Something A Little Different – When Cacti Attack!

April 24, 2014

Deceptively pretty prickly pearIn the days of my youth, I was taught what it means to encounter cactus.  (All due apologies to the fellas from Led Zep.)

A friend just shared this link to an excellent article about first aid for cactus attacks, and it reminded me of a tale I don’t think I’ve told before.

I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old the first time I was assaulted by the fearsome prickly pear.  The thick, green pads were pretty common sights around the coastal North Carolina habitat where I lived and played, and for the most part, I knew to avoid them.  But sometimes, attention wanes.

I was at my grandmother’s house in Southport, and had set up a box trap for squirrels.  You may have attempted the same trick, using an old shoe box, a stick, and a long string… with various substances to lure the squirrel into the box.  You prop the box up on the stick, and then tie one end of the string to the stick.  You hide with the other end of the string until an unsuspecting squirrel or bunny hops into the box.  Then pull the string, snatching the stick out from under the box and trapping the hapless furbearer in the dark.

As you might suppose, there are a few minor flaws in this plan… not the least of which is the unlikely prospect of an eight year-old boy sitting still and quiet long enough for a moronic critter to wander into the trap.  But young minds don’t always think these things through, especially when the plan is strongly endorsed by adults in whom the young mind has absolute faith.  I am often amazed, in retrospect, by the alacrity with which my dad could come up with ideas to get a rambunctious youngster out of the house.

So there I was.  The trap was set, and I backed away, unwinding the string with each stealthy step.  About ten yards from the trap, an ancient longleaf pine tree offered cover behind its thick trunk, and I eased around, never taking my eyes off of the trap, and crouched down to wait.

Not all cactus encounters are negative.  The fruit of the prickly pear can be downright delicious!

Not all cactus encounters are negative. The fruit of the prickly pear can be downright delicious!

I waited, poised on the balls of my feet, ready to spring into action.  In my mind were images of a new pet bunny, or squirrel and dumplings as only my Granny D could make them.  Either outcome would be satisfactory, and given my preparations (based on the advice of the conniving adults in the house), I knew it could only be a matter of time before a small, furry animal was delivered into my possession.

Crouching like that really starts to put a strain on the calves, even in a healthy young outdoorsman like me.  After some minutes, my legs began to tremble and ache.  I held fast, though, gripping the string tightly.  I’d been taught the importance of being still (even if I wasn’t very good at it), so I fought the urge to sit back in the pine needle-covered sandy soil.  A squirrel had just come down out of the woods, and movement would probably send him scurrying back into the canopy.

My legs went numb.  It was a very, very long time ago, but I can still remember the burning sensation in my thighs and calves slowly giving way to nothingness.  But the squirrel was actually getting closer to the shoe box.  I knew he would soon be lured by the bait, and if I could only wait a few more moments…

I couldn’t wait, and as quietly as possible, I eased back and flopped into a sitting position.

Right on top of a patch of prickly pear cactus!

In my focus on setting the trap, I had failed to inspect my hiding place.  If I had only taken a quick glance, I’d have seen the thick, green pads only partially obscured by the pine needles.  But I hadn’t looked.  Poor preparation has doomed many an endeavor, and my screams certainly put the kibosh on my chances of capturing dinner (or a new pet).  I leapt to my feet and ran screaming and crying into the house.

I should add here that Granny D was a retired nurse.  She was also a very practical lady who wasted little time on the niceties of bedside manner (or so it seemed to this thoroughly perforated, eight year-old).  In clipped terms, she directed me to strip and get up on the bed.  I complied, despite the pain, as stripping off my shorts and underwear ripped many of the offending spines out of my tender flesh.

I lay, trembling with pain and trepidation, awaiting Granny D’s ministrations.  With the stealth and grace so common to the nursing profession, I felt the cold tips of the tweezers before I even realized she had crept up on me.  I’d dropped my entire weight on the cactus, so the hard spines were deeply embedded, and it took no small effort to pull them out.  Again displaying the traits that made her a successful nurse, she held my thrashing body down with a firm forearm, and utterly ignored my screams and crying as she plucked each one.

It was traumatic.

But she wasn’t done yet.  After pulling at least a million of the big spikes, she told me to hold still so she could get the little ones.  These were the little, hair-like spines that are barbed and wicked and obviously spawned by demons in the darkest, vilest depths of hell.  Too small to grab with tweezers, too deep to be scraped with a knife, these glochids are difficult to remove.  They are also the most disproportionately (for their size) painful part of any encounter with prickly pear.

Granny D knew just what to do.  Before long, my butt was covered in a layer of some kind of super-adhesive tape that I’m sure can only be found in medical supply and BDSM shops. Thankfully, at that stage of my life, I had not yet acquired this fine, protective covering of body hair, so when she ripped the tape off I wasn’t assaulted by the agony of ripping follicles.  No, it was only the ripping of tender skin and hundreds of thousands of tiny, hair-like, barbed cactus spines.  The pain was only mildly unbearable and the paroxysms passed reasonably quickly.  Too breathless to cry any more, I lay gasping, face down on the tear-soaked, feather pillow… which is why I didn’t see what was coming next.

These days, we have all sorts of antibiotic and antiseptic ointments and unguents, and most of them are relatively benign.  Many of the harsher ones are mixed with lidocaine or other numbing agents.  But when I was eight, the wound treatment of choice was mercurochrome.  Typically applied directly from the tip of an eye dropper, the stuff burned like the fires of Hades on contact with an open wound.  With no preamble and little ceremony, I believe Granny D dumped an entire quart bottle on my raw little behind.  The results were predictable.

It wasn’t my last run-in with the spiny succulents, but it was memorable.



One Response to “Something A Little Different – When Cacti Attack!”

  1. Something A Little Different – When Cacti Attack! | on April 24th, 2014 14:37

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