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Spiders and Sputnik

March 15, 2017

This post is an edited excerpt from my biography The Kid in the Kaleidoscope.




I was a first grader in 1957, and one day after lunch our teacher pulled out a book and began reading a wonderful story called Charlotte’s Web, the tale of a spider who befriends a piglet. There were many super illustrations, making it easy for Miss Ludlum to cover a few dozen pages each day. When she came to the emotional ending I was sobbing so hard I got the hiccups.


My opinion of spiders was warped by this loving fable, but a reality check came when a fellow first grader trapped a black widow spider in a mayonnaise jar and brought it to our class for Show & Tell. We learned that, after mating, black widows earn their nickname by killing their male partners and siphoning off their blood. Ask any first grade boy and he’ll tell you that’s pretty darn cool, but without a male spider to die for our amusement, we soon lost interest.


The jar was relegated to a window ledge at the back of the room and forgotten until the day it was knocked over. The jar shattered and the black widow made a break for it. Our lessons were held outside on the lawn while the janitor searched our classroom for her. The spider was never found.     


This happened in 1957, the year the Russians launched Sputnik into orbit. It flew overhead and scared the bejeezus out of Americans. Some thought it a nuclear weapon, but others took this as an example of Soviet supremacy in math and science, prompting a US government-backed program called “New Math” to make American students more competitive. I was already struggling with the “Old” math and the new program was equally challenging.


When the test siren went off we’d scramble under our desks as a precaution against incoming Russian missiles, but I gave little thought to bombs that could melt my desk on top of me. I was more concerned about that AWOL black widow hiding in our classroom.





I imagined that black widow inching down from the underbelly of my desk and crawling up the pant leg of my jeans to feast on blood from my chubby leg. The threat of a spider bite played more heavily in my imagination than nuclear annihilation. Eventually, that black widow faded from my mind. When I did think about that missing arachnid my dad would fill my thoughts.


Poor kindhearted Dad! He benefited greatly by relying on my mother to make decisions and manage household finances, but often he looked like he’d had the blood sucked out of him by his mate.



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Those big spiders can be pretty scary. It would be ironic to "duck and cover" for safety and then be killed by something under your desk.
By: PT Dilloway on March 15, 2017
eeek- when I was a kid I used to lift up rocks to see what was living underneath....stopped doing that after I discovered a black fuzzy tarantula who jumped out!
By: Kathe W. on March 15, 2017
Great story! I'm fascinated by spiders, especially the big wolf spiders. I can do without black widows and brown recluses. I just read Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt (good book!), so Sputnik has been on my brain lately. October 1957 - thirty years to the day before my daughter was born.
By: Kelly on March 15, 2017
Oh...and I meant to say I agree about the illustrations from Charlotte's Web. I still enjoy looking at them, a couple in particular.
By: Kelly on March 15, 2017
Those air raid drills were scary enough for a six year old, add a poisonous spider to the mix...ouch!!
By: cranky on March 15, 2017
And if a nuke had fallen, I bet the spider would've made it.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on March 15, 2017
That is the stuff of nightmares!
By: The Broad on March 15, 2017
I remember duck & cover; it wasw bad enough without spiders!!
By: fishducky on March 15, 2017
At that age had I thought a spider was under my desk, I'd have chosen being nuked.
By: Arkansas Patti on March 15, 2017
Imagine now the fuss there would be to have a forgotten deadly poison spider sitting in a jar in a gradeschool classroom! :D
By: Jenny Woolf on March 15, 2017
I well remember those air-raid drills! And like you, I would have been much more worried about that spider!
By: Mitchell is Moving on March 15, 2017
Lemme think....nuclear obliteration or a spider bite? Yeah, that's a toss-up. ;)
By: scott park on March 15, 2017
When I was a kid, I lived less than an hour's drive from the Iron Curtain and those evil communists. We never, ever had to duck and cover. What were you guys thinking???
By: Pixel Peeper on March 15, 2017
We didn't have duck and cover in our schools. Then again, we didn't have black widow spiders anywhere within a thousand miles or so either. But if we had, I'd have worried about the spider more too.
By: jenny_o on March 15, 2017
I am pleased that you were neither a feast for a black widow, nor nuclear annihilated.
By: Val on March 15, 2017
Spiders are our friends, but take the poisonous ones outdoors, please.
By: messymimi on March 15, 2017
I loved Charlotte's Web, very moving story. I wonder what it will take these days to recover a faith in science over celebrity opinion?
By: Botanist on March 15, 2017
I would have been more worried about the spider as well. I don't do well with any spiders and a black widow would have freaked me out
By: Birgit on March 15, 2017
your black widows are our redbacks, they're everywhere here. I don't think there's a garden in Australia that hasn't got at least one. We all learned early to wear gardening gloves when moving pot plants and to upend and shake any boots or shoes left out overnight.
By: river on March 15, 2017
SOME PIG! Loved that book. Still love it. Haven't encountered any black widows, but I know I wouldn't love them. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on March 16, 2017
I'm with you on that black widow. I don't think I could spent time at my desk unless it had been sprayed-frequently with spider bomb.
By: Tom Cochrun on March 16, 2017
The spider was never found. I would like to imagine a follow-up in which one day as you are waiting in a queue at the aeroport there's a tap on your shoulder and when you turn around.... "Remember me?! :-) Greetings from London.
By: A Cuban In London on March 16, 2017
That black widow spider wasn't there to intimidate you all; she was hiding from her own nuclear catastrophe...the bug spray.
By: STL Fan on March 16, 2017
I for one look forward to the publication of your autobiography "The Kid in the Kaleidoscope." Please let us know when it's going to come out.
By: Tom Sightings on March 17, 2017
I can't begin to imagine what might have been nor what could be in the future. I fear our greatest failure has been of our own doing.
By: Daniel LaFrance on March 18, 2017

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