It was on the second to last page of a Batman comic book (or maybe it was Mad Magazine) right next to the advertisements for Sea-Monkeys, a set of Civil War soldiers, and X-ray glasses. It was what I really wanted and my friends wanted, too. It was not as if they were the ultimate, coolest pets of all time. For heaven’s sake, anyone could find them in the cracks of the sidewalk right outside your house. Drop a little candy on the ground and they’d be all over it, hundreds of them. But what was cool, way cool, was their home. Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm looked like the most amazing thing ever, and it made me want to spend every last penny of my allowance money to get one.
The soldiers had a different appeal and the adolescent-fueled purpose of X-ray glasses wasn’t yet clear to a seven-year old. The Sea-Monkeys unquestionably looked exotic, but if you answered the ad and ordered the sea creatures then you’d have to buy the entire habitat and lots of other stuff. Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm had all a kid needed, everything in one kit – the rectangular, narrow plastic, see-through habitat, a bag of sandy soil, and a vial of ants. I saved up $2.98, plus a few cents for handling, and ordered my very own.
Milton Levine was an interesting guy. His story was framed around the American Dream and powered by entrepreneurial gusto. When Milt returned to his Pittsburgh home from military duty overseas in 1946, he and his brother-in-law saw the opportunity the coming baby boom could deliver; they started a mail-order business. It was all about novelties. The first products they offered included animal balloons and plastic shrunken heads. They moved on to dwarf trees, army soldiers, and Sea-Monkeys. Yep, the “100 soldiers for $1” was Milt’s idea. And those Sea-Monkeys? Also Milt. For about ten years, Milt and his brother-in-law peddled these treasures. Then in 1956, as the story goes, Milt was at a picnic and saw ants on the ground. He recalled how the insects would always fascinate his kids; how they’d watch the ants scurry around, observing for hours he tiny creatures carrying crumbs to their dirt hills and underground homes. Bingo. Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm was born.
It wasn’t really a farm, per se. You didn’t “raise” ants. It was actually a formicarium, a habitat that allows you to study ants. The little plastic unit had a glass-like window where you could watch the industrious insects work their little ant antennae off. They’d build intricate tunnels through the sandy dirt. You’d drop seeds in the farm to feed them and they’d store them in cave-like compartments. And when one of their own died, these worker ants would carry the body to their final resting place, a kind of mausoleum deep in the channels. It appeared to be done with great care, even reverence. It was a secret subterranean world and watching it was like spying. It captivated me as a little boy. I was getting a peek inside a world that had, until then, literally gone underground.
This was plenty adventure for me. The lusty temptation of the X-ray glasses and the secrets they might reveal hadn’t occurred to this pre-pubescent. I hadn’t considered how my allowance money might have been better spent on science fiction spectacles so I could find out what was under the dress of the blonde in the second row of my English class. That would come later, of course, only to find those glasses didn’t work a lick. But I kind of knew that would be the case. So, before the hormones kicked in, the ant farm was my best chance to uncover mysteries.
Maybe I’m overstating this, but it may be possible that the ant farm and my early fascination with it fueled my first desire to dig deeper. I’ve worked as a journalist, a writer, and a teacher for many years, and that is what one does in those professions, right, unearth things? We expose. We uncover facts. Make new discoveries. We excavate human emotions. And all of this is based in the wonderfully vibrant motivation of curiosity. Plus – and here is where I may really be stretching – the ant farm began to open up my mind and move it away from its propensity for prejudice.
I wasn’t a huge fan of bugs as a kid. Like most boys, I had a healthy interest in the creepy, but I wasn’t in any way an insect nut. Not like Mark, the boy next door who collected moths and centipedes. What did I know about ants? What did I care about them? I saw friends light matches and burn them for fun. I saw kids step on them; kill them without a single thought or remorse. If you found one crawling on your leg, you’d slap it dead, flick it off with a finger, and never think twice. But once I got to know ants; once I witnessed up close their lives, their work, their sense of community and home, it changed me.
Or maybe Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm was just a simple diversion, slightly better at times than Saturday morning cartoons. Sometimes, however, when we are paying the least attention we are shaped into the person we are. The molding comes subtlety, the work of crafty Karma. It’s simplistic, but true: We become who we are by where we’ve been, who we’ve been with, by all that surrounded us, all that we permitted into our daily existence. It may come in a flash or it may work to shape us in a more methodical, stealth-like way, tiptoeing into our reality without our detection.
I had Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm for a long time; I think it may have been six months or so, an eternity for a kid. I would have kept it even longer if I possible. It was only after I dropped it on the concrete porch, unknowingly cracking the plastic just enough to allow the ants to later squeeze out that I had to trash Uncle Milt’s invention. Mom found ants crawling on my dresser, the floor, and even my bed. She stepped on some, crushed others with bathroom tissue, and eventually was forced to spray my entire bedroom with Raid®.
Looking back at the ant farm as an adult, it seemed cruel, the ants locked inside that plastic home. Sure, it gave a young boy a window into a fascinating world he otherwise would never have known and contributed some tiny insight into the life of those industrious insects. But what I really took from those days with the ant farm had nothing to do with how I managed their captivity, but instead arose from their unexpected freedom. Sometimes now whenever I feel trapped or confined by work, the grind of a day, overcome by responsibilities, buried with grown-up stuff, I think of those ants and how they finally got away.
David Berner’s first book, Accidental Lessons was awarded the 2011 Royal Dragonfly Grand Prize for Literature. His second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There won the 2013 Book of the Year Award from the Chicago Writer’s Association for nontraditional nonfiction, and has been re-released by DREAM OF THINGS Book Publishing. His collection of essays – There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard – is expected to be released by DREAM OF THINGS in early 2015.
David is also a reporter and anchor or CBS radio, WBBM, and regularly fills in as the morning news anchor on WXRT.