Once in a while, you look up and you realize that your entire life has been laid out for the special purpose of preparing you for a specific challenge, some adversary you are intended to meet, which would easily vanquish you if you had not been prepared.
My preparation began early. In middle childhood I was stung by a bee. On the cheek. The bee only intended to inject me with burning venom, but he also filled me with an eternal enmity that far outlasted the pain of the sting. Like pus, a purpose seeped contemptuously from that puffy facial wound, and I followed it. As a child, I learned to hate them.
In eighth grade I got my first opportunity to fight back. A few friends (or was it Davis’s friends? I don’t remember) showed me that if you kicked the trash cans out in front of the junior high, you angered swarms of yellow jackets inside. They seemed so numerous they must have literally filled those cans to capacity. The game was to run up, give a trash can a good hard kick, and then run back to the ranks of friends as squadrons of hornets– forty or fifty at a time– rose from their nests to brutalize the intruders. Each of us was armed with the 1980’s junior high kid’s equivalent of a swiss army knife- the Trapper Keeper. On the phalanx of hornets came, stingers at the ready, dripping poison from their points. Every time, they were shocked to meet not with soft adolescent flesh, but the hard plastic and neon luster of ten Trapper Keepers snicker-snacking through the air. It was a dynamic battle, laced with genuine panic, because a Trapper Keeper blow does not kill a hornet. It merely knocks him to the ground, creating a vulnerable moment of about two seconds. If the downed hornet is allowed to ascend again, he is crazed and lethal. That’s why, if you managed to whack one to the concrete, everything depended on your ability to jet after that hornet and stomp the life out of that crunchy little exoskeleton. If you could do it, you were a hero. If you couldn’t, one of your comrades could take it in the back of the neck. It was a crazy game we played, but one that we won more than we lost. As a young teenager, I learned to face them.
Sometime in high school, I heard about the work of amateur cryogenicists on insects. I don’t know who told me about it, but the takeaway was that if you stick an insect in the freezer for just the right amount of time, you can subject it to your control. Too little time, and the bee will come at you once released from the freezer. Too much time, and he’s a worthless corpse. I caught a bee and gave it a try. After several corpses and several dangerous escapees, I got the time down just right. I think it was about 110 seconds, give or take. Pull the bee out after that amount of freezing, and you have about ten seconds to get the leash tied around him. If you succeed in getting a nice light piece of thread tethered around the skinny link between abdomen and thorax, you are his master. The feelings that come from keeping a bee on a leash are some of the most intoxicating our race has ever known. He’ll try and fly at you, which you can put an end to with a quick jerk of the string. After he learns his lesson, he just sort of hovers around a few feet from you, seething but subdued. Several friends and I enjoyed this gimmick quite a few times around the halls of Davis High, our threads sometimes seeming to just hang in the air. Nearing adulthood, I learned to master them.
And then came the challenge, the culmination of all of those preparatory advances that had come before. It would take every thing I had ever learned, and still push me to the very edge of my abilities.
But it’s late, and I’m on vacation. So let’s get to that story next week. . .