It's Mother's Day, and so I feel that I should share a story of my Mother, and describe one event that explains in graphic detail the tribulations this poor woman faced while raising myself and the three other fine specimens, which were known as my siblings. As you read, it is worth noting that this was just one day, and while this event was noteworthy enough for me to remember it some thirty-eight (or so) years later, it was simply one in a seemingly unending series of similar events that would have challenged the resolve of scores of lesser people. Seriously. Bowie and Travis and the men who held The Alamo would have withered like delicate flowers under the relentless onslaught of infantile trauma that we continuously threw at this one stalwart Mom. She was the Gibraltar that stood within the warm sea of raging kid blood and tears.
It was a very good thing for our continued survival that our Mom was a nurse.
THE WINGED MENACE OF GLENDALE
Or, “How I found out that I wasn’t allergic to Hornet stings”
Our family of six lived, for a time, in a large old farmhouse in the Village of Glendale, one of six villages in the small New England town of Burrillville, in the northern part of Rhode Island. The house, a grand old lady, painted white, stood on Main Street, which was pretty much the only street, featuring a few houses, a Methodist church, and a Post Office at the bottom of the hill. It was the early Seventies, in late spring or summer, and the kids of the neighborhood – there seemed to be many of us for such a small street – were out enjoying the good weather.
Somewhere far away, there was a war going on, but we were young and only vaguely aware of it, and too young to even know what it meant. On our street the kids ran wild from yard to yard, playing games, stomping on black widow spiders, and getting treats and glasses of milk or juice from the other houses we'd run into as if they were our own. If it was nice outside, the kids were all outside. There was no playing in the house on warm summer's day.
Our house had a porch that ran around on two sides, with a grand staircase at the back that led to a neat back yard with a small patio and detached garage. In one corner was the tree that the neighbor kid had fallen out of and broken his arm – consequently, we weren't allowed to climb this tree. In the center of our backyard was our swing set, the kind made out of hollow pipes that were attached with metal sheets and screws at the joints, and had a slide at one end, with a ladder leading up to it, and a see-saw at the opposite end. It was our redoubt, the place to which we would retreat when the other kids went home for naps, or to get their hair cut, or to eat sandwiches that the other Moms on the street would make that just weren't right.
Recently, however, our beloved swing set had been taken over by hornets. The hollow pipes that made up the frame of the beloved structure had little plastic end caps on them – designed, no doubt, to prevent exactly what had happened here – but, the plastic end cap was easily accessible if you climbed up on the slide, and would hold just the right amount of marbles, so it disappeared soon after Dad put the swing set together. Hornets, it seems, like to build their nests in sheltered spaces, like dark hollow logs, or metal tubes that resemble (to hornets) dark hollow logs that are made of metal and warm up nicely in the summer sun. We had a thriving colony of hornets in our favorite outdoor toy.
Renee was the oldest, at about seven years old, and came up with 'The Plan', the solution to our problem that would return our swing set to us and let us continue on with a summer afternoon worthy of Fragonard. Dan, one year younger, was the adventurous one and the one who would carry it out. In terms of Kid Logic, 'The Plan' was flawless.
I forwarded a plan of my own. It involved the highly complex maneuver of 'putting the plastic thingy back over the hole', but it was ultimately rejected for two reasons: one, that I was three years younger than Renee, and since she was older, her plan was better nyah nyah nyah, and two, we couldn't remember where we had put the plastic thingy.
Renee's plan needed tools. Tools that we had to fetch from the basement of the old house without alerting Mom – who would put a stop to the plan before we had a chance to carry it out – or letting our youngest brother Jeffrey see what we were up to, because he was only about one or two years old, and was far too little to be involved in such a complex undertaking. We couldn't go into the house and risk alerting them, so we had to use the outside door. The one facing the swing set. We knew the door would be unlocked – it was the seventies, and we were in the middle of nowhere, Rhode Island; nobody locked their doors – but to approach the door would require stealth and luck. The hornet patrols must be avoided.
It was risky, but we made it. There was a tense moment when a pair of yellow jackets patrolling the perimeter nearly saw us, but we crowded behind an old cast-iron sink and stood really still for a few seconds. The hornets flew off, none the wiser.
In the cold and musty cellar of the old house we found what we were looking for, Dad's claw hammer, and a pair of tennis racquets. The hammer was heavy, so Dan, being the strongest, would wield it. It had a red shaft, a soft, black rubber handle, and a shiny peen and two claws in the back. We had seen Dad using this to great effect on many occasions, and were well aware of its destructive power. We tested our racquets. We plucked the strings, to be sure they were tight, and swung the lightweight wood around for practice. We were ready.
We opened the door, surveyed the landscape. A short cement staircase led up to a vast expanse of green grass before the swing set, and the ladder that led up to the slide, our objective. Dan would have to go first. We were nervous. It was quiet. There seemed to be no sign of our enemy. The sun shone brightly, not a cloud in the perfect sky. We were vulnerable - it would only take one hornet to alert the nest, and then we'd be swarmed. But we were ready. We had planned for this contingency.
The Plan was this: Dan would run across the lawn, and climb the ladder. Renee and I would take up defensive positions – her on the slide, me at the base of the ladder – with our tennis racquets, protecting his flanks. When we were in position, he would bang on the metal tube with the hammer, stirring the hornets to action. When they tried to fly out of the metal tube, he would smash them with the hammer. Renee and I would take care of any stragglers. Perfect.
Dan whispered 'let's go' and we ran, fast as leopards, across the lush green lawn. He reached the ladder before I was even halfway across the green expanse, and climbed like a monkey holding a heavy claw hammer. No sooner had I reached my position than I heard the bang bang bang of the hammer impacting the swing set, sounding out like a giant tubular bell.
The hornets flew out of the tube en masse, as if fired from a gun; it was clear, and then suddenly the air was full of yellow-and-black-striped vengeance. On top of the slide, Dan was the first to get stung. He screamed, and flailed about him with the hammer, trying to smash the hornets. The nimble fliers, who darted in and out, stinging him repeatedly, easily dodged his wild strikes.
Renee and I were not spared. The massed cloud of buzzing anger dove on us hungrily. Our tennis racquets split the air uselessly, as stinger after stinger made contact with our young skin. The terrified and painful screams of children rent the quiet New England air, sundering the calm of our street like an air raid siren.
Jeffrey, our youngest brother and still in diapers, was in the kitchen of the old house when the banging and screaming began, and, being curious, he hurried to the top of the grand stairs on our porch that led to the back yard. He was standing there, perplexed, as Dan took a vicious and painful stinger into the center of his naked back. In his spasmodic reaction, he screamed (of course), and arched his back, his hands thrown up into the air, flinging the hammer with all of his young strength. The hammer flew, end over end, in a graceful and perfect arch, the twin claws coming down perfectly into the center of Jeffrey's previously unblemished forehead.
I was only vaguely aware of events that followed, as I ran hysterically around in circles, failing to escape the wrath of the hornets. In the corner of my eye I remember seeing Jeffrey tumbling down the staircase like an Easter ham with limbs, landing at the bottom and lying there, unmoving. I remember sting after painful sting, and Renee frantically slashing at the air with a grimace on her face – she reminded me of that toy monkey with the cymbals that would clash them together over and over with a terrifying smile.
And I remember my Mother, rushing out of the house with a looking both bewildered and horrified. At the top of the stairs was a bloody hammer, and a pool of crimson trailing down in drops to a small child in diapers lying in a puddle with a gaping head wound, and three other children running in circles screaming as legions of yellow jackets pursued them around the yard. I can't imagine the thoughts that went through her head at that moment.
Mom threw Jeffrey into the car and rushed him to the hospital where he received a few stitches and a new teddy bear and came home unhappy, but with no lingering effects of the hammer except for a scar right at his hairline that he keeps to this day. The rest of us were bounded off to the neighbor's house, where we attempted to explain what had happened to the kind old woman. She was a mom, too, so she just smiled and gave us cookies and juice and covered our hornet stings with some kind of smelly homemade poultice.
That night when Dad came home from work, we told the story over and over again, trying to explain why Jeffrey got hit in the head with a hammer in a way that he would understand. Mom made us dinner.