By Herman Thorbecke

While lying in bed recently, trying NOT to scratch a multitude of chigger bites, I recalled an itchy infestation we experienced in St. Petersburg, Florida. One of a variety of things my wife, Lea, and I did to make a living was to start and run an elementary school in that lovely city on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, we like to refer to as Hurricane Alley.

This was a very long time ago when we were still full of energy and “bright” ideas, and during our careers as school principal and administrator, respectively, we had to deal with all manner of crises. A major head lice infestation was one of them.

I think it was during our fourth year at the school that we were confronted with these urban critters, and boy did the little creeps cause us a headache. First time I noticed them, I was lying in bed, with my face buried in my wife’s mane.

I felt something crawling on my brow, and wanting to know what was walking on me, I switched on the light and had a closer look at my lovely wife’s head, and a very busy place it was, too.

As to the one that had migrated to my head, it must have known exactly where it was going—straight for my sparsely haired scalp, in search of open spaces and Lebensraum.

We spent the next couple of hours under the shower shampooing each other, and had it not been for the underlying reason, that might have been a very pleasant happening.

When I wondered out loud, “Where did you get lice, for heaven’s sake?” She suggested “we” picked them up from the little darlings at school and that we needed to check the entire school, children and teachers for lice the next day.

In fact there was no doubt in her mind, or should I say “on her head,” that she had picked them up from the kids at school. She now recalled that during the previous week she had noticed an unusual increase in head scratching among her pupils in the first grade, where a majority of the girls had luscious long hair.

To be fully prepared to do battle the next day, I was sent to the pharmacy to get the chemical (Ridex) and mechanical weapons (fine combs) to help us win the war.

Lea had it all planned out.

The weatherman forecast a beautiful sunny day with mildly warm temperatures and plenty of sun. Perfect conditions for a mass hair wash and open-air drying fest. Instead of attempting to hide this embarrassing result of inadequate hygiene, we were going to turn it into an educational event.

Although we were not ready to admit it, a lot of the transmission from child to child and teacher probably had occurred at school. It was somewhat of a consolation to find out during the following days that most of the schools in the city were similarly plagued.

Parents delivering their children were told on arrival, “We are going to have an extraordinary, personal hygiene day. Today your children and also you, the parents, will have an opportunity to have your head and hair checked and cleared of parasites.”

We initially evaded the term lice, thinking we might have a big panic on our hands. Most parents were cool about it, though.

One of them, an MD, delivering his son on his way to work, calmly observed that in his practice he ran into head lice all the time. “No big deal. Ridex will do the job. Just alert the parents to the problem and tell them to watch out for it.”

In the end we turned the whole thing into a fun event. Mind you, it was not much fun for the members of the species, Pediculus humanis capitis—they suffered one of their main historical defeats and succumbed by the thousands to Ridex and the fine-toothed nit-picking combs.

All the children’s heads were carefully examined. Activity was diagnosed on quite a number, and heads thoroughly shampooed, combed and sundried. Some of the children that were actually free of the pests insisted on also getting a shampoo, and in the end we did all of them, including all the teachers and a fair number of parents.

In spite of the fact that I had shaved my head that morning as a precaution, one of the teachers insisted on doing me too. Accompanied by much hilarity, I then succumbed to the treatment and ended up soaked from head to toe, with the kids competing in the sport of splashing Miss Lea’s husband with cupfuls of soapy water.
Since then I had remained bug-free until the Georgian chiggers got me good.