Yesterday evening Betty and I ate out on the back patio. Much of the year in Boise is too chilled or sizzly for us to enjoy dining on our bar-b-qued portabellas and pork roast out there, but yesterday’s mild weather allowed the white butterflies to flit from arctic willow to carpet rose. Dragonflies jetted back and forth, preying on the small things that live in the lawn. Vs of Canadian geese honked past on their way from corn stubble to the river. We chatted as mourning dove cooed from the eaves of our neighbor’s patio. But then a yellow jacket showed, buzzing its angry little patrol around our plates, our forks, our faces, with its hostile yellow cast an alarm for all to know that it arrives to seize what’s rightfully its and then steal the rest. When I lived in New Mexico the old timers called them meat bees. Meat bees, cheat bees, nuisance bees.
Betty has sour experiences with these critters. They sting her and then infections erupt from the wounds where they attacked. The doctors told her yellow jackets love to feed on all kinds of things, both good and nasty, so that when they sting, they inject a lot of infectious demons besides the jolt of poison.
I recall a year in New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains when meat bees swarmed out of every old stump, piece of rotten Ponderosa, or hole in the ground. Standing outside on the boardwalk outside of the Western Bar they’d check out the red burn on the end of your Winston. They’d snitch the deer meat off the end of your fork. They’d sample the milk, the cream, the cotton candy. As long as there was only one buzzing around, I could act like I wasn’t going to panic, but get two or three showing curiosity and my heart rate would amp up to one-hundred plus. I don’t know why I’m so damned scared of some little buzz-nut like that, but something about them sets off all my internal alarms.
That year I was involved in tearing up a bunch of high-mountain country to make a subdivision. It was fall. Wofford was cutting roads through the fractured limestone. Alarcon and his wood crew cut right-of-way through the spruce and fir and pine. One Saturday I sat in my Ford Bronco II and watched Wofford maneuver his yellow D-6 crawler, pushing huge chunks of chalk and mud, yellow boulders around and down the banks as he cut the road out of Young Canyon up towards Rawlins Ridge.
I had gone out there to see if I could find the buttery blossoms of Hooker’s Evening Primrose, but cold Coors doesn’t seem to mix too well with identifying flowers. And I had Coors. I’d killed a couple before going out to the diggings, and now I sat watching Wofford and sipped more cold ones. I liked to hold the cans in the sun so the light reflected off the yellow and gold of the paint and then reflected off the glass of my rolled-up windows and back into my eyes, blinding me momentarily.
From time to time I opened a dog-eared copy of William Manchester’s massive tome titled the Arms of Krupp in which the author chronicles the family’s (and arms manufacturer’s) rise as the world’s greatest producer of weaponry from the 1600s through World War II. As I read it, I marveled at the warp and woof of the arms trade in this world. I had to laugh, too, as I sipped my cold beer, at how Krupp now makes appliances. At home I was grinding my coffee beans with a tool made by the most infamous arms dealer the world had known. Hmm—cannon cockers to coffee grinders. It’s all about technology and how we so easily convert the benefits of scientific and engineering expertise into tools both benign and deadly.
Once I looked up and watched Wofford as he roared and huffed his D-6 close to my Bronco. He waived at me and that’s when I noticed a swarm of yellow jackets gathered around the front of his Cat. I wasn’t sure why they buzzed and hovered around the bonnet over the engine. The cab was open and they didn’t seem to bother Wofford, just craved the front end of his Cat. Alarcon drove up. In some kind of serendipitous moment he wore a yellow hat that read CAT on the front. I supposed he needed to ask Wofford something about the right-of-way up the mountain. As soon as Alarcon got out of his blue truck the yellow jackets attacked his head. Had he just stood there they might have left him be, but as I sucked a long swig off my cold Coors, I couldn’t help but sympathize with him as he began to punch and swat, then run as they balled up like a yellow spirit out of Hell and began to swarm after him. I don’t know if while reading about death, about dive bombers and ballistics, I’d missed some of the earlier action, but it seemed that every yellow Jacket in Otero County had congregated on the road project and was suddenly after Alarcon. He ran, dodged, stopped, spun around, threw his arms up over his face, then ran again, stumbled, crashed to the ground, crawled under a young Douglas fir tree where an errant branch knocked off his yellow CAT hat. As he managed to get up on both feet and sprint across a grassy spot on the side of a steep hill, the yellow jackets stayed behind with that yellow CAT hat. Who knew that they loved yellow? But as I looked around, everything was yellow. The late afternoon sun caught in the tops of the aspen that were turning . . . yes, yellow . . . and the tops of the windmill grass and the sleepy grass and the imported Kentucky blue grasses planted by the early settlers a hundred years before.
It took me several weeks to read The Arms of Krupp and all the way through I marveled at our ability (I mean us humans) to institutionalize our violence, our hostility. We own it in so many ways. Man on man, man on child, man on wife, man on dog or horse, or sheep or cockatoo. Oh, and lest I be maligned as overly chauvinist, women beat men, too. We do it in groups. Hell, even yellow jackets are hostile. They don’t build cannons, but get them riled and they might sting you to death.
Later that year, my business partner, Robert Moser, went to Alaska and killed a moose and a caribou and brought some meat back and stuck it in his freezer. The next fall I volunteered to cook that meat and made a big chili stew. I thawed the back straps and diced them, then sautéed the meat in garlic and red pepper and a little salt. The scent of cooking meat grew heady and I decided to open the windows. I slid them open so that only the screens protected me from all the hostility outside. As I cooked, I drank a Coors, then another, and listened to the Marshall Tucker Band sing “Can’t You See” over and over and over again. But something was amiss. A low hum interfered with the music. I walked over to the stereo and looked at it. Seemed okay, and the speakers too. I fiddled with the controls, swore a time or two and then kicked the woofer. No change. I scratched my head and looked around and noticed something on the screen on the back door. All light from outside was blocked from coming in. I walked closer and noticed the kitchen window was the same. A quick assessment of the rest of the house told me some sinister force was blocking the last light of early autumn from getting into my life. I wanted to walk closer, but shivered. I took one step, then another as the hum grew louder. And then I saw them. Meat bees. They smelled me cooking moose meat and they wanted what I had. My heart began to pound and I had to sit on the green and russet couch in the front room. Yellow jackets, thousands and thousands, hell maybe millions, were on my screens trying to get in. I wondered if they could eat the steel in the wire mesh in the screens. I turned the simmering meat off and bit my fingernails and suddenly thought of Krupp, his guns, and I understood why we do these things. Starts out with fear, moves to protection of the self, then the clan. We get good at it. The yellow jackets are good at it and they are supposed to have no brains at all. But there they were, and if I’d had a huge can of RAID, I’d have murdered them all. What about my pistola? I could hull away at them from inside the house, but then I’d blow a hole in the screen and then one would get in and another and…