Happy New Year, Wallowa County. Should be an interesting one. Now let’s talk about household pests. Cluster flies are not an affliction I’ve been saddled with at my own home, but I know people. These folks have dark rings under their eyes. Owners of cluster fly colonies speak in whispers. Their eyes dart around. You don’t understand, they whisper. The cluster flies. These people never just say flies or house flies, it’s always CLuster FLies. With a lot of emphasis on the first syllables. Sometimes spitting out the CLuster part.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of getting acquainted with cluster flies, these creatures are notable for riding out the cold months by huddling next to Tyvek, sheetrock, insulation or inside any crack or crevice in houses, barns or structures where they manage to survive by drawing heat from the rage emitted by owners they have driven crazy. Cluster flies adhere to the safety-in-numbers approach. Great numbers. My first brush with cluster flies was working on a house remodel where part of the morning routine was vacuuming, sweeping or shoveling what seemed like whole cubic yards of fly carcasses from the window ledges and floors. The next morning it would be the same. We pulled siding from a wall and unearthed The Lost City of Cluster Flies. It really is startling.
This little nature lesson on cluster flies is just to set the scene for a recent Christmas party where I ended up next to a crackling woodstove talking with Chuck Fraser, the blacksmith. I’d buy tickets to hear Fraser discuss relative drying times for various paints. He’s just that good of a storyteller. So when Fraser started in with, “I’ll tell you, these cluster flies …” I got comfortable, put my chin in my hand and settled in.
Before we get to Fraser’s cluster flies, I want to throw in a quick note about heat tape on plumbing. It sometimes quits on you. I can report this with absolute authority. Yeah, my heat tape went to a better place, peacefully and in its sleep, right when it was super-duper cold during one of those eleven-below-zero nights. The pipes froze in the kitchen, but, hey, no big deal, that’s why they invented hair dryers. The very next morning one of the steel hinges on my woodstove door broke. Very poor timing. Again, no big deal as long as you have a nice neighbor with a welder. Thanks again, Gene. Frozen pipes, busted woodstove … I’m not saying winter was beating me, but it did have me on the ropes just a tiny bit.
We now rejoin Fraser and his cluster flies. Chuck said he knew at least one good thing about real cold winters like this. When conditions are just right, with temps well below freezing and lots of sunlight outside, he cranks up the forge in his blacksmith shop until it gets a bazillion degrees inside. This sets the stage for what he calls Fraser’s Revenge. The sauna temperatures in the shop rouse the cluster fly population living up among the rafters. The flies get downright lively, start buzzing around the joint and that’s when he shuts the lights and all the doors, covers the windows and snuffs any and all light in the shop. Blackout. Shut that forge door. We need total darkness.
You let that ride for a while. Just the hot and the dark and the buzzing of a kajillion cluster fly wings.
Then Chuck and his fellow metal artist Lyle throw open the big shop doors all the sudden. The light floods in, the cluster flies see that glorious sunshine, figure it’s springtime, they all head for the light in those multitudes they’re famous for and out they go, hustling from well above a hundred degrees to way below zero until they hit that abrupt temperature shift and then they just hit the snow. Done. It’s quite a sight, Chuck assured me. And very satisfying. I begged him right then to give me a call next time conditions are right for Fraser’s Cluster Fly Revenge. This is an event I want to behold with my own eyeballs. Between the frozen pipes, frozen nosehairs, squeaky snow and double-digit-below-zero mornings, I needed this one instance of extreme cold being turned to good use. I also might need a blacksmith forge in my living room. That sounds like just the thing.
Jon Rombach is a local columnist for the Chieftain.