The sign at the airport said, "Threat Level Orange," but I ignored it and went into the terminal where nobody unknown to me asked me to carry anything aboard the plane and I saw nothing suspicious to report to authorities. The truly suspicious people these days are the authorities. When I got to Chicago, however, there was a high-pitched chittering sound in the air reminiscent of the soundtrack of a sci-fi movie in which an intergalactic virus lands on Earth in gooey pods in the treetops that will hatch into carnivorous bats. It was the 17-year cicada, billions of them, locustlike bugs that have lain dormant underground since 1990 and then sprang up as grubs, molted, sprouted wings, and were busy enjoying a brief courtship and sex before their imminent death.
Some people consider cicadas pests but I found them comforting. I suffer from tinnitus, the ringing in the ears, and the cicadas chitter in the same frequency range as my inner ear and mask the ringing very nicely. I stood in the park where they were whirring around and I felt relief. Medicine has no remedy for tinnitus. I've tried acupuncture and that doesn't work either. My only alternative, I guess, is to wander the planet in search of cicadas.
Tinnitus can drive you nuts, especially if you spend a lot of time in quiet rooms, but luckily I am able to ignore it, thanks to my innate talent for obliviousness. Many men have this. The ability to sit and read a book while, say, your 9-year-old daughter is dancing to the soundtrack of "Annie," which you've heard about 96 times and would be very happy if the CD got lost tomorrow, which, as the song says, is only a day away, but meanwhile your wife in the next room is calling to you to make her go to bed, and meanwhile the guy in the book is telling you to listen to yourself, to the fragment of divinity within you, and then the good woman stands in the doorway and cries, "What is going on with you? You don't hear a thing I say!" and the guy in the book says, "Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood."
Well, there is fatherhood in a nutshell. A big misunderstanding. We were young swashbuckling guys riding around in cool cars on a hot summer night and we pulled into the A&W for a root beer and these girls walked over in their little white summer dresses and the next thing we knew we had a house and a lawn and a teenager glowering at us and muttering something about us not understanding him. He thinks he's misunderstood -- hey, how about us? Look at Father's Day. All year long, we dads look forward to Our Day and think, "Well, maybe this year there will be a big parade. A dads drill team, twirling rakes. A unit of Catholic priests in their big black shoes. A float with the Boston Pops on it." And then, nothing. No fireworks, no music. A few people murmur, "Happy Father's Day," and that's it. It's about as festive as Arbor Day or National Pickle Week.
That hammerhead shark in the Omaha zoo that gave birth to a baby though there had been no male around -- a proven instance of virgin birth in a higher species -- it gives a man pause. Once genetic engineers find a way for eggs to fertilize themselves and women can satisfy their lust for children without bothering with us and our noise, will they still want to have us around? I'm not sure. We may devolve into drones, hauling honey to the hive to feed the queen, leading short nasty lives and dying unmourned, big heaps of us, just like the cicadas.
This audio link between the cicadas and the ringing in my ears makes me wonder if I may be misunderstood because I originated in another galaxy and came to Earth as a virus and if someday at the airport a stranger will walk up with a boxful of cicadas and say, "Take this aboard the plane." Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps 17 years from now. I will take the box and there will be a great silence, no more ringing, and the threat level will go down to pink.
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2007 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.