Neither the TV nor the computer will eve replaced the newspaper for swatting insects, but this was not my first encounter with bees.
In the summer of 1960 my family moved from Maine to a suburban tract south of Boston in the Blue Hills. The neighborhood was located on the site of an abandoned army base.
My Uncle Jack had been processed there for the Korean War. Bulldozers had razed the remaining derelict military installations and the ruins provided shelter for dozens of bee hives. Their scouts swarmed over the newly planted flower bed of our garden and those of our neighbors. My mother considered any creature larger than an ant an animal and throughout June and July our split-level was filled with her screams.
By August the bulldozers had eradicated most of the nests and the bees retreated to a small gully filled with fruit crates. It was right behind our house and proved to be a danger to anyone walking within their range.My older brother, our next neighbor, Chuckie, and I decided to exterminate the threat and left our garage with snow shovels. We wore towels around our heads as protection. My youngest sister accompanied our expedition.Our grandmother had been a nurse in World War I. My sister had aspirations for the same profession. She was in last year’s Halloween costume as a very cute four year-old nurse.
The four of us stood at the edge of the gully. The buzz of the bees resonated in the air like a flock of mini-motorcycles. My brother was 8. Chuckie and I were 7. Frank was the captain. We were privates. His strategy was simple.
He motioned for my sister to retreat to a safe distance and she backed away from us, as we descended into the pit with the shovels raised above our heads. The first crate splintered under our assault. The bees swirled into a tornado of anger before seeking our flesh.
“Run.” My brother shouted in terror, as the bees defended their hive.
We dropped the shovels and ran across the lawn toward safety of our house.
I looked over my shoulder.
My sister was frozen to the spot.
She was an easy target and the bees bit her a dozen times in the space of time that it took for my brother to rescue her from the swarm. Bumps rose from her skin. She was crying in my arms and we took her back into the house.
My mother was furious with us, but more so with the developer and the next morning a bulldozer buried the gully with earth. I didn’t see a bee after that day, although my brother and I swore that the ground vibrated with the buzzing of the buried bees.
The danger of the bees was softened by our parents’ mystical interpretation of the birds and bees. None of their attempted explanations made any sense to us and none was supposed to make any sense. Sex was a forbidden subject in the suburbs. Later that summer I asked my father what it really meant. He had attended a good college in Maine.
“‘All nature seems at work … The bees are stirring–birds are on the wing … and I the while, the sole unbusy thing, not honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing. That’s from Samuel Coleridge. Now do you understand?” The tone of my father’s voice excluded any answer other than one.
“Yes, sir.” I had no idea who Samuel Coleridge was, but I would have bet my allowance that he had never been bit by a bee.
Several years later Chuckie and I found a stash of moldy porno magazines in the woods. The photos of naked men and women were devoid of birds and bees. They looked dirty and dirty like they had never taken a bath.
“That’s his stinger.” Chuckie pointed to a man’s erect penis.
“And the woman is the egg?” I asked under my voice. We were over a mile from my house, but I was scared my mother could hear everything I said anywhere. She had exceptionally hearing and could see around corners.
“I guess so.” Chuckie was stumped by my question and that evening I fell asleep that night to dreams of the birds and bees in strange positions. My Boy Scout Handbook had warned about ‘nocturnal emissions’, so in the morning I knew that the wetness inside my pajamas wasn’t pee. I was one step closer to being a man.
Bees disappeared from my existence until I was much older.
In the spring of 1971 I attended Boston College as a commuter student. My trip to Chestnut Hill began with a trolley ride from Lower Mills along the Neponset River. The final stop was Ashmont, where I caught the T to Park Street.
One morning the trolley entered the station and an inbound train was waiting at the platform. The driver was walking to the head car and I jumped off the trolley with my token in hand. I dropped my fare in the slot and ran to the nearest car.
Something flew into my mouth.
It was a bee and it bit the roof of my roof. I screamed out in pain and my tongue swished at my tormentor. The bee released its barb and I spit it out of my mouth like I was a crazy man in a fit. Having long hair most of the other passengers on the platform feared that I was having a bad acid trip. I pointed to the bee, but black and yellow attacker flew away before anyone saw it. My explanation of the bee bite through a swollen mouth only made the passengers avoid me more.
Lightning supposedly never strikes the same place, yet later that evening I was in Chinatown. Something came up the leg of my jeans. A bee and it stun my calf. I slapped at my jeans and the bee dropped to the sidewalk.
My attacker looked amazingly like the bee from Ashmont and I wasn’t giving it another chance to kill me. I stomped the bee until it was a smear on the concrete.
An hour later I returned home passing the old gully. The moon was up and the grass shone silver under the light reflected by the moon. I laid my ear to the ground. It was silent, but in my mind I was sure that this day’s bee was a descendant of those hives. It had to have family and they had sought their revenge.
I expected nothing less from the birds and bees, because in the words of Samuel Coleridge, “The bees are stirring–birds are on the wing.”
I think I understand now.Maybe my son Fenway will ask understand the mystery, when he gets old enough to hear the tale of the birds and the bees.Like father like son.