When I was a boy, we McLeods lived in a valley west of Nashville, Tenn., -- a valley much smaller than the Walla Walla Valley.
Densely wooded hills peppered with limestone caves and free-flowing springs surrounded us. The springs were home to blaze-orange salamanders, thumb-size minnows, freshwater crawdads, and the occasional water moccasin. The prospect of treading on deadly poisonous snakes made the place sort of interesting.
Our red-brick rancher sat on the valley floor in a two-acre sea of dandelions and clover -- ground that had once been planted in cotton and tobacco. There were no trees or shrubs to amount to anything.
On summer afternoons we kids hustled after dust devils swirling across our yard, blowing up great clouds of dandelion seeds. Sometimes the air was so full of dandelion we couldn't breathe without getting the seeds up our noses. My friend, Possum, got one way up his snoot and bugs went to town on it like it was a picnic lunch. Before it was over, Dr. Pritchard had to go in there with a scraper and get the thing out. Possum ended up looking like he'd been beaten about the head with a stick -- not pretty.
Clover attracted honeybees -- lots of bees. When I tired of running down dust devils, I trapped bees in a jelly jar by inverting the jar over an unwary bee and scooping him into the jar with the jar top.
I poked a few holes in the top and fed my bees sprigs of clover and water. I set the jar on the cedar chest at the foot of my bed. The bees lived there for a few days and died.
Death meant little to me. Bees, salamanders, garter snakes, frogs and garden spiders were all put on this earth for my amusement. Death prompted me to dump the dead bees and trap some more in my jelly jar. I trapped a lot of bees.
I didn't get stung. I came to believe that I had some sort of special relationship with the bees. They landed on my arms or neck and flew away when they tired of me. Experience taught me the bees wouldn't sting if I didn't mess with them.
One day, acting on experience and stupidity, I figured I'd pick up a bee in my hand and put him in the jar. It was a lot easier than the trap-and-scoop approach. The bee I selected for this little experiment didn't like my idea much. He skewered my thumb. I screamed like a banshee, flung the bee into the clover, and stomped on him.
My thumb swelled to twice its normal size -- my hand, too. A rash broke out on my chest, arms and legs. The itching was fierce. Mom hauled me to the doctor. The shot stung worse than the bee. It was a bad day.
That night, Dad asked what happened. I told him about the bee.
"Hmm," he said. "Learn anything from that?"
"Yeah," I said. "Bees will sting if you pick 'em up and squeeze 'em."
"No, sir," I said.
"Well, think about it," he said.
I thought about it but didn't come up with anything. Dad looked at me for the longest time. Then he said, "We all got stingers, son. We don't tend to use 'em unless somebody squeezes us too tight. You got that?"
"Yes, sir," I said, but I had no idea what he was talking about.
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