I’m not afraid of bees because of those stories from our collective youth, the ones where the killer bees* were going to take over the U.S., alongside acid rain, the Russians, and that pesky hole in the ozone layer.
No, it was a trip to the Jefferson County 4-H Fair that did it.
*Not Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and Lance Berkman. Although I was sure those Killer Bs were going to take over baseball, at least.
My father was the commissioner of the Poultry barn at the Jefferson County 4-H Fair in Valley Falls, Kansas.
What this meant, for my father, was that he was required to oversee all the goings-on in said barn: the judging of the chickens, ducks and rabbits (which are not poultry but again, this is a county in rural Kansas; we don’t have that many barns), the clean-up after those chickens, ducks, and rabbits (they make lots of poo), and the set-up for the fair.
At 9 years old, I was the prime age for both 4-H and child labor and, as such, was contracted** to assist my father with the pre-fair set-up.
**Told I would be coming along or risk having my hide “tanned.” ***
So I got into my dad’s 1979 F-150, probably with at least one of my younger brothers alongside me, and we rode to Valley Falls. When we arrived at the fairgrounds, we opened a pair of creaky white doors and peered inside the dark, dusty interior of a barn as long as a basketball court, and half as wide.
It seemed magical to me – the cages hanging from the ceiling, the wooden louvre windows ready to be propped open with 2x4s, the shafts of light from cracks and holes in the roof. In a few days, the place would be bustling with kids like me, from clubs with names like Valley Victors, Jolly Juniors, Cloverpower, Crackerjacks, and Prosperity, anxiously awaiting word on whether their Rhode Island Reds or Mallards or American Fuzzlops would take home a red, a blue, or a purple.
But now, it was empty, aside from me, my father, and a few Poultry Committee members lured by promises of a free donut. (With coffee for their parents.)
Soon enough, I had my orders. First up: help two of the older Poultry kids turn over a dozen green trash barrels that had been stored inside the barn for the past 360 days, and roll them outside where, in a few days, they’d catch discarded wrappers from pork burgers and funnel cakes and the remnants of tiny, half-cup ice creams sold by a local dairy for a quarter on Parade Night.
The truth about me, at age nine, was that I was scared of almost everything. 4-H was no different and, in fact, was probably near the top of my list, when it came to Fears.
Clubs were made up of kids from age 7 to 18, which meant that at monthly club meetings, my tinny voice was spouting answers to roll call next to high school seniors who came complete with mustaches, body odor, and Pyromania T-shirts.
But the empty fairgrounds – this was a place I could handle. I was in charge, sort of, and there weren’t any ugly ol’ high school kids – or even ugly ol’ middle school kids – around to screw it up.
So I marched bravely forward, ready to attack the barrels. I strained at the first one. It was heavier than I thought – heavier, anyway, than the buckets of water I carried in the winter to the cows in our back acre.
By the second barrel, I had learned that if you turned the barrels onto their sides, you could more easily roll them upright. I smiled at one of my fellow Committee members. We were figuring this out.
I took hold of the third barrel and began to twist it toward the ground.
And that’s when it happened. A swarm, or family, or den – or whatever the hell it’s called – of bees had chosen that barrel as its home for the spring and summer.
Those bees were not pleased that I had interrupted their day.
I dropped the barrel’s lip, hoping I could trap the bees inside. But it was too late. They were out, and they were angry.
So I did what any self-respecting nine-year-old would do: I ran like I was on second and Jeff Lolley had just hit one in the left-center gap.
The thing, though, about bees, is that they’re significantly faster than nine-year-old boys. A dozen of them got into my hair; another dozen inside my shirt.
I would imagine that my father’s eyes were wide as I ran past him, trying to get out of that damned barn. Probably, someone was saying something about dropping to the ground. If it had been a cartoon, I would have run to a nearby pond and jumped in it.
But I wasn’t doing any of those things. I was scampering, zig-zagging, flailing – trying to get the bees to stop doing what they were doing, which was stinging the bejesus out of every exposed piece of skin they could find.
When it was over, I’d been stung six times on the head and five on the neck. When I finally stopped crying, about two days later, I wore those numbers like a badge of honor, as if I’d survived a week in the trenches in Rouen.
In the immediate aftermath, the head commissioner of the fair, whose name was Art Johnson – a name I will remember until the day I die – sat me down on a bench the same color as the barrels I’d been trying to upend, and tried to talk me into letting someone put mud on the welts the stings had caused. It would make them feel better, he said.
But I wasn’t interested. Not because I wasn’t interested in feeling better; I mean, holy mother of monkeys it hurt.
No, I wasn’t interested because I’d had enough attention for one day. I’d tried to be brave, to take the lead, to show the older kids and my father that I wasn’t afraid of this big, bad 4-H Fair. My only reward had been eleven bee stings and the memory of all those other kids looking at me as I ran crazily out of the barn.
So no thanks, Art, I said through my snorts and hacks and sobs, I’ll go without the mud.
He smiled and rubbed my back and my dad said I’d be okay and I resolved to stay the hell away from upside-down barrels and cobwebby barns and bravery for awhile.
And that’s why I’m afraid of bees.
For more from Paul…