Red wasps and summertime

May 19, 2015

Ah, summer. Most kids like the end of school. For me, it marked the beginning of exceedingly long, hot days and hours upon hours of boredom, except when I managed to do something really stupid.

There was a do-it-yourself carwash at the corner of Texas Highway 94, where we live, and Farm to Market Road 706, about a quarter mile away. The carwash had two stalls, its high walls and roof made of corrugated tin. Each stall had its own high-pressure hose and gun that shot water at a powerful rate as soon as you deposited three quarters and pulled the trigger.

One summer, a large colony of red wasps built a nest right in the middle of the ceiling in one of the bays, amid the arm mechanism that allowed the hose to swing 360 degrees. I noticed this nest, some 15 feet or so off the ground, because red wasps and I had been battling each other for two solid summers. I was stung so many times I lost count.They dived at me from under the eaves of our house, from our porch ceiling, from the corners of windows where they had taken up residence and from almost anywhere in the barn. They were aggressive, with their boiling red bodies and large, menacing black eyes. The hotter the day, the meaner they were, carrying fire in their hypodermic stingers. Each shot I received was worse than the previous one, and no home remedy chilled the poison, not chewing tobacco, or Skoal, or baking soda. Even an application of ice made the sting hotter.

At first, I thought wasps, like the honeybees we kept, died after they stung me, which provided some consolation. At least the little bastards couldn’t sting me again. Then I learned that wasps don’t give up their innards when they land a sting. It’s more like a scorpion sting that gets under your skin. I hated red wasps, maybe more than I hated snakes. The feeling seemed mutual, because wasps sought me out, tracking and attacking me as prey. So, I learned to look up whenever I walked under a roof or through an out building doorway.

On a 95-degree day in the middle of the week in the middle of the summer in practically the middle of nowhere, the carwash typically was not busy. One day I decided to ride my bike through and around the carwash to break the monotony of watching Perry Mason reruns. As I passed through one stall I looked up and saw the biggest wasp nest I’d ever seen. It was as big as a dinner plate and teeming with little red devils.

Despite my repeated run-in with wasps, and the many resulting welts of burning poison, I couldn’t pass by a nest without stirring them up. My mission was to destroy every nest I saw. It was my duty. It was a matter of honor. It was really, really stupid.

The carwash wasps provided a unique attack. I wouldn’t be a hapless target on foot, I had wheels. I decided to grab a handful of rocks from the side of the road and throw them as hard as I could straight up as I rode my bike through the stall. It was scary. It was dangerous. And it was just what an 11-year-old needed to cure mid-week boredom.

I road through without rocks a time or two, planning the attack, deciding exactly when to let loose the barrage of rocks. I planned my escape down the concrete driveway at the back of the carwash that led to the highway, which led to my house. There was an understanding among boys that during an altercation or the threat thereof, if you weren’t going to fight on neutral ground, one boy didn’t pursue another boy into the other boy’s yard. It was a rule.

Finally, I drummed up enough courage to override any potential rational thought I might have had. I rode through the bay and just as I crossed the metal grate in the center, I threw up a handful of rocks as hard as I could. Bambambambambam! They bounced off the tin and rattled around the twirling mechanism. I rode away as fast as I could toward home base. Nothing happened. So I did it again. This time the wasps were on alert. I could see a few of them scouting around for the source of danger. I let loose another handful of rocks — bambambambambam! — and rode like hell out of the carwash. Safe again.

Two attacks had been successful in that some of the rocks seemed to hit the nest. I had delivered my message that I was there for battle, determined to take them down. One more barrage ought to make them mad enough to leave the nest, then I would knock it down by throwing larger rocks at it. Off I went, confident in my conquest.

Once again I scooped up a handful of rocks. I aimed for the center of the bay, rode over the grate and flung my hand up as hard as I could. Bambambambambam! I hauled ass down the driveway, not caring at all to look for cars that might have been speeding along the highway, and peddled for home. The wasps were, apparently, aware of the home base rule and were determined to catch me in open territory. They caught me.

I say “they,” because one wasp represented the whole nest. They were all in on it together. One wasp found me, caught up with me and zeroed in on the middle of my back, right between my shoulder blades. I felt the familiar fire, as if I’d been shot, and let out a yell. I saw in my mind’s eye the lean, red, angry insect land on my shirt, position itself carefully and ram its stinger deep into my skin as hard as it could. I saw the poison pour into my body, dripping off the wasp as it removed itself, satisfied, and flew back to the nest.

Right in the middle of my back. Where I couldn’t reach it. I got home and looked in a mirror. There was a red welt at least two inches … at least eight inches in diameter! I don’t remember much after that. My grandmother probably applied baking soda because she didn’t chew tobacco. But I remember the rocks — pebbles, really, but we didn’t use that word because it sounded feminine — the dirt that came with the rocks and sifted through my fingers, the hot glaring sun of summer in Texas, riding away as fast as I could and the sting I suffered.

I didn’t go back to the carwash wasps. I figured I’d made my point, and they’d made theirs, and that was good enough. I never threw another rock at a wasp nest, either. Soon after this episode some genius at Dow Chemical or somewhere invented a can that shot a stream of wasp killer thirty feet. I haven’t been stung again. Eventually, a few years ago, I overcame the painful memory of that sting. I’ve taken out a few nests, one by using a spray adhesive, which was pretty cool. But by and large the red wasps of the world and I have reached an armistice. But I still look up at eaves, and under roofs. Those tricky little assassins could renege without warning.


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