Some time ago in the pages of this magazine, I lampooned a Texas politician who was so eager for television coverage that he stuck his hand into a fire ant mound on camera and held it there while promising to whip the fire ant problem for good. When another news crew showed up, the big buffoon did it all over again.
I was just having fun, beating up on one of our leading statesmen. It is what we high-powered media types do in lieu of honest work. But then I wrote the line that was to come back and haunt me. It was about my own investigation of the fire ant and how I'd decided not to stick my hand in a fire ant mound "on the theory that a working journalist should strive to be no more than half as dumb as a politician seeking office."
I guess I should have said a print journalist because soon after, by some malicious quirk of the fates, I became involved in television, and almost the first thing I was obliged to do was kneel in front of a camera while sticking my hand in a fire ant mound and saying, "Hello, my name is Richard Conniff." We did about 20 takes because, after the first few dozen stings, I had a little trouble remembering my name. Also the camerawoman kept talking about how beautifully the light fell on my contorted features. My hand became a mass of welts and pustules.
What I had entered was either the glamorous world of television or one of the outer rooms of hell. Officially, I was the coproducer and on-camera presenter for a documentary about fire ants. The crew referred to me as "the talent," usually in a context like, "Why is the talent always such an amazing idiot?"
I was convinced that my future lay in television, particularly the strange world of natural-history television. (Or maybe, in the standard script language of the genre, I should say the bizarre, mysterious and/or alien world of natural-history television.) So over the next year my left hand was attacked by killer bees and an Australian box jellyfish, either of which can cause an agonizing death in almost no time. Also two fingers got chopped off in transit.
But maybe I need to clarify a few things here. The hand I stuck in the fire ant mound while attempting to smile for the camera was in fact my own hand. But not even a television journalist is dumb enough to volunteer to be stung by killer bees and box jellies. (Though I can think of a few cases in which it might be a public service, especially if there were earnest interviewers nearby to ask questions like, "Bob, can you tell us what you're feeling at this terrible moment?") Anyway, the killer bee/box jelly victim was actually a prosthetic model of my left arm, which we had made for extreme close-ups in the fire ant film. It cost $3,000, and it had a slick little pump you could use to make the tendons on the back of the hand arch up in apparent agony.
I suppose purists would say we faked the close-ups, and I realize that this is a sensitive issue. Not long ago, a well-known natural-history filmmaker was attacked in the press for staging several sequences supposedly shot in the wild. Among other things, he was accused of "tucking a ptarmigan in his pocket to move it to a more picturesque spot for filming." So I want to state categorically that, in my entire television career, I have never tucked a ptarmigan anyplace.
But the truth is that we filmed most of the fire ant show in an apartment in Tallahassee, Florida. There were several good reasons for this, including the natural proclivity of fire ants to raid apartments. From a filmmaker's point of view, the problem with fire ants is that they are smaller than freckles, and when they are not colonizing someone's home, they generally live underground. The only really practical way to film them is on a set.
Our cinematography team consisted of a slight, grizzled cowboy in a black Stetson and his wife, a tall, voluptuous, ginger-haired woman with a certain resemblance to Betty Boop. They holed up in the apartment for several months, sending us occasional progress reports that exhibited a weakness for puns. I have no idea how they explained their "antics" to the landlord. All the windows were blacked out, and the only furniture in the place was a bed. The kitchen door was blocked off by a brace for immobilizing the cowboy's arm during a time-lapse sequence of a pustule erupting. Colonies of fire ants were thriving in glass-fronted cases, and the air was ripe with the smell of the preserved frogs the ants were eating.
My prosthetic left arm dominated the spare bedroom, with my wedding band slipped onto the ring finger for verisimilitude. Fire ants wandered among the artificial hairs and drove their stingers into the rubberized flesh, which never flinched, except under pneumatic command. The big crisis in filming was the day the exterminator made his rounds, and the cowboy and "Betty Boop" had to fling themselves bodily across the doorway to keep him out.
Anyway, the film got made, and it premiered on a Sunday night just after a James Bond movie. The Nielsen ratings were respectable, and at least one aspect of my performance caught the eye of other producers: my prosthetic left arm has gone on to mayhem and gore in a series of other natural-history films. Meanwhile, I am waiting by the phone for another chance at television immortality, and I am keeping my options as a print journalist open.
By Richard Conniff