by James Bates
It was Field Day, the last day of school for the Long Lake fifth graders. I was looking forward to tomorrow: no kids, no schedules, no rules to enforce. No nothing. I was also looking forward to a summer of alone time - my idea of heaven.
I was standing on the sidelines, monitoring a soccer game between my class and the other fifth grade class, Mrs. Elbert's, and talking to Edith Silverstein, the oldest teacher at the school. She was a sixty-five year old, outspoken, dynamo of a woman who had taught first grade for nearly forty years. Lots of people thought she should retire because of her age. Not me. She was a witty lady with a great sense of humor who had a firm but gentle and kind way with children. I liked her a lot.
"What are you planning on doing with your summer, Randy?" she asked, both of us idly watching all ten kids on the field run after the soccer ball.
"Oh, nothing much. Just hang around. You know."
She bristled in response like I'd just poked her with a sharp stick, "No, I don't know, young man," she spat out, "You should do something meaningful with your summer other than just 'Hang around.'" She used finger quotes to make her point. Then she shook her head in semi-serious disappointment, letting me cogitate on her words, making me feel like a properly chastised pupil in her class. She had a way about her, I'll tell you.
After the moment passed, she smiled and changed the subject, "Me, I'm going on a month long cruise to Alaska with my friends, Maggie and Becky. I can't wait." She gave me a look like, 'See. Us old people can have fun. Get with the program and do something interesting with your life.' A sentiment that made perfect sense, especially after what was about to happen.
I'm forty-five, a bit of a loner and have been single my entire adult life. I live with my big tabby cat, Toby, in a tiny apartment a mile from the school; close enough to walk or ride my bicycle. Long Lake is small town located on the edge of undeveloped farm fields and woodlands twenty miles west of Minneapolis. I've taught fifth grade Life Science in the local grade school for the last twenty-one years. Although I'm withdrawn by nature, I love teaching, it's just that it takes a lot out of me. I treasured my time to myself, but understood what Edith was getting at and valued her opinion. When I really thought about it, at my age, maybe I really did need to do something more interesting with my free time than pursuing the only hobby I had, collecting vintage dinky toys off eBay.
Anyway, her analysis of my life notwithstanding, we'd been having a nice, friendly conversation, when, from the far end of the soccer pitch we heard screams from the kids. "What the hell?" I turned to Edith.
She yelled, "Go," and I did. I took off running wondering what had happened.
I soon found out. Both fifth grade classes were standing where the soccer field met the woods. The kids were yelling as I ran up, some even crying.
Johnny Leibert, one of my prized students met me, "Mr. Mack, Mr. Mack. Shelly's getting attacked by bees. I think they're going to kill her."
The Shelly he was referring to was Shelly Goldenstein, a ten year old tiny waif of a girl, prone to hives and every other kind of skin problem you could name. She was also the unluckiest kid I ever knew. Last year she kindly brought her teacher a handpicked bouquet of wild flowers that included a sprig of poison ivy. She was covered in calamine lotion for nearly a month. If anyone was going to be attacked by bees or wasps or any other kind of stinging, biting insect, it was bound to be her.
I ran to the edge of the woods as Shelly frantically waved the attacking swarm away from her face. I could see in an instant that they weren't your common, ordinary, garden variety honey bees. No. These were wasps, more specifically yellowjackets, one of nature's most vicious, predatory insects. They could sting you multiple times and really do some serious damage. I'd read once that their stingers felt like hot needles pushed deep into your skin. My heart went out the little girl and I didn't stop to think.
"Shelly, Shelly," I called, "Don't worry, I'm coming." I ran in to rescue her.
She turned, tears in her eyes, those angry yellowjackets swarming all around her, crawling on her arms and legs and face, stinging at will. "Help me, Mr. Mack, please, help..." she called except it wasn't as much a call as it was more of a whimper. She was really frightened. Terrified. Poor little kid.
I picked her and swung her in a circle a few times to try to shake some of the wasps off. As I did, I could see what had happened. The soccer ball lay next to a log rotting on the forest floor. The kids must have kicked the ball into the woods and Shelly had run in after it. The ball had hit the log and disturbed their hive. By the time she got there, she was met with the wrath of what seemed like hundreds upon hundreds of raging yellowjackets.
I held her close to protect her and brushed away as many of the wasps as I could. Then I ran to the edge of the woods, where I yelled at the rest of the kids, "Get the hell out of here. The wasps are coming." They ran and I did, too, a full out sprint of a hundred yards back to the school, all of us out running the yellowjackets easily. In about a minute we were all safe.
Fast forward to two hours later. It turned out that Shelly was going to be okay, just a little swollen around the ten spots where'd she been stung. Me? I ended in the hospital - the Hennepin County Medical Center. Unbeknownst to me, I had developed an allergy to wasp and bee stings over the course of my adult years. I'd had no idea. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise even though I was told by the doctors and the nurses many times over that I'd almost died. I'd been stung twenty-seven times. Those yellowjacket stings threw me into anaphylactic shock, my throat constricted and my blood pressure dropped off the chart. It was adrenalin that got me from the woods to the school where I collapsed in the bushes by the front door. In short, I was lucky to be alive.
Recovering in the hospital for three days gave me a chance to think about what Edith had said to me on the soccer field; you know, about doing something meaningful with my life other than just hanging around my apartment. After all, I had come close to dying from those yellowjacket stings. I came to the conclusion I really did need to get my act together; I needed to expand my horizons.
To that end, just before I was released I accepted an offer Edith made to join her and her friends on their Alaskan adventure. It might sound weird, me, a guy in his forties going on a cruise ship with three elderly ladies, who, by the way, call themselves, "The Girls," but I don't care. I'm looking forward to it.
When I accepted the invitation Edith said, "You're an okay guy, Randy, and it'll be nice to have you along, just don't go cramping our style."
"Funny," I told her, playing along with her, "I'll try not to."
She gave me a mischievous grin, and didn't say anything more. We're leaving the first week in July, and I think it'll be fun. I have a feeling I've got a lot to learn. By the way, Shelly's going to take care of Toby.
You know, when you almost die, like I did, it gets you thinking. I won't bore you with all the details, but I will tell you this: If it wasn't for those swarming yellowjackets, I might have ended up spending the summer hunkered down in my tiny apartment with my cat, searching the internet for old dinky toys. When I think of it that way, I shudder. I was on path where I could have easily spent the rest of my life doing just that, becoming more and more of a recluse. What a waste. I've got a lot to learn about life. It's a big world out there and I'm looking forward to seeing it. Alaska, here I come; me and my EpiPen.