This is my true life encounter with a praying mantis while living in an off-base housing area in the Philippines during the Cold War.
There are very few things that will make me scream. In my opinion, snakes and mice, although note worthy, are not scream worthy. Certain insects, however, can solicit a scream from me deserving of any good horror movie. One such insect is the praying mantis. It gets its name from it’s prayer like stance, but this bug is not praying. It is PREY-ing.
Notoriously predatory, it lashes out with its spiked forelegs to snare unsuspecting victims, even having a reputation for sexual cannibalism. It has a segmented body capable of remaining completely still while the arms whip out to grab a living meal. This horrific creature has a triangular face and compound eyes and its head is so flexible, it has a 300 degree panorama of vision. And if all these attributes weren’t enough to give you nightmares for the rest of your life; it is a master of camouflage, rocks side to side in the rhythmic movement of a professional boxer, some species hiss, pinch, bite, and fly. Plus, they can reach up to 12 inches in length and there are 2,200 known species in the mantis family on this planet.
In about 1961, the United States Air Force sent my Dad to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippine Islands. Shortly thereafter, my Mom, my two little sisters, and I followed. We resided in an off-base housing compound for the Americans stationed at Clark. These housing compounds had a guard at the entrance, supposedly for our safety, however those guards could not keep out the incredibly huge bug population that lived with us there.
We not only had gigantic flying roaches and praying mantises, there were also rats the size of bunny rabbits and lizards, called geckos, that climbed up the walls in our houses. This was the norm for life on these tropical islands. After awhile you simply got used to sharing your bedroom with geckos, but I never got used to seeing 3 inch long, neon green, swively-headed praying mantises that rivaled any monster Hollywood could come up with in their best scary movies.
There was a lot to be afraid of in 1961, especially when you’re only 6 years old. Never mind Russia and the Cold War, never mind what was lurking under the bed. For me it was the solitary rocking praying mantis that clung to my bedroom window screen, sizing me up, silently contemplating God only knows what. The 664 days I was in the Philippines, I probably saw a praying mantis every day of my life.
One particular day stands out in my memory. My little sister, Brenda and I were just coming home from our neighbors house. As we crossed the front yard in the steamy afternoon heat, I walked under a low hanging branch of a small tree. We stopped momentarily and faced each other to discuss something of sisterly importance when Brenda, looking up at me, said, “There is something on your head.”
Somewhere, deep in my 6 year-old wisdom, I was sure I had a praying mantis in my hair. “What is it?” I asked trying to sound innocent.. “I don’t know,” Brenda responded, her expression telling me a far different story. “What color is it?” I asked, the terror starting to rise in my stomach. “Green,” she stated flatly. Looking at her concerned expression and with my last ray of hope I asked, “Is it a leaf?”
At this point, I knew we both knew what was on top of my head, but she wasn’t going to be the one to give me the bad news, and I was trying desperately to stay in a state of denial even though I could feel a scream gurgling its way up my throat. “I don’t know,” she said unconvincingly.
Finally gathering meager courage, I placed my flat hand up to the top of my sweating forehead as if in invitation and in that terrifying moment I felt the insect step on top of my, quivering, hand. The next few moments are frozen in slow motion memory as I brought my hand down to inspect the inevitable. There was the blood curdling scream.
Brenda probably screamed too, I don’t remember. I flung the despised, disgusting, monstrous, creature from me and my sister and I ran for our lives, our screams echoing behind us as I was sure the enormous mantis was in hot pursuit, its barbed forelegs primed to snag me in mid-stride. Of course, I would not be able to tell you this story if we hadn’t barely made our escape.