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Wolf-Ant of the High Plains
By Steven Church

I first learn of Wolf-Ants from my cousin, Kathy, when I'm still in elementary school. This is the early '80s. She's seven years older, wiser, and always full of fantastical stories. But this one makes a lot of sense to me. It's a story of survival -- the kind of story I need. I am deeply and seriously afraid of nuclear apocalypse, convinced that it is inevitable; and I am searching for answers, absorbing survival lessons from my elders, because I want to be prepared for life after the bombs.

My younger brother Matt and I sit on the back porch swing, our legs dangling above the cement, and Kathy tells us tales of the vicious, predatory creature that evolved after the testing of an atomic bomb at a secret military base in the desert. According to Kathy, the mutant Wolf-Ant has the furry body and muscled forelegs of a full-grown timber wolf -- as well as canine speed, sight, and sense of smell -- combined with the hard-shelled thorax and huge razor-sharp pincers of a giant red fire ant.

Depending on the specific genetic mutation, she explains, the beast may have the head of a wolf or the bug-eyed visage of an ant. They travel in loose packs and dwell in basements of suburban Kansas homes, building nests from blankets and pillows and the hides of family dogs. Wolf-Ants are opportunistic hunters who will eat nuts, berries, garbage, cats, as well as their own young -- not to mention slow-footed sickly young boys. She says, "Wolf-Ant preys on the weak members of the pack."

The porch swing creaks.

Cicadas chitter in the grass.

Kathy kicks us higher and faster and Matt and I just hold on tight.

I listen to my cousin, listen carefully to her stories of mutant beasts and I know they are all true. With my history of childhood illness and clumsy genes, I quickly realize that I am the perfect prey for Wolf-Ants. I begin to see them in my dreams. They lurk in our basement and I hear their pincers snapping in the dark, snip, snip, chicka, chicka, snip, snip, combined with the eerie guttural howl of a wolf's lungs, howooooooo, woo, woooooo.

I am terrified of Wolf-Ants.

But they make sense to me. I understand and respect them. I've been nurtured on stories of genetic mutations and abominations of nature. I'm not the only kid who believes that the nuclear apocalypse is imminent. Reagan is stockpiling missiles in Germany. The Soviets are posturing too. We all know we're going to die. It's just a matter of time. So of course much of our fantasy fiction and cartoons are about how we'll survive the apocalypse; and the key word here is "fantasy," because surviving it isn't a reality -- at least not surviving it in a form or identity that resembles the one we've come to know. We understand intuitively that adaptation is the key to survival.

Forget the meek. It's mutants who will inherit the Earth.

As a nation, as a family, we are just beginning to understand the legacy of pollution and toxic waste, just beginning to realize that, while the human race as we know it might be wiped out, life will resurface, life will adapt and change. Mutation makes sense. Mutation is normal -- really the only way to survive. Stuck in my pathetic skin, I resent cockroaches for their mythical ability to survive the apocalypse and feel a surge of adrenalin in crushing them with the heel of my shoe and muttering under my breath, "Survive that, motherfucker."

I imagine myself surviving the apocalypse not by developing a hard carapace and pincers, not by mutating into some half-beast, but by adapting in more subtle ways, much like one of my Saturday morning cartoon heroes, Thundar the Barbarian.

Even as a boy I recognize Thundar as a Conan the Barbarian rip-off. He even looks like Arnold and, of course, possesses the same eloquence with the English language. (This seems to be what largely defines a barbarian -- the inability to form complete sentences and the tendency to speak in dramatic generalizations. "Thundar mad. Thundar smash.") Still, I like him. There's a simple dignity about Thundar. He's not only survived, but he's thrived. Sure he's a barbarian -- but his mutations are more behavioral, psychological and social. He's adapted more than he's mutated. Plus he's made friends and traveled extensively. He sleeps under the stars most nights and kills many bad mutants. He is both feared and respected by hordes of survivors. What more could you ask for?

Growing up in the '70s and '80s in Kansas, I'm sure I wasn't the only boy who envisioned himself rising from the poisonous post-apocalyptic atmosphere to ride a mutated horse-beast through a nuclear wasteland. I wasn't the only one who dreamed of Wolf-Ants and survival in a land where the Statue of Liberty has been toppled and half-buried in toxic sludge. Was I? This is why these cartoons are popular -- because they spoke to a deep fear and a deep need in all of us, the need to mutate, adapt, and ultimately survive the apocalypse.

In my childhood imagination, survival is easy enough. After the bombs fall and the weak are vaporized, I figure I'll be just like Thundar. I'll hook up with a super-hot sorceress princess named Ariel and a Chewbacca rip-off named Ookla the Mok. We'll form a team of mutant heroes and travel the polluted planet fighting evil and the inevitable opportunistic profiteering mutants. We'll face half-men and half-animals, giant insects and carnivorous rats, and that two-faced mutant with his fancy helmet. We'll tangle with lizard-people and massive carnivorous cockroaches.

It will be a hard life. But we will persevere.

One day when the orange double-sun of Earth is scorching the planet and the soil has cracked open, when a stiff breeze blows the hummingbird-sized flies off the horse-beasts, I will meet my destiny -- the legendary Wolf-Ant of the High Plains.

We meet him just before the ravenous beast descends on a small village of innocent farmers. Despite the ferocity of battle I ultimately win the respect of Raja, the Alpha Wolf-Ant, with my brazen displays of fearless aggression. Impressed with my horsemanship, my loincloth, my sword skills and my obvious appreciation for his mutant angst, Raja surrenders and becomes my personal mutant Wolf-Ant steed. I affix a leather saddle to his hairy back and ride him into many righteous battles. We become legendary, my Wolf-Ant and me, and tales are spread of our great deeds, painted in grand strokes and vibrant colors on the copper cave walls of Lady Liberty's abandoned torso.

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