Kids that are nine years old have a world of imagination at their disposal. They can create a vast metropolis out of a few Lego blocks, they can make a desert out of the sandbox and they can turn a humble garden shed into anything from a fort to a secret spy-hideout.
Dad had built a small shed in the back yard a few years previously, mainly to store lawn maintenance supplies. The shed measured approx. 8’x8′ with a tar-papered roof that sloped from the front to the back. It was built from 2”x6”s, covered in plywood and then finished with faux log siding – I think he used rough cedar fencing pickets that were half-round.
I don’t have a picture of the shed, unfortunately, but it looked something like this:
… with, of course, a different style of roof, and different siding, and only a single door, and no glass in the window which was actually in the front, and …
Ya’ know what? It doesn’t look anything like the shed in this story. Sorry.
The thing is, Dad built without plans, without blueprints or assembly manuals. He eyeballed whatever materials he had, looked at the proposed building site and pulled out the hammer and saw. He was guided by instinct and by years of building experience. He had, after all, built a major portion of our house, no mean feat for a guy whose bread-and-butter work was plumbing and heating.
As best as I can describe it, it looked like a little Old West fort, if a fort had a tar-paper roof.
The Shed as Playhouse
Anyway, soon after construction it was subject to minute scrutiny by us kids. Of course, being the resident 9-year-old I got first dibs on checking it out and claimed it in the name of my neighborhood gang. As it turned out, it was most used by myself and my best friend Michael. At first, we would just steal inside and peer out over the windowless windowsill, imagining ourselves as Frontier Scouts looking for hostile natives.
Later the shed became our fort, our spaceship, our underwater habitat, our water-pistol target and even the equipment storage shed for our baseball stadium. But the best use of the shed was as a platform for our skydiving practice.
Yes, we were bold enough (or stupid enough, more likely) to climb up onto the roof by first scaling the chain-link fence directly behind the shed, then half-turning / half-jumping the small 3-foot gap between them and, hopefully, clambering up onto the tar-paper. Now, in the summer that tar-paper was HOT – it would melt into the nooks and crannies of our PF Flyers and stain our hands black if we were negligent enough to place them into contact with the bubbling roof.
But when everything went well and we weren’t doing our best imitations of Mexican jumping beans we would steel ourselves, take a few deep breaths and jump off the front edge of the roof onto the lush green grass of the backyard.
The roof at that point seemed to be miles high, especially when we were up on it looking down, but in reality, it was probably only 8′ high – not so high as to be a death-defying challenge but high enough for a kid to get a cheap rush.
And we were all about cheap rushes.
Amazingly none of us ever broke our backs while practicing our Ranger-esque free-falls. I suppose it’s true that, as Alexander Pope said, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Certainly there were not many angels hanging around the shed in 1967. Oh, we got the usual ration of brush-burns and scratches and bruises and various other ouchies, and Michael once landed on a hidden rock and mushed-up his palm, but we managed to get through the ordeal in more or less one piece.
Except on the day of the Great Hornet’s Nest Imbroglio.
The Great Hornet’s Nest Imbroglio
Yes, it was a Saturday, in August, one of those days that starts off at sunrise being hazy, hot and humid, the kind of day when dogs make a beeline for their shelters under the porch and cats find a nice shady spot to lay down. Only humans – specifically, 9-year-old male humans – see the day as being full of promise. Every other life-form has the common sense to try to stay cool.
Michael came over early, around 8am, and we immediately made for the shed. We had had our war-game of the previous day interrupted by the sun setting and were eager to resume our battle. Our weapons of choice were water-pistols – not the weapons of mass destruction that pass as water guns these days, with their 55-gallon drum reservoirs and battery-assisted turbine pumps able to give an Indian elephant a luxurious bath in one squeeze of the trigger.
No, we had cheap colored plastic water pistols from the neighborhood “everything” store, the place that sold candy, soda, milk and magazines. I think we paid $0.50 for the pistols and during an average summer we would go through a dozen or so because the triggers would break or the little hose inside the gun would fall off. Sometimes we’d just fall on them and they’d split open, spilling out their pathetic little thimble-full of water.
But to us, at that time, they were .50-caliber machine guns that would instantly end the life of anyone unlucky enough to be hit by their blazing stream of ammunition. We started the usual way, in two separate “camps”: Michael in the Blue Camp (the bottom of the concrete stair in front of the house) and I in the Red Camp (inside the shed). Today’s scenario was simple: Michael had to take the shed and I had to defend it. The first person to be hit by the stream of water would suffer defeat unless of course it was just a flesh-wound, in which case honor demanded that you move just a little slower to simulate being wounded. Such flesh-wounds could be inflicted by getting splashed by a ricochet or merely getting “winged” by the stream. Our sometimes-complex rules demanded a full-on, no-doubt-about-it soaking, usually in the torso, to qualify as being DOA.
The Preliminary Battles
The day was turning out to be a record-setting one for heat – it would later go to 103 degrees – but at this point, it was still a kid-friendly 90 degrees. We had battle after battle, switching camps after every completed game and taking a break at 10am for some juice and cookies that the UN (Mom) brought out.
Good ol’ Mom. She knew an army traveled on its stomach.
Around 10:30 I was once again defending Fort Phil, and while waiting for the dishonorable sneak-attack that I was sure Michael was going to mount I enjoyed the sounds of the chirping birds and the buzzing bees. In fact, the juice and cookies must have dulled my combat-honed senses, because it took a few moments to realize that the soft, gentle buzzing of the bees was actually the hard, loud, buzzing war-cry of hornets.
I looked out the fort’s window, trying to see where these terrifying creatures were located. My experiences with hornets had so far been distant ones: Dad spraying a nest in the eaves of the house with the garden hose, a few small nests found in the garbage shed near the driveway, an occasional lone hornet going droning about his daily business that just happened to come too close for comfort. The bees we had in our yard were small things, and for the most part friendly. They knew their boundaries as we knew ours. We knew not to go smashing into the big lilac bush, as we knew not to poke around the southwest corner of the yard where the stack of old sticks and twigs sat dark and deadly.
Death on Two Wings
But hornets! If bees were little Bell helicopters on missions of mercy, hornets were the attack helicopters in Apocalypse Now. Every time they flew up close we could hear The Ride of The Valkyries playing in our heads. Their buzz was much lower in tone, greater in volume and far more threatening than that of the bees. They seemed to move a lot slower in the air as well, to the point where we swore they were hovering a foot in front of our eyes, deciding which eye to take out first.
Bees were simply a nuisance; hornets were to be feared. Stories were told of mass hornet attacks ensuing when some poor kid ran into a nest, and the kid in the story always ended up in critical condition in the hospital and required a heart and brain transplant as well as years of physical therapy.
We gave hornets a wide berth. Which is why it took a few long seconds for my brain to process the sound I was now hearing. It wasn’t that friendly bee-sound we all knew; in fact, it didn’t even sound like your typical attack-chopper hornet. Instead, it was more of a vibration, a low-frequency humming like the one that comes from a high-voltage transformer. I felt it more than heard it.
And it was getting stronger.
I frantically scanned the yard around the front of the shed, hoping against hope to see a low-flying squadron of hornets having a square-dance, but with no luck. Suddenly, an icy hand gripped my heart. I turned away slowly from the window and began to scan the insides of the shed. That’s when I saw it.
It was the biggest hornet nest I had ever seen. It was bigger even than those damned nests that they showed in National Geographic from down in the African deserts. This thing was the size of a fully-inflated basketball and was securely attached to the front corner of the shed, up where the roof supports made contact. It was perhaps 3′ over my head and 3′ to my left, and the hornets were swarming around the nest entrance.
Unfortunately, it was also in the corner where the door was.
The Horror … the horror …
I backed up in horror. The horror. The horror. (Sorry.) The nest appeared to be alive, crawling as it was with those nasty, slimy, deadly bringers-of-death. Their death songs were being sung with gusto as they sharpened their weapons and prepared for war. I backed into the furthest corner of the shed, trying to figure out how I would get out. Could I make a quick dash for the window and dive out? The few times we had tried that we ended up with a belly-full of jagged cedar splinters. Wouldn’t that be preferable to death-by-stinging?
I wondered if I could simply fly out the door, directly beneath the nest, without getting zapped. I decided that this was a suicide mission and continued to search for a means of escape.
Of course, Michael chose that very moment to make his surprise attack.
Not only did Michael attack, but he attacked in a manner that was expressly against the rules of warfare we had long ago established. His attack was blatantly wrong, unethical and immoral and, if I survived, I would surely lodge a formal protest with the Geneva Convention.
He was holding TWO water pistols. One in each hand. And they were both fully loaded.
You know that scene in The Matrix where Neo confronts Agent Smith in the subway station and they do that slow-motion aerial duel with the pistols? That’s how I saw Michael at that moment. I remember the cruel smile upon his tanned face forming little white lines around his lips; I remember his arms outstretched in my direction with the pistols, his index fingers starting to apply pressure to the triggers.
I swear he was suspended in mid-air.
As I recoiled in horror and surprise at his attack a single word escaped my quivering lips:
It even came out like that, in slow-motion and in that cartoonish low timbre. The word hung in the broiling-hot air of my death chamber. Even the hornets paused in their war preparation to listen.
I saw the twin streams of water leaving the pistols simultaneously, I saw the arcs they made – far too high to hit me through the door, but high enough that they would directly impact upon the hornet’s nest through the open cedar pickets over the door, the one place where Dad had neglected to put any plywood sheathing.
I was doomed.
The water smashed into the nest, disengaging one side of it from its roof support. The nest dangled at a crazy angle and slowly swung to and fro while its residents screamed out their thousand indignities.
They began swarming. A hornet swarm is a terrible sight to see, but much more so when you are literally a captive audience. I cringed and curled into a ball as the screaming demons circled my crew-cut, and just to add insult to injury Michael had landed firmly on his two feet directly in the doorway and was firing a second round of water at me, his evil smile lighting up the darkness of Fort Phil. He knew he had achieved victory.
At least, until the first hornet turned to face him.
It was well over 100 degrees at that point, the sun burning down mercilessly on the battlefield. The screams of terror had all but died out by now, replaced by the groans and moans of the injured. One infantry-support unit (Dad) had turned the garden hose on the attackers. The medic (Mom) was trying her best to field-dress our wounds. All around lie the dead and dying enemy, cursing with their last breaths our invasion of their territory and only regretting that they had just one life to give for their nest.
Ah, yes, the nest. That once-proud construction lay soaked and broken on the floor of the shed, a dozen or so dying soldiers still attempting to defend it. Their vile oaths would haunt our dreams for weeks afterward, just as their stings would only subside after the same amount of time. Heidi, my dog, (K-9 Unit) came trotting up to see what all the fuss was about. She gave a tentative lick to one particularly huge red boil on my cheek, decided she didn’t like the taste and went into the shed to get out of the broiling sun.