Archive for May, 2011

A Swarm in May

May 21, 2011

Bruce’s cell phone rang. He usually looks at the display and sends the call to voicemail when we’re at the dinner table. Instead, he flipped the phone open and said, “What’s up?”  It could only be his mama. 

 His parents are seventy-seven and eighty-four. They are both active and fairly healthy for their age, but Bruce’s daddy had a heart attack ten years ago, triple bypass surgery soon after, and most recently, he’s had a pacemaker implant.  We used to worry when the phone rang in the middle of the night. Now, we hold our breath even if it rings during the day.

 He breathed out audibly. “I don’t even know if I have a decent box,” he said.  “OK, I’ll see what I can put together and I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

 “You want to go with me?” He asked.

 “Not really. I’ve got a lot to do,” I said, as I gathered up the dirty dishes.

 “You might want to bring your camera. My daddy’s found a swarm of honey bees. It could be interesting. The last time he was stung by a bee, he swelled up and had trouble breathing, remember?” Bruce said.

 The men in Bruce’s family are farmers and bee keepers.  They don’t do either for a living, but as hobbyists, they’re serious. Over the past few years, mites have invaded honeybee hives and populations have declined. When the last of Bruce’s parent’s bees died out, they didn’t replace them. We breathed a sigh of relief since his allergic reaction scared us.

 My worry set in. Swelling and closed airways don’t frighten my father-in-law away from honey.  I grabbed some Benedryl, and an epi-pen, along with my camera. We headed to the truck.

 Bruce’s parents live on a nine acre farm that sits at the foothill of Ragged Mountain.  Even in later retirement they continue to grow a big garden every summer, keep several head of beef cattle and work part time doing odd jobs for neighbors. Two weeks ago, Bruce’s daddy was cutting twelve foot pine logs and loading them onto a wagon without help.

 We pulled up, and parked. Bruce and his daddy went to work building a bee box from the scraps Bruce had collected and put on the back of the truck.  They sawed a board into fifteen inch lengths, replaced rotten pieces, tacked edges, and in twenty minutes had a hive box ready for the swarm.

 The bees had collected into a buzzing clot on one small low branch in the dogwood tree to the side of the garden. Bruce’s mama and I had scoped out the swarm to make sure it was still there while the box was being assembled. The branch still hung with their weight. Other honey bees flew back and forth like scouts, collecting and disseminating information to the mass.

 The two men came toward the tree with the box, a burlap sack, and a pair of clippers.  Bruce’s mama frowned.  “You don’t have your bonnet,” she said to his father.

 The bonnet is a hat with mesh attached. It covers the face and cinches under the collar at the neck.

 “I’m not using that. I don’t need it,” he said.

 Having been married to the man for sixty years, she didn’t argue, just shrugged.

 I’m brazen. “Are you sure? You know the last time you got stung, you had difficulty breathing.”

 He looked at me and smiled. “They won’t sting me,” he said.

 I lacked his confidence, standing there with an antidote in my pocket.  If he wasn’t going to listen, at least I’d be prepared.

 Three of us stood a good distance back from the tree.  Bruce’s Daddy walked right up to the branch of bees, held it in his hand close to the limb, and clipped it.  He was left holding the swarm at the end of a stick.  The buzzing mass started a mere two inches from his fingers.

 The bees didn’t fly off, they stuck tight, like they were glued onto the dogwood branch and to each other. The ones that were airborne continued coming to the place where the branch had been and others began surrounding my father-in-law, landing on his shirt, pants, shoes, hat and exposed skin. They lit, crawled on him, and flew again. He didn’t flinch.

  He bent down, holding the branch in front of the opening in the box, and lightly tapped the top of the bee box with his clippers.  He held the branch there for a full minute before he gently shook it, causing a layer of bees to drop onto the burlap at the front of the box. He continued to tap the top making a hollow, echoing sound. Every now and then, he’d shake off another layer of bees. They began crawling into the opening.

 “We’ve got to watch for the queen. She’s somewhere in the middle of the swarm,” he said.  “If she doesn’t go in, the rest won’t go either.  If she flies away, there goes the hive.”

 Bruce moved up closer to the box and watched as layer after layer of bees slid from branch to burlap and then crawled into the box opening.  “There she is,” he said pointing. 

 His daddy bent closer to the humming knot on the branch and pointed to the same bee, a little longer than the rest.  They both watched as she marched into the bee box.  Not long afterward, the rest of the bees disappeared after her.  Bruce’s daddy brushed the remaining bees from his shirt, pants and hat, and smiled.

 “Guess I’ll have to move the bed down here tonight so he can keep an eye on them,” my mother-in-law  said with a laugh, “and maybe the kitchen table. He’ll be down on this hill every extra minute.”

 He walked over to us, storing his clippers in a back pocket. Not a drop of sweat  moistened his brow. “Should be a good hive of bees,” he said. “My Daddy always told us, ‘A hive of bees in May is worth a load of hay.’  He was right you know. We’ve found some in June, but they’re more likely to take off on you and go somewhere else.”

 “How did you know those bees weren’t going to sting you?” I asked, fingering the epi-pen in my pocket.

 “Swarming bees don’t sting.  They’re tired, and more interested in staying close to their queen and finding a place to keep her safe than worrying about attacking someone.”

 “So you gave them a place to rest, and a home for their queen. What more could they ask?” I said.

 “Yep,” he said, turning and walking back up the hill to put his tools away.  “and maybe they’ll repay me with some honey later.”

She Purrs Like A…

May 14, 2011

I hear chains rattle against metal and know some heavy piece of equipment is being hoisted.  I cringe and run through the backdoor and out to the driveway.  No matter how many times I preach, it doesn’t seem to sink in.  He never asks for a spotter.  “One day…” I say, my voice trailing off as he dismisses my comment with a wave of his hand. He’s too excited about this new truck to consider safety.

He pulls himself up onto the mechanic’s body of the Ford F-450 truck and hooks the chain. He turns, grinning at me, showing a thumbs up, hops down and pulls himself back into the cab of the backhoe. The motor revs and the bucket lifts.  Several pops and metal wrenching sounds later, the mechanic’s body lifts and the truck is reduced to cab, metal frame and wheels.

 It’s his new love and to tell the truth, I’m a bit intimidated. Even naked she’s sleeker than his old pickup, younger, with dual back wheels, and she purrs with that diesel engine of hers.  Her exterior is shiny without a single blemish, her interior, a supple tan leather, with automatic dimming lights that whisper romance.  

His old love, the Red Pickup, finally died. She was the woman I could never be.  She was tough, hard-bodied, enjoyed four-wheeling adventures through uncharted territories.  She didn’t have brains, but she did have brawn, get up and go, and a heavy-duty drive train. She hated me and I never liked her much either.  Bruce was certain once we got to know one another, we’d be friends, but we ended up ignoring each other, our only commonality being Bruce.  As long as he loved both of us, we tolerated each other from a distance.

Three weeks ago, Red choked and coughed when Bruce started her. She limped out of the driveway, sputtered to a stop on the road just past our house, wheezed one last time, and died. She sits in the lane now, tag-less, without insurance, and awaiting the yearly equipment auction. I’d have felt sorry for her if we didn’t have such a volatile history.

Bruce didn’t grieve long.  He found the new white Ford diesel in an online Government auction in Buford, South Carolina.  He bid, won, and took off the next morning to pick her up.  He didn’t ask me to accompany him. “I know you have a lot of work waiting for you this week,” he said.  “Ben’s home for Spring Break. He can go with me.” 

Twenty hours later, I heard her distinct purr as Bruce  coaxed her into the driveway. He walked straight past me, into the house, exhausted, and fell into bed without even a kiss hello.  “Must have been a long, hard ride,” I mumbled.

He’s been with her ever since.  Tonight Bruce was out in the garage, welding and painting a flatbed body for her, all sleek and smooth with twelve inch treated pine board sides around the edge.  She has a new trailer hitch and he’s ordered one of those vanity plates for her. “FLATBDN” it says.

I went outside just a few minutes ago and wandered over to Old Red. Opening her driver’s side door,  I slipped inside and patted her dash. She wasn’t looking so bad now.  I wondered how much it would cost to get her running again.  The two of us watched as Bruce backed his new love out of the stall and parked her under the huge oak tree. He got out and took a rag from his pocket, wiping a smudge from her fender. He stepped back and smiled.

“They’re calling for high winds tonight Red, and that tree’s leaning,” I said, pulling up the door handle to warn Bruce. Something stopped me.  I let go of the handle, leaned back in the seat and smiled myself. For the first time ever, Red and I agreed.

It’s Not Easy Being Big

May 6, 2011

I heard Ben’s feet stomping onto the porch before he got to the front door. He turned the knob and threw his body against the door so hard it banged into the wall. I imagined the dent he left there. 

 I was washing dishes in the kitchen. “Hey, hey, that’s not how we come in the house,” I called from the kitchen . What’s up with you?”

 “I’m Big, and Dumb, and Clumsy,” my eight year old yelled.

 “Wait a minute,” I said, wiping my hands on the dish towel and walking to the hallway where he stood.  “Who said that?”

 “Nobody,” he replied, head down, his voice quieter now, the toe of his sneaker kicking the baseboard. “I just am.”

 I put my arm around his shoulders, and together we walked to the couch for one of our pep talks.  It became a ritual of ours through his elementary and middle school years.  

 At twelve, Ben was six feet tall, but he had been well above the hundredth percentile on his growth chart since birth. Everyone expected him to act his size.  He didn’t. Teachers, coaches, other children, and parents of other children called him out for not being more mature, smarter, stronger, faster. If anything he was a couple years behind his peer group developmentally.

 Not only was Ben hugely conspicuous in a room, he learned differently from his peers, and he suffered abuse in silence. He did not retaliate. He wasn’t a round peg, fitting neatly into a round, public school hole.  He was a high energy, inquisitive, hands-on learner, with no concept of personal space.  If he liked you, he loomed over you, and presented you with smothering bear hugs.  If he didn’t like you, he tried his best to stay away from you. From Kindergarten on, a kid named Justin, and a handful of other smaller children surrounded and threatened Ben daily. He hated those boys, and he hated school.

Ryan, Ben’s younger brother by six and a half years, found a pre-school book at a yard sale one year and wanted to buy it for his sibling. The cover sported a smiling Big Bird of Sesame Street fame. The title was: It’s Not Easy Being Big.

 “Ben would like this,” Ryan said. “He doesn’t like being big.”  With the taunts and bullying his brother endured, I knew what Ryan meant. No matter how we attempted to bolster our boy’s confidence, his self esteem suffered. He had one friend his own age, another social outcast; and we spent hours each night with homework just to keep Ben on grade level. Baseball, and being his little brother’s hero kept his head above water.

 Sam, Ben’s favorite baseball coach, instilled confidence in the boy’s abilities on the field.  No matter how many times Ben tripped and fell, struck out, or threw wild pitches, Sam put his arm around the boy and said,  “You just gotta grow into that big body of yours. Gotta have big feet to hold up that frame.   You wait, one day, you’re gonna catch up to that pitch and knock the cover off the ball.  Pretty soon,  you’re gonna find that strike zone with a killer curve ball.”  Ben believed him, and tried harder.

 One day, Sam suggested we visit Miller, a small private school with individual attention and a faculty that fostered individual learning styles and tolerance. Sam had just been hired as their new baseball coach.

 We visited, spent the day monitoring classes, ate a meal in the dining hall, and discovered the cost of tuition. We cringed.  Bruce and I would never be able to afford it. Of course Ben loved the idea of playing ball for Sam and his first visit to the school reminded him of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter book series. Ben believed in magic.

 At the end of the day, our boy had an appointment to meet alone with the headmaster.  Bruce and I stood on the lawn and watched him walk slowly, with rounded shoulders up the steps to the front doors. Students were sitting, standing, and lounging on the marble stairs.  Halfway up, Ben tripped and dropped his notebook, scattering papers. I held my breath.

 Not one student laughed. No one called him names. Two boys helped Ben back up onto his feet, and asked if he was alright. Several girls collected his notebook and papers, handing them to him.

 “I don’t care how much it costs,” I said. “If they accept him, he’s coming here.”

 They did, and although the schoolwork was rigorous, and he still struggled to pass classes, he received the extra help he needed to succeed in his studies. By his senior year, he was a more confident young man and had the privilege of pitching a complete game to win Miller its first State Baseball championship.   He also applied to a four year college and was accepted.

 At 6’6” he’s still a big boy.  His size fifteens aren’t quiet as he bounds onto the porch.  He bangs the front door against the wall as he pushes into the house with an armload of laundry.

 “Hey, watch that door,” I call from the kitchen.

 “Come give your best kid a squeeze,” he calls from the hall.

 I walk out wiping my hands on the dish towel.  He drops the laundry onto the floor and looms over me, bestowing one of those killer bear hugs of his. 

 “You ready for the news?” He asks.

 “I’m not sure,” I say, closing my eyes.

 “All A’s this semester. How’s that for a way to end my college career?”

 How’s that indeed.