Monday, June 23, 2008

The Wasp’s Nest

Bart must have been twelve that summer and I was nine. I was staying at our cabin with my Grandmother Stewart. My brothers and mother were in Milwaukee working or something equally tedious. I didn’t really care, because I was at Pine Lake, and that is as close to bliss as we are allowed to get here on earth. Bart and I spent every day together while he was at the Lake, always trying to devise new and dangerous things to do. He stayed with his family in the Ross Cabin that had been handed down three generations to Bart’s Mom, some first cousins once removed, second cousins, aunts and uncles. The Stewart legacy at Pine Lake is now one hundred years old so we are used to complicated familial relationships. In fact Bart is my third cousin. That means that we share the same great-great-grandfather. That man was the visionary Duncan James Stewart and he bought all the land we now enjoy back in 1908.

Thanks to Duncan Stewart all of us Pine Lakers grow up free in the woods and the water. We can canoe and sail boats and swim two miles and water ski and climb the fire tower and stay up all night drinking beer and playing cards. We know all the types of trees in the woods, we know the birds, and the tracks of the animals, we know what mushrooms to eat and we all know the Death Angel that you would only eat once. Every 4th of July is a glorious shout of freedom when everyone from the Grannies to the small kids blow off firecrackers and bottle rockets all day, and the bigger kids have M80s, cherry bombs and home made bombs that look and act like half sticks of dynamite. Pine Lake is paradise but it used to be even better because the grown ups were dumber than they are now and didn’t have a clue what we were up to.

Bart’s mother didn’t have a clue and didn’t give a hoot what he was up to all day, but when we planned to do something amusing that involved explosives or cigarettes or gasoline or diving off the corner of the slide twelve feet above the waves into shallow water we had to make sure that my Grandmother did not find out about our plans or catch us in the act. We had done all sorts of cool stuff already that summer. We blew up fish, made a functioning mortar out of a piece of steel pipe that fired stones powered by cherry bombs. We had practiced swordplay with grass whiffers and Bart almost cut off the tip of my up-yours finger. I still have the scar.

We swam down to the islands without having the required rowboat at hand to save a swimmer with cramps. “Hell, what do you think we are, girls? What do we need a stinkin’ boat for if we’re swimming?” I remember getting terrible cramps in my feet out in the middle of the lake, but I wasn’t about to admit to it. So I gritted my teeth, changed to the backstroke and eventually the cramps went away. We walked around the lake barefoot and down the outlet through the woods and the swamps to Silver Lake. We went fishing almost every day and caught something once in a while. Grandma was always very pleased when we brought a fish home, but cleaning the fish scared me to death.

I wasn’t that afraid of the fish, even the spines on its dorsal fin. I wasn’t afraid of its disgusting guts. I was afraid because the fish cleaning table is behind the old cabin, nailed to a big poplar tree right at the edge of the slope that leads down into Stewart Lake Swamp where the Pine Lake Monster is almost certain to lurk. At night in my bed, alone on the sleeping porch whose big, screened windows look out on those woods, I could hear shuffling and heavy steps above the nightly din of bullfrogs and owls and loons. That swamp with its mysterious inhabitants was terrifying at night. During the day the fear of the Pine Lake Monster was not impossible to overcome, but there was something almost as frightening as the PL Monster back behind the cabin.

A giant wasps nest hung from the eaves of the cabin about twenty feet from the fish table. As soon as the yellow jackets smelled fish they started to buzz around and descended onto the fish. Those wasps caused me to suffer a torture as hopeless as what I read about in the “Collected Works of Edgar Allen Poe” each night in my bed. When they lighted upon the bass or the pike I was trying to scale and gut, I couldn’t get the nerve to wave them off, and meanwhile the mosquitoes would come up out of the swamp and attack en masse. I got to where I didn’t want to catch any fish for fear of the wasps.

Of course, I was not going to tell Bart that I was afraid of wasps, but I did tell him that my Grandma was worried about them and what did he think could we do about the problem? We went and took a look. The nest was a perfect egg-shape, made of gray wasp paper and it hung from below a joist right under the eaves. It was attached by a narrow bit of paper to the joist, like the stem on an apple. Wasps came and went from the little hole in the bottom of the twelve-inch long hive. I didn’t want to get close, but Bart wasn’t afraid, so I stood right next to him.

“Wow, there gotta be like a million wasps in there”.

“You really think there are that many?”

“Yeah, that’s a big hive, do you suppose that we can just knock it down?”

“Yeah maybe, it’s not connected by much, huh? But what are we gonna do after we knock it down? They’re gonna sting us like hell.”

“You scared of a couple of wasps? You’re scared of everything, huh?”

“No I’m not. But if we knock it down and there are wasps everywhere Grandma’s gonna kill me.”

“I know. I know. OK. We gotta burn it when it falls down, we’ll just pour gas on it, toss a match and voom the yellowjackets are gonna be bar-b-cued.”

So we figured it all out and finally decided that it would be better to soak a big rag in gas and throw it over the hive when it was knocked off the roof joist. Then we’d be able to drag it away from the cabin a little so we didn’t burn the house down. We figured with the rag soaked with gas covering the hive the wasps couldn’t get out and we’d be protected. Then we’d ach take a farmer match, light it one-handed with our thumbnails like the cowboys do and whoosh, sayonara yellow jackets.

“OK, how do we knock the nest down?”

“With a stick, or I know, I saw a broomstick in the boathouse. See one of us stands on a chair and whacks the nest right up there where its connected then jump down and we’ll roast these assholes”

We liked to say hell and assholes and shit and other delightful words of that type. We had swearing competitions while we smoked cigarettes that Bart stole from his Mom and his brothers. We were psyched now. This was going to be pretty cool.

“Grandma’s going to town tomorrow. We can do it then and she’ll never know how we did it.”

“Yeah, but she’ll see that the hive isn’t there anymore”

Bart thought about that one and decided that we would say that his big brothers Duncan and Rick came over as a good deed and got rid of the hive.

“OK partner, the wasp killers are ready. Tomorrow we are going to see abundant death and carnage” Bart had just learned that phrase from one of his brothers and thought it was pretty cool. I thought that the whole thing was pretty cool. The coolest part was that we had thought this all out so thoroughly that there absolutely no way this wasn’t going to work perfectly.

I don’t remember what we did the rest of the day, but we didn’t watch TV. There aren’t any TVs at the Stewart end of Pine Lake. That way kids do interesting educational activities like eliminating wasp nests with ingenuity and gasoline.

The next day it seemed like Grandma was never going to leave. Bart and I were down on the shore by the Baby In The Hole court, waiting for her to go.

“Well shit is she goin’ or not?”

“Hey shut up, she’s gonna hear you and then she won’t go to town and we’re dead.”

“You telling me to shut up? Ah you’re still just a chicken-shit kid”

“No I’m not.”

“Then prove it. You knock the hive down.” There it was; he had trapped me. We hadn’t decided that little detail until that moment. So Grandma got in her Buick and backed down the road past the boathouse and she was gone.

“OK, lets go.”

We already had the rag; actually it was half of an old blanket and ought to be able to soak up a lot of gas. We got a can of gas out of the boathouse, we already had plenty of matches and we got the broomstick. It was solid wood, not the flimsy things they make nowadays. I swung it a few times like a baseball bat and it made an impressive whoosh as it sliced through the air. Then we walked into the cabin and got a chair with long legs that children have sat in for the last one hundred years.

We went out the front door, down the steps and around the forest side of the cabin and there was the target. There were the enemies in all their vile yellowness.

All of a sudden this didn’t seem so cool anymore. There were more wasps flying around then yesterday, like they knew somehow. I felt a hollow in my guts and couldn’t breathe deeply. Bart looked a little nervous too.

He saw me hesitate and said nicely: “OK, this is gonna be easy. You just get up on the chair, one good swing and hit it right on the stem, I’ll toss the blanket on it and these wasps are goin’ to hell.”

He was sacred too, I could tell. Bart put the rag on the ground and poured about a half gallon of gas on it. He had the sense to set the gas can a long way away, came back and picked up the blanket.

Everything smelled like gas now and that was heartening. OK, its time. I set the chair at about the right distance from the hive, pushing on the chair, I wiggled it around until the legs sunk into the soil a little so that it sat straight.

“Ready Bart?”

“All ready here. On three, OK?”

I cocked the broomstick back like I was going to swing for the bleachers.

“One” I shifted my weight a little; the chair was a bit wobbly still.

“Two” OK I told myself, - you can do it, just swing hard…. -

“Three!” I swung as hard as I could and the front legs of the chair dug into the soft ground. My big swing went off target and connected with the hive below the stem and heading down as the chair fell over. Whack!

The broomstick sliced about three quarters of the way through the hive but didn’t knock it down. A plague of wasps erupted out of their savaged hive and we ran around the back of the cabin towards the lake as fast as we could go. Bart was ahead of me and there was a cloud of wasps around his head. I ran getting stung everywhere; I didn’t think I’d make it and then I was in the water. I dove underwater but the wasps didn’t let go. They kept stinging my face and my neck, my legs, even my feet. I had to rub the devil-spawned fiends to get them off of me. They clung like they were stapled to my face. I swam underwater as far as I could; when I lifted my head there was still a swarm of the little yellow monsters. Back underwater and swim out further. This time the wasps did not follow me. Bart surfaced next to me with a couple of wasps still stuck to his face. He pulled them off and started to laugh. All of a sudden I realized that was the funniest damn thing that ever happened to anybody in the history of stupid kids.

Fifteen minutes later our faces were puffed up so badly that we looked like someone had inflated us with a tire pump. Both of Bart’s eyes closed all the way shut. And it hurt like a son of a bitch. The sting wouldn’t go away. We felt nauseous, but fortunately there was no shock from the venom. We didn’t look normal for a whole week. I don’t remember if we counted the stings or not, but each one of us got stung more than ten times, probably over twenty.

It was one of the best things I’ve ever done and it still makes me laugh forty years later.

Of course we had to tell Bart’s Mom and my Grandma, but we left out the part about the gasoline.

By the way, I hate wasps to this day.

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