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LAUGH LINES : Rare Talent Only a Spider Could Appreciate

July 01, 1994|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I have an unusual talent. I catch flies with my bare hands.

I know there aren't many people who would brag about that. But there are even fewer who can do it, and I have learned not to question the fact that God gave me this talent rather than a great singing voice or a distinguished acting career.

As Krishna told Arjuna: You gotta be who you gotta be, babe. (Or maybe it was Sammy rapping with Frank in "Ocean's Eleven.")

I won't tell you how I do it. Maybe the Maharishi gives away the secret to eternal bliss, but we're talking real talent here. I will only say I learned it in Boy Scouts--who says Scouting doesn't stick with you?--and over the years, I have captured thousands of flies. (I usually practice catch and release.)

I respect my quarry as much as any hunter. He is courageous. He is cunning. Most of all, he is easy to crush between your fingers.

I know how that sounds. I'm sure you've known someone like me. Well, you probably wouldn't admit knowing him now, but you might remember him from grade school. He was the one who walked up to you on the playground and asked if you wanted to see him turn his eyelids inside out like an iguana.

You probably said, "No thanks."

On the whole, fly-catching is not well regarded by the public. People have their prejudices and that's all right. I don't brag about my ability. But I do keep it in mind when I hear someone else boasting about the executive position she just landed with a Fortune 500 company.

"But can she catch a fly with her bare hands?" I wonder.

I don't spend much time catching flies anymore. I like knowing I can if I need to, though, and lately I had begun to fear that my abilities were waning. So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I took my family camping recently.

I knew I would be facing my special adversary on his home territory--a public campground redolent with sun block and used Huggies and the noise of radios tuned to the "all-day, all-night, no-news, no-sports, no-breaths-between-words speed metal station."

I eased into the confrontation. On the first evening, I had two beers, just to get that loose body awareness you must have in a physical confrontation. Next morning, my wife and son went for a boat ride. "Are you coming?" he asked.

I looked up from my breakfast--two eggs fried, three small pancakes, a glass of orange juice for fluid--and saw them gathering outside the fire's circle and warm family camaraderie. A big fly, so black it was like a null spot, hovered. My eyes met his.

"No," I said. "I'd better stay."

How could I explain that in staying I would not be forsaking my manhood but proving it? When they left, I picked up my book and lay on my cot under an oak--the ceremonial invitation to battle. They came slowly at first, then more quickly, pressing from all sides. This was so predictable that a smile crossed my face. I realized that they didn't know who I was. Somehow, their genetic memory had betrayed them.

At first, my movements were erratic. I missed several captures, which only encouraged them. Then, from somewhere, I felt my body take control; my mind receded and became a spectator. I captured my first fly of the day--a small, young one--and placed its body on my left knee as fair warning.

My sense of honor compels me to announce myself to them. If the flies came in now, the resulting carnage would not be my responsibility.

They attacked with renewed fury, trying to overwhelm with sheer numbers. It was a terrific fight, but when it ended, when my wife and son drove into the campsite, I had prevailed.

"How was your morning?" my wife asked.

"Great," I smiled. Then I kissed her--hard.

"Ooh," she said. "Have you been catching flies again?"

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