old Type: You have a curiosity--even a fondness--for the very spiders many of us hope never to come face-to-face with in our lifetime, such as the black widow and the tarantula. How did you get your start hunting spiders?
Gordon Grice: My grandmother taught me when I was six. One afternoon she got tired of trying to entertain me, so she invented this little activity, which she said was a lot of fun. She sent me out with a coffee can and an ice cream scoop and told me to catch spiders. When I caught one, she looked it over, screamed, and pretended she was going to faint. She told me the spider was "first cousin to a black widow." Then she explained how deadly black widows are. The spider I'd caught was actually a common house spider, which is related to the widow, but is utterly harmless. Grandma knew that, of course. She made it an exciting afternoon, but I'm sure she didn't expect that impromptu game to become my lifetime obsession.
Years later Grandma told me about growing up in a sod house, and how people were always going to the outhouse and getting bitten on their private parts by black widows. If she'd told me that when I was six, my life might have taken a different course.
BT: How did your family react to your unusual hobby?
GG: My mother hated bugs. She always made me keep them out in the shed or at least on the porch. I had to smuggle them inside when the weather turned cold. But Mom also liked having someone around to catch any bugs that wandered into the living room. Eventually she started catching things for me. She still calls me up once in a while to say, "I have a bug for you." Then by the time I remember to go pick the thing up a couple of days later, there's just a little withered bundle of legs in an olive jar.
BT: Did your creepy-crawlies ever interfere with your social life?
GG: When I was in high school, I ruined a few dates by saying, "Want to see my tarantula?" Of course I quickly learned to avoid the topic. A girl would say, "So what do you do in your spare time?" And I would say, "Nothing!"
When I was in college I went out with a certain young woman, and as we were walking across a parking lot I spotted a big ground beetle. I caught it in a paper cup. She asked me what I meant to do with it, and I said, "Nothing!" But she kept after me, so I showed her the row of pickle jars on my desk, each containing a black widow. I fed the beetle to one of the widows. The young woman said, "Hmm. Interesting." So I married her.
We still have critters around the house. Tracy, my wife, doesn't mind them, except for the tarantulas. If you keep a tarantula in a glass cage, you occasionally turn around and find it staring at you and moving its fangs--licking its chops, you might say.
Tracy likes to deflate my exaggerations. One day I was telling her what an awesome predator a certain tarantula was. The next day she was calling the tarantula Harriet.
My son, who's almost three, loves the bugs. He watches old horror movies about giant bugs on TV. Lately his favorite game is to build a house out of blocks and then have a rubber tarantula destroy it.
BT: What are your unfulfilled ambitions as a critter collector?
GG: For years I've been hunting a certain huge tarantula I call Moby. It's been reported on a stretch of highway about a hundred miles from where I live. It's supposed to be the size of a grapefruit, or the size of a pumpkin, or the size of an Olds Cutlass, depending on whose story you hear. I go hunting for it once or twice a year. It's probably just a legend, but I'm obsessed. I park in the ditch and wander up and down the highway catching tarantulas, but I've never caught the giant one. Certain highway patrol officers are starting to get really annoyed with me.
My other great ambition is to succeed in keeping a windscorpion in captivity; I've caught a lot of them, but they all died within a few days. Windscorpions are weird creatures that look like a cross between a tarantula and a scorpion. They're common, but most people have never heard of them because they come out only at night and because they run so fast, you rarely get a good look at them. The windscorpion has two claims to fame. One is that it's the fastest arthropod on earth. The other is its jaws, which are the largest by proportion in the animal kingdom. Anyway, no one has ever kept windscorpions in captivity for very long because they need so much space to run in. They run fast all night, grabbing bugs with their sticky forelimbs and crushing them with their gigantic jaws. I'm building a contraption in my garage to keep a windscorpion in. It's basically a lot of transparent tubing with little valves for dropping in the insect prey. If I ever catch another windscorpion, I'll be ready.
Read an excerpt from The Red Hourglass.