Sunday 5 June 2022

June by Jim Bates, iced tea

One Saturday, my friends Jack and Arnie came over to help me set up our garden. While we worked, their kids Sam and Willow played with my kids Andy and Allie, some kind of game that involved trying to find gardener snakes. Andy had found a nest of them the month before on his birthday and had basically adopted them. The fact that there had to have been hundreds of them didn’t seem to bother the kids at all. On the other hand, I had a fear of snakes that I was trying to deal with and had drawn the line at Andy bringing any (or even one) inside our cabin. He was fine with that, pointing out, “Dad, don’t’ be silly. They don’t belong indoors.” He good-naturedly shook his head sadly at his reptile challenged father.

It was the third week in June and close to the summer solstice and the longest day of the year. While the kids searched the yard and the collapsed garage in back for signs of snakes, Jack and Arnie and I worked on the garden.

Due to the poor soil, it was going to be a raised bed. We’d purchased the wood earlier in the week from the lumber yard in Park Rapids and hauled it up my place. Now Jack was using his drill to secure the boards together to build a ten foot by twenty foot by twelve-inch-deep frame. The boards were an inch thick, and they were sturdy, not to mention heavy.

With the last screw in place, Jack stood up. “Okay that’ll do it.”

Arnie and I looked over his work. “Looks great,” I said. “Thank you.”

Arnie looked closely at the corners and gave them a pull. “We should put some braces on these corners, Jack. Give them more stability.”

“Not a bad idea.” He looked around. “Got any scraps around here?”

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I know absolutely nothing about carpentry. Wood was wood as far as I was concerned. “Um.” I pointed to the fallen down garage where Andy had discovered the nest of gardener snakes. “How about over there?”

Jack glanced at Arnie who grinned. “What Jack means is decent wood, amigo.” He pointed. “That stuff’s probably rotten.”

“Not to mention a home for Andy’s snakes,” Jack added, laughing. Then he said, “Hold on. I’ve got something in my truck I think I can use.”

Jack’s F-350 could not only drive through three feet of snow, but I swear he had every tool known to man in the tool box behind the cab. He also had bunch of scrap lumber. In a minute he’d selected the pieces he wanted to use and set out his circular saw on the tailgate. He gave me a hundred-foot-long extension cord. “Go plug this in,” he said pointing to the outlet on the side of the cabin.

I did, and in a minute the saw was singing. In another minute, the wood was cut. Ten minutes later the corners were secure and the frame was completed.

“Okay,” said Arnie, now taking over. “Time to fill ‘er up!”

Jack laughed. “Now the fun begins.”

Arnie had suggested that I fill the frame with a mixture of black dirt and ground up horse manure. Not knowing a thing about gardening, at least subsistence gardening like what Arnie and Jack and their families did, I was all ears.

“Black dirt gives the roots stability,” he told me when we talked about it earlier that spring. “The manure gives it nutrients.”

Who was I to argue with the experts? “Sounds good to me,” I said.

When it came time to build the frame, I called down to Park Rapids to order some, and a few days later watched a dump truck from the Park Rapids Garden Center dump a full load where my wood pile used to be. Seemed like a lot of soil, which I learned is what we were getting. When I had inadvertently called it ‘dirt’ Arnie admonished me. “Dirt is what you sweep off the floor, my friend.” He grinned, grabbed a handful of the rich, black mixture, held it to his nose and drew in a deep breath. “This,” he said, almost reverently, “this is the good stuff. This is Soil!”

And now it had to be transferred from the huge pile to the garden frame. We used shovels and wheel barrels. With three men working, it took a lot less time than I thought it’d take. An hour later, hot and sweating, we were done.

Meg must have been watching from the kitchen, because she came out and joined us with a big pitcher of iced tea. “How about a break?” She set the pitcher down on our nearby picnic table and poured glasses for each of us. Then she pointed to the garden frame. “All done?”

“Yeah,” Arnie said, whipping his brow with a red handkerchief. He took a glass from Meg and toasted her. “Thanks.” He drank thirstily and then asked, “Got your list?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’ve been talking to Amber.”
            “Good.” He set down his empty glass and grinned. “Thanks for the ice tea. It hit the spot.” Then he picked up the heavy wheel barrel like it was a toy and tossed it in the back of his truck. “You should be good to go then.” He turned to Jack. “Ready?”

Jack finished his tea. “Thanks, Meg.” And then made sure all of his tools were loaded and secure in his truck. “Yep. All set.”

I put up my hand to stop them. “Wait. You guys want to stay and have some lunch or something? Something to eat?”

“Thanks, but no,” Jack said. “We’ve got to get set up for tomorrow.”
            “Yeah,” Arnie added. “We’ve got a permit to cut on the other side of Aspen Lake.” He pointed south. “We’ll get the truck into the forest there today and start cutting tomorrow.”

“So, the ground’s not too soft?” I asked. Soft ground was the bane of a wood cutter’s existence. Trucks could get stuck in the mud and if that happened no wood was getting cut anytime soon. And cutting wood was what it was all about for Jack and Arnie.

“Nope. Hard as a rock.” Arnie said.

“Okay.” I waved my hand at the garden frame now filled with rich dark soil. “Thank you so much for all of this.”

“No problem.” Jack shook my hand, something he did every time he left. “Now you just have to plant your veggies.” He grinned. “Have fun.” He waved to Meg. “Bye.”

Jack got in his pickup and Arnie got in the big wood hauling truck with the crane. They both tooted their horns good-bye and off they went. Meg went inside to work on an editing project and I kept Andy and Allie with me.

“You guys can help me plant the garden,” I told them.

“Yea!” Andy was excited.

So was Allie. “Goody!” Was her comment.
            I had them help me lay out string across-wise to keep the rows straight. We started with beans, green and waxed. The planting went well, probably because the kids could handle the big seeds so easily.

Then we moved to lettuce with a little less success due to the smaller seeds. Andy hung in there but Allie soon lost interest.

She turned to me. “Daddy. Can I go look for Andy’s snakes?”

“Sure.” I looked at Andy. “You want to go with her?”

He shook his head. “No way. This is fun.”

I said to Allie. “You can go, just don’t wander off, okay?”

She pointed to the collapsed garage. “I’m just going to be over there.”

It was only fifty feet away. “Sounds good,” I told her. “Just be careful.”
            She smiled. “I will.”

I watched her skip off. It was a warm afternoon, maybe seventy degrees. Both the kids were wearing shorts and tee-shirts and tennis shoes.

I turned to Andy. “Okay, let’s tackle the kale next.”

We bent to the task and then moved on to carrots and soon we were immersed in our seed planting.

Then Allie’s screams filled the air.

“Daddy!” She yelled. “Daddy!!”

I’d never heard her scream like that. It sounded like someone was sticking hot needles in her.

I jumped to my feet and ran in her direction telling Andy. “Go get your mom.”
            The screams were coming from behind the garage. I covered the fifty feet in about two seconds, urged on by my daughter’s cries. “Daddy! Help me!!”

She was calling out for help and screaming and crying all at the same time. I’d never heard anything like it. Adrenaline kicked in. I had to save her.

I spun around the corner of the garage and took in the scene. Oh, no! It only took a only a moment to figure out what had happened. My poor little daughter was sitting on the ground slapping at bees swarming all around her from a hole in the foundation of the garage. They were big and black. Wood wasps! And they were attacking poor little Allie with a vengeance.

As I ran toward her, I could see them stinging her exposed skin and stinging her through her tee-shirt. The were relentless. Her screams filled the air. I did the only thing I could think of. I picked her up on a dead run and took off for the lake. My thought was to get her in the cold water to help ease the pain from the stings. As we ran, I bushed off the wasps that still clung to her.

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” I told her, running for all I was worth, “Daddy’s got you.”

She buried her head in my chest and sobbed. “Daddy. It hurts.”

I ran faster.

The lake was only a couple of hundred feet from us. I ran as fast as I could and didn’t stop for a moment as I held Allie tight and plunged into the cold water. It was June and the ice had only been out for less than two months. It was pretty cold. Really cold, actually, but cold is what I wanted. And it did the trick.

I waded out so we were both submerged up to our necks. I held Allie and rocked her in my arms and whispered to her. “It’ll be okay, Sweetheart. Daddy’s got you. I’ll keep those bees away. Don’t worry.” Honestly? I really don’t know what I said. All I wanted to do was to comfort my poor daughter.

After a few minutes, the pain from the stings started to subside. I knew because I’d been stung a few times too. They really had felt like hot needles being stuck into our skin.

By the time Andy and Meg got to the lake, the pain had almost gone away. But the trauma for Allie hadn’t. Meg waded out and took our daughter in her arms.

“What happened?”

I explained about the wood wasps behind the garage. Then I said. “I’m sorry. I should have paid better attention.”

Meg surprised me by saying. “Well, maybe.” She rocked Allie who now had quit crying. She had her eyes closed and seemed to be resting, probably from the shock. “But, it’s not like we can watch them every moment of the day.”

Which was true. But I still felt bad.

We went back to the cabin and Meg fixed an ice pack that she used to sooth Allie’s stings. It helped a lot, and they didn’t swell up too much.

“You know,” Meg said, laying Allie on the couch and looking closely at the stings. “I think getting her in the lake so fast really helped.” She continued to apply the ice pack on some of the bigger red areas. “The cold water helped keep the swelling down.” She turned to me. “Good thinking.”

I know I make a lot of mistakes. I know that Meg rolls her eyes at stuff I do and say every day. Usually more than once. And I truly felt horrible that the wasp attack that took place on my watch. A father hates to see his kid hurt.

So, thank god the lake was close by. I’m not sure what I would have done if it wasn’t. I’d probably still be running, with my daughter in my arms, and a swarm of angry wood wasps on our tail. I’m glad it didn’t come to that.

 About the author 

Jim is an award-winning author who lives in a small town in Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in nearly four hundred online and print publications. His collection “Resilience” was published in early 2021 by Bridge House Publishing. Additional stories can be found on his blog:

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