grandma's weapon of choice
Clunky plastic vs. screen wire. No contest.
Clunky plastic vs. screen wire. No contest.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “fly swatter” as “an implement used for swatting insects, typically a square of plastic mesh attached to a wire handle.”

Really? I beg to differ. An honest-to-goodness fly swatter is made of screen-wire. Remember those? Both my grandmothers wielded those instruments of doom with an Olympic fencer’s skill. They were pros. How many times did I watch those ladies pull off a trifecta: dispatching three flies with one swat.

Back in the days before central air conditioning, screen doors and open windows delivered a modicum of cooler air on oppressive summer days. Inevitably, flies made their way inside and in no time at all they made themselves at home in the kitchen. It was there, at the hands of my grandmothers, that they met their maker.

My grandmothers didn’t need to keep a lot of insecticide sprays around. Nor did they have any of those new-fangled bug zappers. No, they walked around with a screen-wire swatter in hand. While talking to me their eyes would dart to the side and the smoothest backhanded “swat” you could imagine sent Mr. Fly to the that great compost pile in the sky. Those ladies had reflexes like Muhammad Ali. They could  clobber a fly buzzing in the air.

Those simple screen-wire swatters struck with deadly force and were far more efficient than today’s plastic swatters, which flies seem good at evading. You see, the little critters detect changes in air pressure and a clunky plastic swatter says, “Here I come.” The thicker, plastic swatter sends a wave of air ahead that tips the fly off. “I’m outta here,” and off he buzzes. A thin mesh of screen-wire, however, comes down swiftly, silently with no shock wave, converting the fly to a countertop’s version of road kill possum.

Multiply by 1,000, the last thing Grandma's fly saw.
Multiply by 1,000, the last thing Grandma’s fly saw.

Screen-wire swatters trump plastic swatters, but you will be hard pressed to find a genuine screen-wire swatter in a store today. All you’ll find are plastic ones. Go online, however, and you can find honest-to-goodness flyswatters. For just $7.95 you can buy a real old-fashioned fly swatter from Garrett Wade (800-221-2942). Give them a call. I suggest you get a few and treasure them.

I find the encroachment of plastic into our lives depressing. Vinyl siding. Give me wood. Vinyl fences covered in mildew. Give me timbers. Plastic tumblers. Bring back the beautiful retro aluminum tumblers. Plastic people, too, if you know what I mean and I know you do.

My good friend, Noel, gave me a real fly swatter as a Christmas gift. I love it and I doubt I ever use it. It’s too valuable for it brings back a lot of memories that I’ve written about before. No visit to my grandmothers’ home was complete without seeing those Southern ladies reach for an old-fashioned screen-wire flyswatter. Both grandmothers were superb marksman. They had radar. They would be looking at me, talking, and swat a fly 90 degrees to the right or left without so much as a glance. A flick of the wrist and a squished fly was stuck to the screen wire. A bloody stain marked the spot of the fly’s demise.

And then plastic swatters came along. Plastic flyswatters aren’t worth a hoot. The air doesn’t sift through a plastic swatter like it does screen wire. The result is predictable: the fly launches into the air and lives to drop his specks again. Another good thing about screen-wire flyswatters was the vanquished fly stuck to the screen where a shake over a trashcan or toilet bowl took care of the matter. When a plastic swatter scores a kill over a slow, dimwitted fly, the fly remains where right it was, albeit wider, thinner, bloodier, and dead. Now you have to scrape up the mess.

A couple more things … Flies and kids make a bad combination. Kids, you see, aid and abet flies. (Kids have an annoying habit of standing in an open door, neither going in or out … just standing there.) I bet this sounds familiar to some of you baby boomers. “Close the door, you’re letting flies in.” Let ’em in we did and then the war commenced. My grandmothers were armed and ready.

Sadly, the days of smashing and flapping at flies are mostly behind us. Air conditioning sure made life more tolerable but it robbed us of some color and character. The annual war against summer flies not only required screen-wire swatters but puffs of cotton were stuffed in holes in window screens. Don’t see that anymore, though I  still see screens sprouting cotton bolls in my gallery of memories. Despite such patchwork measures, pesky, nasty, greasy flies managed to invade the house. It was there that they encountered the original No Fly Zone, and if chaps, as we were called back in my day, got out of line, well, the swatter was good medicine for us too.

Photos by the author, Tom Poland

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at Email him at [email protected].