YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

FALL JOURNEYS : Destination: Texas : The FireAnt Festival, or Any Excuse for a Party : It's greasy food, silly competition and crafts time in the town of Marshall

August 27, 1995|SOPHIA DEMBLING | Dembling is a Texas free-lance writer

MARSHALL, Texas — We got up at 5:30 in the morning and drove three hours under a lowering sky to make the opening festivities of the 12th annual FireAnt Festival last October.

Fire ants are loathsome little creatures. They bite, they're mean and they're plentiful in Texas. They're the least pleasant fact of summer. Just when you want to frolic barefoot, fire ants make it impossible, unless you are tolerant of a thousand tiny, hot needles penetrating your skin, which is what it feels like to step in a fire ant bed. They just laugh at our best efforts to eradicate them.

So there is absolutely no good reason to fest the fire ant except that, as the weather cools down in Texas, festival season heats up and Texas is mad for festivals. Scarcely a fall weekend goes by without some town somewhere celebrating something. Competition is stiff to come up with reasons to have a parade and eat greasy food.

Towns without obvious reasons to celebrate must make do. Thus Texas' annual calendar includes: The Great Texas Mosquito Festival, the World's Largest Rattlesnake Roundup, the Black-Eyed Pea Jamboree and the Watermelon Thump. So why not fest the fire ant? Anyway, it was as good a reason as any to drive to East Texas from Dallas on a fall Saturday.

It was raining lightly when we arrived. At the site of the festivities, around the town's gorgeous turn-of-the-century courthouse, people were milling with last-minute preparations. In red-and-yellow striped tents on the courthouse lawn, craftspeople unpacked calico-trimmed wooden ducks. Delicious, spicy, greasy, sugary smells began to waft from food booths along the sidewalks. The red brick streets were lined with cars.

Small knots of people gathered along the parade route. Some set up lawn chairs, kids rode dads' shoulders, teen-agers arrived on bicycles. The rain let up and the sun peeked through as a wail of sirens ushered in the festivities.

Freddy, Alvira and Baby Sugar--three teens in fire ant costumes--rode a fire engine at the lead of the parade, accompanied by another costumed festival character, Anthony Amdro, the anteater. (AMDRO is an insecticide made by American Cyanamid, one of the fair's corporate sponsors.) Following them came your basic small-town assortment of beauty queens and tumbling tots. A Volkswagen convertible painted with black-and-white blotches carried a woman in a cow suit. A couple of Shriners drove miniature Mustangs. (What is it with Shriners and little cars?) My view was blocked briefly by the toothy grin of Marvin Gregory, who was running for Texas agriculture commissioner. His slogan: "A Real Farmer." He shook my hand and slipped me a flier.

After the parade we admired some angels made of corn husks and crepe paper in the crafts tent, read the names of accomplished locals on the Wall of Distinction outside the courthouse (Bill Moyers and George Foreman are Marshall homeboys) and tried fried alligator on a stick. They say alligator tastes like chicken, but this batch tasted mostly like onions.

Marshall is only about 15 miles from Louisiana and a lot of that state seems to have seeped over the border. Marshall is moist, piney and draped with moss, and locals stretch their Texas twang into a slow, rich drawl--this here is the Fah-er Ai-int Faist-i-val. I also heard the occasional Cajun lilt. And for whatever reason, some of the hairdos were so extreme that even my companion, Kathy, born and raised in West Texas (and no stranger to big hair), had to turn and stare.

Shrill announcements from the stage ushered in the fire ant calling contest. We nabbed damp front-row grandstand seats. Three contestants signed up for the junior fire ant calling, three for the senior. And these only after the emcee, a young woman with a vowel-shredding drawl, made a plea for more contestants.

No one knows what a fire ant sounds like, so contestants must invent three calls: feeding, mating and danger. We got some TV commercial takeoffs, some songs, the sound of the robot from "Lost in Space" and lots of silly noises. One junior contestant worked the sponsor's name in, but got it wrong. Another junior's mating call was a guttural, "C'mon pretty mama." The two winners were Kristin Lee, who had won before with some truly peculiar noises, and a guy wearing antennae, introduced only as the Madman of Marshall.

There was no sign of the Rubber Chicken Chucking Contest scheduled for 12:30 p.m. in a bank parking lot, so we took another pass by the food booths. Kathy wanted barbecue; I chose Polish sausage. The guy in the sausage booth slathered the bun with mayonnaise, which seemed strange. But figuring it must be a Deep-Texas oddity that I should experience, I took it. When I told Kathy, my authority on all things Texas, she recoiled and said, "Eeeew!" Maybe it's a Louisiana thing.

Los Angeles Times Articles