Saturday, January 28, 2017

STRUNG AND STUNG – How My Big Brother Subjected Me To, Then Saved Me From, Death by Wasps

I’ve written often here about my idyllic boyhood summers in the precious little village of Franconia on the St. Croix River in east central Minnesota.

Those were days so perfect, so bathed in sun and warm, fragrant summer air, so full of adventure and learning, that sometimes it seems they couldn’t have been real. In more ways than one I was the proverbial golden boy.

There were also—though I’m sure I didn’t appreciate it at the time—dues to pay. At various ages all the girls and boys in Franconia were expected to honor certain rites of passage that signaled new chapters in the story of growing up on the river.

         I would have done just about anything 
         to prove my mettle and join.

For example, we were only allowed to take a boat or canoe out on the river by ourselves after proving, in a surprisingly formal, often well-attended event, that we could swim solo across the river and back. There were other milestones, like cairns along a foggy mountain trail, to let us know we were growing up the way other good kids of previous generations had. First fish caught; first time up on water skis; first time shooting a .22; first time driving Dad’s car down to the landing and back.

One such ritual—the creation, I suspect, not of those older, wiser generations, but simply of a sadistic power-crazed cabal of older boys—was the Initiation. Supposedly, those older boys—including my brother, Dan—had this amazing “secret hideout,” where they often convened as a “club” to plot their mischief. And I was just a little brother yearning to grow up and belong; I would have done just about anything to prove my mettle and join.

So, when it came time for my induction—we told our parents we were hiking down to the landing—Dan and I walked over to the foot of Monument Hill where we met four or five more older boys. I stood there nervously in the soggy, still evening air while the bigger kids blindfolded me with a bandana and tied my hands behind my back. Then it was off up the very rugged, very steep path to the—oo-oo-ooh!— secret hideout.

I must have fallen a dozen times, and with no free hands to catch myself I was getting pretty beat up. Then we came to “The Ledge,” a section of the trail that levels off and skirts the shoulder of the hill. There the slope steepened, the path narrowing to what seemed like little more than the width of one sneaker. I turned my feet toes-out and, leaning into the hill, sidestepped along the crumbly sandstone shelf. Feeling supportive hands on my back proved scant encouragement, as I could hear the burble of Lawrence Creek fifty or sixty feet below.

          Just as I was beginning to appreciate 
          that at least I hadn’t skinned or bruised 
          myself…that’s when the pain started.

YES-S-S!, I hissed to myself as I stepped out at last onto the widening path. I’d passed the worst of it. But just as I let down my guard my left foot landed on a round stone. In an instant, I was off the path, sliding a ways down the slope. Well, at least the ground’s pretty soft here, I thought. Without the use of my hands, I struggled to regain my feet.

Just as I was beginning to appreciate that at least I hadn’t skinned or bruised myself…that’s when the pain started. Deep, burning stabs of it—first one, then a couple more…then a lot of them… everywhere. I shrieked, as much out of fear
as hurt.

At first the other boys laughed at my predicament. But then they too started yelling—something about hornets. And then I heard the cowards all run for their selfish little lives.

Except my brother. God bless him, he pulled me up, quickly stripped off my blindfold and ties, and dragged me, stunned, back down the hill.

I found out later I’d fallen into a nest of what, under different circumstances, I would have appreciated as the perhaps the most beautiful and exotic of southern Minnesota’s wasps, the blue mud dauber (Chalybion californium).


When we got home—those other (former) friends were nowhere to be seen—we peeled my sticky shirt off and assessed the damage: 18 one-inch-wide red welts. Dan had quite a few too. Some still had the wasps’ stingers in them. Mom was able to pull most of them out with a tweezers, and then broke out the time-honored, multi-purpose remedy, baking soda.

If nothing else, the cool, white paste took my mind off of the pain, and within half an hour I was feeling much better.

Next day, figuring I’d more than paid my dues, I decided to go back up Monument Hill and claim that admission to the hallowed “secret hideout” for myself. I looked for signs of the mud daubers, but they, like my erstwhile friends, had gone into hiding.

A few hundred yards further down the path I came to a broad clearing in the trees. There in a circle on the tawny pine-needle carpet were a few mossy chunks of deadfall trees around a pretty amateurish stone fire pit. And an old jerky wrapper. That’s it.

So this was the Magical, Mystical Inner Sanctum? All that angst, all that pain…for this? I wondered if those turkeys ever even had a meeting up there. Maybe for rituals, like the rest of life, it was more about the journey than the destination.

And what about after that? Let’s just say word gets around in a community of ten or twelve families. I never heard mention of the place—nor returned there—again.


jean said...

I loved this story from your youth, Jeff AND it makes me so glad I grew up as a little girl in the days when girls were much less inclined to do things like this to one another. Our methods of gaining admission into a circle was much less physical and not nearly as dangerous! But our stories are not nearly as interesting and exciting as the stories you guys tell. I think things have changed now, but not when I was a kid, a long time ago! :)

Jeffrey Willius said...

Yes, it is fascinating, Jean, how we become accustomed to those gender roles and temperaments. It is a wonder boys -- and, yes, some girls these days -- survive the torture they put each other through!

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