Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Windmills and Gasoline

When we were kids, we made up our own entertainment. TV had a total of three channels, if the weather was right, and video games did not really exist. This is circa 1979, outside a small town not really close to what you would consider a populated area today, much less a city, deep in the heart of Texas.

So we made do with what we had available. And in the summer, wildlife was ‘available,’ so to speak. Wasps and fire ants were particular nuisances.

This story is about fighting wasps, bees, and assorted stinging flying insects. Bear with me; the buildup and background are important to the story.

Now I did not start out with a particular wish to do battle with miniature helicopters packing loads of Bad Attitude: that was where my cousin came in (who should remain nameless, because he knows who he is. Yeah, you, Jerry!… oops)

I stayed at Jerry’s house a lot that summer before fifth grade. We had just moved to the area, and our house was not ready yet, so my brother and I just lived with Jerry and his family, folks who were my ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle’ since our parents met in college. During that summer, we did what all boys do when it is 100 degrees in the shade and there is no ready form of entertainment: ran wild in the woods with BB guns; explored land our families did not own; discovered new ways to mistreat fireworks; caught snakes, turtles, and assorted bugs (locusts were a favorite); tortured our little brothers (did I mention we spent a good bit of time unsupervised?) We did have a teenage babysitter, but she was more interested in a) her soap operas, b) the air conditioning window unit in the living room, and c) running the children out of the house to preserve the sanctity of items a) and b). We spent time building tree houses out of scrap wood. But I drew the line at one of Jerry’s favorite sports: fighting bees, wasps, etc… with a tennis racket. To be more precise, with his father’s tennis racket. Which we were not supposed to touch. Right.

I was not scared or anything; it just lost some luster when I watched Jerry hit the little beggars and they GOT BACK UP in a really bad mood… and we both would get to see if we could outrun a mad wasp/bee/whatever. Although I had to admit using a water hose with a pressure nozzle made some sense, you had to find a nest within range of the water faucet, which limited opportunities somewhat. But we had plenty to do, and then school started.

During the first few weeks of school, we still rode the bus home to Jerry’s house, which required us to walk a half mile or so down a dirt road. Jerry and I quickly learned that our little brothers would not follow us through the woods beside the road, and so each day was a race between two routes to control the afternoon TV session. On one of these jaunts we discovered the Windmill. There was an old abandoned homestead out there (okay, we were lost at the time: that happened quite often the first few weeks) without a house (tornado must have taken it) but there was an old barn (locked) and this old Windmill. The Windmill was rusted, and made a lonely groaning noise when the wind blew, a noise we had interpreted on several occasions as some sort of monster or ghost (we generally won the race to the house when it was windy). But we never had much time to explore the site because we knew that Jerry’s mom would be home soon.

So one Saturday we went there on purpose to look the situation over. And we decided to climb the Windmill. Why? We were ten year old boys: because it was there, of course. No safety belts, no net, just tennis shoes and bare hands. And I went first. After losing ‘paper/rock/scissors’ (I still think Jerry cheated: I had never heard of ‘dynamite’ until then, and Jerry’s fondness for sharp tools made ‘rock’ my usual choice… but he would not LIE to me or anything).

Anyway, up I went, with Jerry right below me (after several judicious applications of the term ‘chicken’ from six feet in the air when he balked). See, there was this platform, maybe four feet square, under the actual apparatus where we thought we could sit. I actually made it 30 feet up or so, to the underside of the platform when I felt a bug sitting on my left knuckles, followed by an explosion of pain. My first thought was “Spider!” and I let go with that hand and grabbed with the other. It was not a spider, but a paper wasp nest, what we called ‘yellow jackets’ for their brightly banded abdomens. Of course, my other hand got stung as well. And I let go with both hands, until I realized that it was a LONG way down. So I grabbed with my left hand again, wasp sting or no, and promptly got stung again. And traded hands again. And got stung again.

By then I had convinced Jerry that I was coming down and he could move or fall, his choice. We ran back to the house, where dad put chewing tobacco on the stings to draw the poison out (no, we had never heard of any medicine for such a thing…) and I went around for several days not being able to bend my fingers due to the swelling.

All of that story to get to this: I now had a fine hatred of flying insects in general and stinging ones in particular. So the next weekend, after the swelling was gone, Jerry and I went to do battle with a bumble bee nest armed with water guns and badminton rackets (Jerry had gotten caught with the tennis racket, much to his bottom’s chagrin). Now, I had NO experience with bumble bees and so trusted Jerry’s opinion that we were a match for such large, slow flying insects (do you see a pattern here?). Bumble bees do not generally attack by themselves. And for future reference, they are too large for the average water gun, circa 1979, to stop. If you are quick with your reactions you can knock them from the air with the rackets, but they get back up. They also hold a grudge far longer than a paper wasp, and are known to chase their victims for hundreds of yards… and they did. We did not get stung, but one bee in particular was upset enough to follow us to the house and chase us around the house several times. Then we had the bright idea to split up. Now the bee was chasing Jerry and I was gasping for breath. Jerry could not leave well enough alone, though, and ran back by me, thus giving himself a chance to catch his breath while I ran. We traded back and forth several times before I used my break to run in the house and lock the screen door… Jerry did not get stung, so I assume the bee lost interest. I was enjoying a cold coke and the air conditioning.

Why didn’t we hit the single bee with our rackets? Well, uhmmm, we dropped those when we started to lose the fight. Okay, it was an error in judgement, but you show me the ten year old with the presence of mind to run from a dozen bumble bees and plan ahead at the same time…

That little story persuaded Jerry’s dad (after he stopped laughing) to ask why we had not used a cup of gasoline to attack the nest. I can honestly say that this concept had never crossed my mind (but I’m not so sure about Jerry: he probably remembered the whipping he got from an incident several years before involving gasoline, matches, and the brash gumption of an eight year old to lie to his father’s face when asked if he was playing with gas… while he reeked of the stuff…). Jerry’s dad then took us back to the nest with a jar full of gasoline and… no more nest. No running. No water guns. And best of all, we got the badminton rackets back. (The bees had claimed them as spoils of war) Gasoline freezes the exoskeleton of any insect, then rapidly kills the victim without affording a chance at a last revenge stinging. Most wasp sprays at the time still involved running from partially hit insects who would eventually die, but had a dying wish to leave you a memento of their parting from this earthly existence.

From then on, we used lawnmower gas when fighting insects. And a Crusade was launched. You see, killing wasps was a Good Thing in adult eyes, so we had semi-official sanction as long as we asked first (when an adult was home: if we were alone, it was time to do battle). I’m sure Jerry’s dad wondered why he was buying gasoline so often after that…


Lessons for would be Gas Fighters:

1) Despite what you might think, motor oil does not produce the desired knock down effect, although it is ultimately lethal to the insects, the grass, the flower beds… but most importantly, leaves too much evidence behind in the form of large brown stains under the home-owner’s eaves. All in all, best to wait for a clear volatile to become available.

2) Gasoline WILL eat through your aunt’s brand new plastic tumblers, and sneaking real glass tumblers out of the house is not a good idea. Telling your aunt that you have been filling her good glass tumblers with gasoline in an even worse idea. Stick to the mason jars in your uncle’s shop, but remember to put the nuts and bolts back in the jar when done to ‘cover the evidence.’

3) Do not stand under a nest you are killing. Not only will you smell of gasoline, but you might get stung by falling but not-yet-dead wasps. The stinger is active until the wasp dies! A forty-five degree angle is best.

4) Do not shoot a wasp nest with a BB gun before using gasoline: you want the wasps ON the nest, not in the air looking for you.

5) Gasoline will eat through a used plastic milk jug, so attempting to ’stockpile’ a supply other than in the metal gas can will not work. Also note that storing gasoline in a glass bottle with a rag stopper is viewed in many parts of the world as possesion of a molotov cocktail and could result in jail time.

6) No fire when fighting wasps! We never did this stunt, given that most wasps were under the eaves of Jerry’s house, and setting the house on fire would have been frowned upon, as even a 10 year old of that time understood.

7) Kerosene works, but is too oily and acts like motor oil (and neither stain will wash off with a water hose)

8) Your father’s bee hives ARE NOT a target! I had to physically restrain Jerry once at my house (much later) when he classed the expensive domestic bee hives as a ‘target rich environment.’ I considered even a wild bee hive (which were rare) to be TOO target rich: you would never get enough gas on the target to nullify the revenge seekers… who we willing to die to get at you (wasps could sting again and again, but bees got one chance  and were willing to die to teach you a lesson...(see Dad? I listened when you lectured while working bees… from sitting in the sealed pickup truck cab)

All around, we did our share to make the world safe from that which buzzed…

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