded the week before when Jo and I were in Monrovia. Again it had been a night attack but this time the ants made it into their house without discovery and found the baby. The baby, objecting strenuously to being a one-course meal, had started screaming. That brought the Bonals on the run. The baby was saved and the ants repulsed.

John assured me that the ants would be back to visit us again and again until they moved on.

I decided to remove the welcome mat. But first Jo and I had to restock our ordinance supplies. Off we went to town for umpteen cans of Shelltox, five gallons of kerosene, and a box of DDT. (Years later after I became a certified greenie and read Silent Spring, I would occasionally have twinges of guilt about the DDT.)

Our plan was to attack the home base with the kerosene, disorient the troops, destroy the barracks, and send the army packing. Of course there was a chance that the ‘packing’ would be toward our house rather than away from it. In that case, our first line of defense would be to mount an all out attack with Shelltox like we had before. As a fallback position, I scratched a narrow ditch around our house, translate that moat if you are romantically inclined, and filled it with DDT. The ants would have to crawl through the stuff to get at us.

Then I went to work. Reaching the nest without becoming ant food was the first challenge. Having grown up in red ant country, I remembered how sensitive ants are about their home territory. The slightest disturbance brings them boiling out of the ground in a blind rage. As a kid I used to pour water down their hole to watch the action.

The Apaches were reputed to have used the red ants’ proverbial ferocity as a means of torturing favored enemies.

I rightfully determined the driver ants were meaner, bigger and faster than their distant cousins. They would be on me and up the inside of my pants leg in a flash, a fate to be avoided at all costs.

The initial strategy of removing vegetation was relatively safe. Sam and I stood several feet away and tossed two gallons of kerosene on the nest. A carefully cast match created a raging inferno which proved quite effective in defoliating the area.

Burning out army ants

The first part of the campaign was to burn the vegetation away from where the ants lived. Two gallons of kerosene did the trick. Sam helped me while two neighborhood boys looked on. Gboveh High School is up the hill.

Digging into the nest was much more dangerous; I would be operating behind enemy lines facing thousands of steel jawed troops on a hunt and destroy mission. My solution was to draft a galvanized steel tub Jo and I had used for bathing at our first house. It provided ample standing room and the ants couldn’t crawl up the side. I tossed the tub next to the nest and leapt in.

Sam tossed me our shovel. Several minutes of dedicated digging brought me to the mother of all nurseries. Eggs covered an area at least three feet across and several inches deep. Right in the middle was a finger sized, bright orange snake.

“Very poisonous,” Sam said. I figured it had to be pure poison for the ants to leave it alone. We decided to take a break and let the ants and the snake work out their relationship.

After our standard lunch of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich washed down by orange Kool Aid, we went out to check the results of our handiwork. Success! Long lines of ants, many dragging eggs, stretched off into the distance away from our house. The siege was over. There was no sign of the snake, by the way. Maybe the ants had stopped for lunch as well.

Chapter 23: Rasputin and the Cockle Doodle Rooster


Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story.

When I have finished, I will publish the stories in digital and print book formats.

rasputin B&W copy

My only picture of Rasputin has suffered with age but here he is communing with Rhinoceros Beetles. I will discuss the beetles in a later chapter.

Rasputin had grown into one fine tomcat, sweet meat as my kids said. He did not grieve over Boy’s untimely demise, quite the opposite. Now he could resume his rightful role as Dominant Animal.

His primary responsibility under this job title was dog stalker. You knew when he was at work because the neighborhood dogs carefully avoided the tall clumps of grass where he liked to hide. He was particularly obnoxious when it was windy. He could hide down wind and make it more difficult for the dogs to sniff him out. I felt for the poor dog that came too close.

A streak of yellow and a yip of surprise proclaimed his attack. What made his behavior particularly strange was that he came at the dogs on his two hind legs, walking upright. This allowed both front legs to be used as slashing weapons. It was the wise dog that steered clear.

This wasn’t Rasputin’s only trick. He could also do flips. I had taught him how and was quite proud of my accomplishment. Each night Rasputin and I would head for the bedroom where I would flip him several times in a row on the bed. He was usually good for about ten before he would attack me, thus signaling that the game was over.

Jo thought it was cruel but I told her it was quality bonding time. It also turned out to be a valuable skill. One evening when the ricebirds were returning to their nests we saw a yellow flash out the window. Rasputin leapt into the air, did a flip and came down with bird a la carte. After that I figured Rasputin had graduated so we didn’t practice anymore.

Another game we played was leap snake. It was quite similar to leap-frog except the objective was to see how high Rasputin could jump in the air. On a good night he would clear five feet.

The rules of the game were that I would detach the spring from our screen door and roll it across the floor. Rasputin, who had a Liberian’s instincts, assumed that anything long and twisty was a snake and that all snakes were deadly poisonous. His response was to shoot straight into the air and land several feet away. It was one of those situations where you leap first and ask questions afterward. In this case, Rasputin was guilty of jumping to the wrong conclusions.

One way he returned the favor of my hassling him was to wake me up at 5:30 in the morning, demanding to be let in. He did this by practicing his operatic meows under our bedroom window.

Since no amount of suggesting that he should learn from Boy’s experience discouraged him, I jumped out of bed one morning and chased him across the yard. This got Jo Ann excited. Our cat was going to run away and never come back. Jo may have also been concerned about the neighbor’s reaction to me charging out of the house naked. That type of thing bothered her. I promised to repent and assured her that the cat would be back in time for dinner. He was.

I think Rasputin subcontracted with the rooster next door to wake us when he was out tomcatting. I didn’t make this correlation until the rooster crowed directly under our window one morning at 5:30. Even then I thought it was just a coincidence until the rooster repeated himself the next morning.

It wasn’t just the crowing that irritated me; it was the nature of the crow. American and European roosters go cock-a-doodle-do. Even urban children know this because that’s how it is spelled out in books. Liberian roosters go cock-a-doodle… and stop. You are constantly waiting for the other ‘do’ to drop.

“This crowing under our window,” I thought to myself, “has to be nipped in the bud.”

That evening I filled a bucket with water and put it next to my bed. Sure enough at 5:30 the next morning there he was: “COCK-A-DOODLE!”  I jumped up, grabbed my bucket, and threw the water out the window on the unsuspecting fowl. “Squawk!” I heard as one very wet and irritated rooster headed home as fast as his little rooster legs could carry him.

“Chicken,” I yelled out after his departing body. “And that,” I said to Jo Ann, “should be the end of that particular problem.”

I was inspired though. Cats don’t think much of getting wet either. What if I kept a bucket of water next to the bed and dumped it on Rasputin the next time he woke us up. Jo couldn’t even blame me for running outside naked. With warm thoughts of having solved two problems with one bucket, I went to bed that night loaded for cat, so to speak.

“COCK-A-DOODLE” roared the rooster outside our window precisely at 5:30.

“Damn,” I thought, “that boy is one slow learner.”

I fell out of bed, grabbed the bucket and dashed for the window. There was no rooster there. I looked up and spotted him about half the way to Bonal’s house. He was running at full tilt across the yard away from our window. He had slipped up on us, crowed and taken off! My opinion of the rooster took a paradigm leap. Here was one worthy opponent. The question was how to respond.

It took me a couple of days of devious thinking to arrive at a solution. What would happen if I recorded the rooster on a tape recorder and then played it back? I had a small hand tape recorder that I used for exchanging letters with my dad so I set myself the task of capturing the rooster’s fowl language. Since he had an extensive harem he liked to crow about, it wasn’t long before I had a dozen or so cock-a-doodles on tape. I rewound it, cranked up the volume and set the recorder up next to our front screen door.

The results were hilarious. Within seconds the rooster was on our porch, jumping up and down and screaming ‘cock-a-doodle.’ There was a rooster inside of our house that had invaded his territory and he was going to tear him apart, feather-by-feather. Laughing I picked up the recorder, rewound it, carried to the back screen door, and hit the play button.

“Cock-a-doodle, cock-a-doodle, cock-a-doodle,” I could hear the rooster as he roared around to the back of house to get at his implacable foe. Back and forth I went, front to back, back to front. And around and around the house the rooster went, flinging out his challenges.

Finally, having laughed myself to exhaustion, I took pity on my feathered friend and shut the recorder off.  This just about concludes the rooster story, but not quite.

One Friday evening, Jo and I had been celebrating the end of another week with gin and tonics until the wee hours when we decided to see how the rooster would respond to his nemesis at one o’clock in the morning. Considering our 5:30 am wakeup calls, we felt there was a certain amount of justice in the experiment. I set it up the recorder and played a “Cock-a-doodle.”

“COCK-A-DOODLE?!” was the immediate response. No challenge was to go unanswered. “Cock-a-doodle” we heard as roosters from the Superintendent’s compound checked in. “Cock-a-doodle, cock-a-doodle” we heard in the distance as town roosters rose to the challenge. Soon every rooster in Gbarnga was awake, and probably every resident.

Jo and I decided to keep our early morning rooster-arousing episode to ourselves.