Tag Archives: outdoors

War of the Wasps

4 May

The hedges in the back yard are out of control and we can’t see through any of the windows. All is a blur of variegated green and white. My wife blames me, but the real culprits are those devious wasps. I knew they were there ever since I saw a few dead ones floating in the pool. Their thick papery nests were stuck to the soffeting and I repeatedly shot them down with the hose. I thought they had left.

I heard nary a buzz until the day I bought an electric hedge trimmer at a garage sale. I was determined to finally clip those overgrown hedges. After running the extension cord through a window, I started cutting the hedge nearest the dinning room. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds, the air gradually thicken with wasps, until suddenly I was in a cyclone comprised entirely of wasps. Only then I noticed that my electric hedge trimmer was three inches away from an enormous wasp’s nest right in the middle of the hedge. That’s were they had gone. They did not seem to appreciated the violent shaking the trimmer created. Before I could apologize or retreat, I felt five simultaneous stings on my arms and back. I jerked up on the trimmer, cutting clean through the extension cord.

In panic I abandoned my equipment and made for the house. I could see the wasps buzzing around the decapitated extension cord in a frenzied dance of victory — the little bastards. Of course this meant war. I dressed my wounds and took a handful of Benadryl as I started swelling up like a bratwurst on a hot grill.

I sat in the dinning room studying my enemy through the window. My helpful and comedic wife, amused by my humiliation, suggested that I dress up like a giant wasp to fool them– a tactic once employed in a famous Donald Duck cartoon about honey bees. Although I rejected that plan and its accompanying sarcasm, it did suggest another strategy– I would make a bee-keeper’s suit and teach those wasps a much needed lesson.

I went out to the garage and concocted a spray bottle of the most deadly insecticide ever devised. The environment be dammed, this was war. Then I took my heaviest winter coat and fortified it with two sweatshirts. I pulled on two pairs of sweat pants over my bluejeans. And then I took my son’s pith helmet and put a double layer of sheer cloth over it, tucking the ends into the coat. Old thick leather gloves completed the insane ensemble.

Barely able to see and dribbling virulent poison all other the house, I made my way out the sliding glass doors, towards the hedge. The pathetic wasps were overwhelmed and soon saw that they were out of their league. In keeping with my scorched earth policy, I stumbled to the hedge with the wasp’s nest and pumped enough poison into it for it to be toxic for the next thousand years. My revenge, however, was short lived.

I had made just one fatal miscalculation. I forgot it was July. With the ambient air temperature like a sauna, the internal temperature of the improvised bee-keeper suit was about the same as the fiery furnace into which Shadarach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown. My profuse sweating interfered with my vision to such an extent that I tripped and spilt the venomous insecticide all over my ersatz bee-keeper suit, which now resembled a portable gas chamber.

I started choking and things were going dim as I struggled to get to the house. Had I really poisoned myself or was it the Benadryl kicking in? With my last reserve of strength, I peeled off the malignant clothing and crawled into the shower. Through the window, I could see the surviving wasps rejoicing — They were sure they had gotten me this time.

As I lapsed into semi-consciousness, I wondered if the EPA Superfund would pay for cleaning up my house and if a shish-ke-bob skewer would work as a stinger for a wasp costume.


Backyard Diehard: Another Steeltown Story

1 Feb

We were a typical blue collar family in Steeltown. We lived in a very modest three-bedroom brown-shingled house on the corner of Fourth and Ewing, just down from the Russian Orthodox Church with the gold onion-shaped spire.

My father worked as an electrician at the steel mill, but somehow that was never quite enough for him.  It would have surprised his coworkers and the other volunteer firemen to know that he had played the violin in a band, had a failed career as a watchmaker, played chess, invented various electrical devices, and love to read Scrooge McDuck comic books.  Some people might have thought my father was pretentious in some of his aspirations. For example, he had the notion that our backyard could be transformed into a Garden of Eden of sorts. Despite the pollution and terrible soil quality in Steeltown, he optimistically planted an apple tree, cherry tree, apricot tree, and strawberries. Then sat back waiting to enjoy the bounty.

After producing a single apricot, the apricot tree just gave up the ghost for no discernable reason. It just seemed to have lost the will to survive in our yard. The apple tree, however, grew but always seemed degenerate.  The apples were small, green, extremely hard, and usually contained some type of  horrifying insect. When the apples would fall from the tree,  they always seemed to be covered with flies, almost immediately. The apple tree trunk was stippled with holes that boring insects had created and the whole thing wasjust unwholesome. My mother once made an inedible  apple pie using the demonic fruit from the tree.

The cherry tree faired a little better, but yielded extremely sour cherries.  Whenever he had been drinking, which was quite often, my father would prune the cherry tree. It soon looked like a bonsai tree. In the hot summer our backyard would be full of intoxicated birds that had been eating the fermented sour cherries. Taking my lead from the birds, I once tried to make cherry wine, using sugar, gallon jugs, neutral grain alcohol, and a sour cherry mash. Supposedly the wine was ready when the corks popped out of the jugs. One jug exploded and our basement was covered in a sweet sticky fluid.  It had a very strong alcohol smell.  We were all afraid to drink the wine that survived. My friend Bert Armour, a Steeltown connoisseur of aldut beverages, volunteered to test it for us. His main qualification for  this task was that when the  polka band had played   “Roll out the Barrel” in the high school talent show, Bert was the one selected to roll an empty keg  of beer across the stage. I handed him the wine,   he took a big swig,  and then seemed struck speechless. 

The viscosity of this wine was about the same as the popular oil additive STP,  so for about 10 minutes,  Bert was physically unable to open his mouth. When the wine dissolved enough that he could speak, he said it had a good taste and was rather smooth. He declined to drink any more, fearing it might permanently glue his lips together.

My father  seemed jealous that my mother could grow terrific tomatoes with hardly any effort at all. Once she randomly  threw out some pumpkin seeds   and  the next fall, to his dismay, we had a yard full of large attractive pumpkins.

Like most yards in Steeltown, ours had a large porch swing for the adults and a swing-set for children. Only in our case my father had built the swing-set himself out of heavy-duty pipes. It was a bit dangerous because of the many sharp and protruding bolts. He hand made wooden seats and built a rather creative pipe teeter totter.  He painted the swing set battleship gray and we kids  played on it for years.

The backyard  also held a large brick barbecue pit that my father had built. He salvaged some firebrick from a demolished coke oven, and used them to line the pit. So basically our barbecue pit could withstand temperatures of over 2000 degrees.  The only problem was that he built it next to the ash pit, where we dumped our garbage and burned trash. Thinking it unsanitary, my mother flatly refused to have anything to do with it.

Occasionally when no one was burning trash, my father would grill ribs. We would get the ribs form the butcher’s shop just down the alley.   This entire establishment was contained in a meat cooler.  There was sawdust on the floor and year round the old man, who ran it, wore a flat green hat and a thick green sweater with a mosaic of  blood stains on it. Once when I was sent  to buy ribs,  he held two slabs together and told me that ribs came from eagle wings. I was very young and naive enough that it sounded reasonable to me. Intrigued with this new information I told my brother Norman, who called me an idiot.

My father really loved his small slice of Steeltown.

The Great Canoe Death Race

15 Apr

I had worked with Allen for about three years when he invited my wife, Diane, and me on a canoe trip. Allen had just become engaged to an icy divorce and fellow canoe enthusiast named Thorne. He thought a canoe trip down Ichnetucknee Spings was a good way for us all to get acquainted. Like most of our encounters with other couples, Diane and I were immediately overwhelmed. Somehow we always end up in a game of bridge with Charles and Omar, Monopoly with Donald and Marla , or name that tune with Steve and Edie. No matter what we try, it mutates into a fierce competition in which we get totally demolished. In retrospect going on a canoe trip with two self-proclaimed experts was obviously self-destructive, but our desperation to make friends overpowered our reason.
While we admire the notion of canoeing, in truth the last canoe we paddled was a bright orange inflatable pool toy five years ago. We planned to leave the landing at 8:00 A.M., have lunch along the way, and finish up in early afternoon. We were immediately struck by the pristine beauty of the run, but by the time we could turn around, Allen and Thorne effortlessly slide into the first canoe and shot off like a cannon across the water. Like sheep to the slaughter we followed, Diane in the bow and me in the stern. But before we could get our paddles in the water, Allen and Thorne out of sight. We paddled furiously to catch up. Lacking any coordination in our effort and not knowing a ”J” stroke from a heat stroke, I over-paddled on the right while Diane paddled ineffectually on the left, beginning the first of many unintentional humiliating circles
Being someone who values competence, Diane was completely frustrated by our lack of control. And since it seemed to her that the problem was emanating from the stern, she communicated as much. In return I politely suggested that perhaps she needed to speed up her paddling using maybe a pry or draw stroke. She courteously replied that it was a miracle that we moving at all with my paddle at that angle and my thumb in that position. Instinctively she knew that the sternman was responsible for steering the damn canoe and she was not about to let me forget it.
Before our deliberations escalated we caught up with, Allen and Thorne, who were waiting for us where the run widened slightly. They were doing the canoer’s equivalent of pacing back and forth. They just glared at us as if we were dim-witted children spoiling their fun. “Come on you slowpokes”, Thorne forced herself to say in a mockingly cheerful fashion, never knowing how close she came to getting a prefrontal lobotomy performed by the blade of Diane’s paddle.
Unbelievably they rocketed off again, leaving us in their wake. As we did our feeble best to keep pace, it didn’t take long to decide that we hated Thorne and that we hated Allen too. We also hated canoeing and weren’t feel very good about each other either.
We didn’t see Allen and Thorne for several hours by which time we had learned to almost coordinate our paddling. They had finished their lunch on the run and took off again as we approached them. Their shiny canoe irritatingly knifed through the water like a silent torpedo. It was a cruel playground game of keep away and we were the monkeys in the middle. The innocent canoe trip had insidiously degenerated into a life and death struggle for supremacy. The “Long March”, “The Trail of Tears”, and “The Battan Death March”, now was joined by the “Great Canoe Death Race”, another venue in which Diane and I would get clobbered.
In hot pursuit, we came to a shallow section of the run where our canoe kept bottoming out. Desperate to catch up, Diane suggested that since it was my bottom which was causing the problem, I should pull the canoe through the channel. As I surveyed the swampy shoreline, images of toothy snakes filled my mind. But there was little choice since we weren’t moving at all and we could hear tubers behind us threatening to pass. I very cautiously threw one leg over the gunwale, slipped, and violently plunged into the icy water.
After my heart resumed beating, I rationalized that getting dunked wasn’t so terrible on such a hot day. But suddenly I heard screaming from the tubers behind us, something about a snake in the water. Just then Diane pointed to an object swimming rapidly towards me. I just knew it was an enormous water moccasin about to attack. The snake appeared to be holding its head above the water and seemed to have long white whiskers. It was actually an extremely large river otter. Mr. Otter ignored me and swam right by, a few feet away which was fine with me considering his numerous needle like teeth.
The experience along with glacial water evoked a sudden rush of emotions. Swimming freely in the cool pristine spring water near the beautiful wild otter induced a mystical sense of communion with nature. But it was also like finding a large rat in your bathtub. This rat feeling prevailed and I scrambled out of the water as fast as I could. Diane beached the canoe and we abandoned the chase to watch the otter swim upstream.
After the otter encounter we finished the run less embittered and found Allen and Thorne waiting for us with a smug look. Relieved that the ordeal was over, we didn’t speak to each other or Allen and Thorne on the way back to our car, which was just as well, since we probably would have said things we would later regret.
Later that night Diane and I received a lovely parting memento when we broke out in large red splotches. We learned the hard way, why you should be cautious about swimming in any body of water whose name starts with the letters “I-C-H”.

Happy Holiday Season from the Snow Train

3 Dec

This is a view from the famous Snow Train in Ontario, Canada on Millienum New Year’s Eve 1999.