It’s a brisk mid-September Saturday night when Alex, our backyard neighbor, calls over the fence. “Hey, Jeff, you see this?” he asks and then shines the light from his cell phone on the back of my garage. There’s a battleship gray, undulating mass tapering down from the peak, a two-foot-long wasp’s nest.
“I’ll call someone tomorrow. Split the cost with you,” he says. “Whattaya say? That looks kind of scary. I don’t want the kids in any sort of danger, you know.” He gestures to his preschool-age twins cuddled up with his wife on a chaise longue near a propane heater.
Alex is a new neighbor, a displaced city dweller seeking refuge and space during the pandemic in his hometown. His wife doesn’t speak much English, only Spanish.
I think that if I knew Alex a little better I’d tell him about the crypt of yellow jacket corpses in the wall of the garage. I’d describe how, to protect my own children who played back here, I stuffed steel wool all along the perimeter where the garage meets the concrete, duct-taped the floor seams inside, sprayed a lot of some chemical into the sole entrance/exit by the rotting side doorjamb, and then shoved a wad of steel wool into that orifice.
I’d tell him how when I stepped inside the garage the dry wall seemed to be expanding and contracting, like lungs, and that the volume of the yellow jackets’ buzzing set my head to reeling. And how, over the course of a few moments, the slow silence of death settled.
Instead I say, “No worries, Alex. I’ll deal with it tomorrow. I’ve done this before.”
August 1977 and neither of my divorced parents came to scout camp visiting day. Their letters were apologetic, but that didn’t ease the sting much. Two other scouts, Cary, a chunky boy with wavy, sun-bleached brown hair, and Jeff B., who wore a light blue bucket hat all that summer, were also visitor-less. We conferred and decided that instead of tagging along with other scouts and their families we’d go fishing.
Mahler’s Pond, also known as the bog, was near the entrance to camp. In previous summers the troop visited the bog to frolic on the squishy, spongy surface as well as hunt for snakes, turtles, newts. There used to be official, organized fishing expeditions there so scouts could meet the requirements for the fishing merit badge. That’s how I earned mine a couple of summers prior. Last summer an oversized scout named Flavio jumped too much in one spot and fell through the peat. He mangled his leg in a submerged log or something and had to have emergency surgery and never came back to camp. This summer the scoutmasters, citing the Flavio incident, said the bog was off limits; all fishing should be done in the lake. Our expedition didn’t need permission, we reasoned: it was our day off, too, and we could venture where we saw fit.
We made some PB and J’s and filled our canteens at the desolate dining hall. Then we lifted rocks, plucked out worms, and dropped them in a cup with some loose soil. Finally, we signed out a tackle box and poles from the aquatics and boating center by the lake, put everything in the tackle box, and headed down the dusty dirt road.
When I was eight my parents divorced and my maternal grandparents took us into the same home where they raised my mother and uncle, a brick row house purchased not long after World War II in Midwood, Brooklyn. My grandmother, Gram, had been a Vaudeville tap dancer. These days she worked part time in a nearby dry cleaner. Pop worked the lobster shift as a linotype operator. And that year, 1977, Mom found a job, her first professional, full-time position ever in an office in Manhattan.
Pop left for the plant around 6, so he was there to greet my younger brothers and I when we arrived home from school. He was a great playmate and supervisor for three boys. In cold weather we romped indoors. Hide-n-seek was a favorite. So was sliding down the staircase into a landing pad of couch cushions. On warmer days we rode bicycles, played stoop- or box-ball while he watched from the porch. For three kids going through the trauma of a bitter divorce, life was pretty decent. At least for a while.
Pop, like so many of the Greatest Generation, like so many enlisted people before and since, had some harrowing wartime experiences. He’d served two years as a radarman 2nd class on the aircraft carrier USS WASP (CV-18), the Mighty Stinger. Even before we moved in he’d say things like, “I wish I could recreate the steady hum of my ship. Then I’d sleep like a baby.” Or, “It was the purr of the engines and all the activity. I found it comforting, I guess.” Even as a child I made the connection between the name of Pop’s ship and his desire to live as part of the hive, and, later, to dish out punishment like a wasp, too.
My brothers, cousins, and I asked and asked and asked but Pop only ever shared one specific story about his time in the war. The event and his apparent role in it explains Pop’s persistent insomnia, a pretty standard symptom of PTSD.
The next morning I poke my head around the back of the garage. In the light the nest is impressive, its undulations like flowing gray sand dunes. And intimidating: yellow jackets taking off from and land near the lone entrance/exit near the bottom. It’s like JFK leading up to a holiday weekend.
I describe the situation to the guy at the garden center. “Nasty, nasty sonsabitches.” He says I’m the third person today who has come in for the same thing. As we walk he tells me about removing a yellow jacket nest in his eaves last year. “They’re nuts this time of year. Crazed by the cool nights and lack of food. Use this stuff,” he adds, pointing to the shelf. High-test he calls it. “This is the stuff the pros use.” I buy the last four cans.
The label boasts a range of twenty feet. I measure down the driveway and mark the distance with a brick. The claim is accurate. Then I practice firing two cans simultaneously, like a gunslinger. The label also reminds me that it is highly recommended to approach wasp and yellow jacket nests at night. Copy that. And to seal the exit before soaking the nest. Copy that, too.
“There it is!” Cary shouted, pointing with his pole. The bog, maybe a hundred yards away, glistened in the late morning sun.
Jeff B. and I followed Cary in a spontaneous, jubilant bushwhacking scramble through the woods. Jeff B. called out, “First one to catch a fish gets choice on something from the other two’s care packages.” I was just about to respond, “Deal,” when Cary leapt off a low boulder outcropping. When he landed on the pine needle floor the forest filled with the sudden and deafening din of thousands of swarming yellow jackets.
Jeff B., a couple steps behind, took off from the same boulder. As he landed a section of the cloud of wasps peeled off and changed directions like a school of fish dividing.
Yellow jackets continued to pour out of the earth. I don’t know why, exactly, probably just to support my fellow scouts, but I jumped next. As I landed I had this thought, a thought I’ve carried with me all these years: This is what my grandfather, all the men on his ship and in his task force, must’ve felt like when kamikaze zeroes suddenly appeared in the sky. Planes heading into the heat of battle. Buzzing propellers, droning engines, enemies without parachutes or enough fuel to turn around, believing there’s no price too high to pay for victory.
Pop’s undiagnosed PTSD could have had many causes. His re-telling of the key event was usually quite demonstrative, loaded with sound effects and exclamations and, sometimes, tears. He relived it multiple times a day until his death fifty-five years after it happened.
Per the USS WASP Yearbook, the week of March 17, 1945, was a particularly challenging stretch for Pop’s ship. As part of a task force in the South Pacific, that week alone the WASP weathered multiple kamikaze attacks, numerous Japanese bombing runs, and fired off over 10,000 rounds of artillery.
Early on the morning of March 19, Pop was one of a number of grunt sailors manning the radar, scanning the skies for enemy planes. He was doing his part to protect himself, the ship, his shipmates, his task force, warding off evil and preventing itor just “preventing evil” from taking over the world.
The yearbook says, “… a lone Jap plane darted out of the clouds dead ahead of WASP dropping a five hundred and forty pound, semi-armor piercing bomb that exploded in the galley just abaft of mid-ships…. Casualties were one hundred and two dead or missing and over two hundred wounded.”
To a boy it was a magical story, better than movies or cartoons. Nowadays, I can’t fathom the volume of the anti-aircraft guns, the vibrations from the recoil. The shouting and scrambling. The stress. The fear, the incessant fear.
Pop’s story of the attack always ended like this: “You may think I’m lucky, and I am,” he’d say to me and my brothers. “You boys wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t, but I should’ve seen it coming. I lost friends and shipmates that morning. I could’ve stopped it. I should’ve stopped it. Or maybe I should’ve died, too. ”
USS WASP was not mortally wounded and continued to fight alongside the other ships in its task force for the next few days. Once the battles abated she returned to Pearl Harbor, Puget Sound for repairs, then back to the South Pacific.
The hole torn in Pop’s psyche by the events of March 19, 1945, however, would never be repaired.
When night falls I text Alex: “Everyone in? Windows closed?”
He replies with a thumbs-up emoji.
I don heavy denim jeans, tuck the cuffs into black, calf-high socks, pull on a thick, fleece-lined sweatshirt, wrap a cotton scarf around my neck, and draw the hood tight. Finally, I slip on leather gardening gloves and tuck them into the sweatshirt sleeves. I pass the six-foot ladder over the fence and head around the block.
Alex, his wife and children wave from a window. I nod and try to be nonchalant. The rising anxiety, though, is real.
I set the ladder and, like a lone soldier on a mission, scale the first three rungs, take a deep breath, and let loose a double-barreled assault. The white foam streams are steady, and accurate. I seal the exit, soak the entire nest. Up and down. Up and down. And, much to my surprise, through the whole offensive, I am shouting, “AHHHHHHHHH!” like some sort of suburban Rambo.
I fire and holler until the cans sputter, carefully climb down and back away, heart pounding in my ears. I check for wasps on arms, legs, brush my head. I fear a counterattack of some sort, like the kind you see in old cartoons or have lived through as a boy scout forty years earlier, but none comes. Just a few disoriented wasps circling and then darting into the night.
Alex and his wife give me thumbs-up. The kids are applauding. I carry the spent spray cans home and toss them in the trash, shed my armor, and take a celebratory, nerve-settling beer onto our back deck. After a couple minutes, I reconsider. The buzz and drone, even though there really isn’t any, is in my head.
We were three terrified boys flailing and swiping at one another, our howls swallowed by the din, our canteens slapping against our sides. The contents of the tackle box —red and white bobbers, extra hooks and split shots, the spilled-out cup of black dirt and night crawlers, plastic-wrapped PB and J’s, and fishing poles are strewn on the brown forest floor.
That’s when I shout, shout like I’ve only shouted a handful of times before and since. An electric, urgent surge of a cry that pierced adrenalized fear and roaring wasps, “Use the poles! Use the fucking fishing poles!”
It was a bitter January night. Icicles on the casement windows, sleet ticking on the panes, but it was the vibrations that woke me: Pop’s booming, Gram’s shrieking; disembodied voices firing at one another, crashing against the wall in the basement three floors down reverberating in my tiny bedroom.
The same thing happened a couple of weeks later. Another dark, icy night balled under the covers. Shouts and cries, even louder this time, the battle lasting longer. The wind whipping, the walls near crumbling. This is how an earthquake feels, I recall thinking. Helpless. It was the first time I saw the sun rise.
In the morning I found Gram, wrapped in a crocheted cover, asleep on the couch. One eye swollen shut. She slept on the couch for a while, and then moved in with a friend. Eventually, she had surgery to reattach a retina. No one ever said why she had the injury, why the procedure was necessary, or even why my grandparents separated. These are the things families sometimes do not discuss. These are the kinds of painful things that trauma can cause, and keep causing.
Gram always kept a few tissues tucked into the cuff of the cotton cardigans she favored. Her right eye leaked copious tears for the rest of her life.
There’s a steady grinding and gnawing in the walls of my bedroom. I lay here in the dark, listening and trembling. The queen has survived my assault, has organized her minions. They are rebuilding in the body of the house, between the studs, incorporating the nest with the insulation, they’re taking over like an inoperable cancer.
I am wide-awake when the sun rises.
There is no evidence of any wasp activity outside our bedroom, or anywhere else on the house.
“Get ’em off! Get ’em the fuck off!” Cary screamed.
“Shit! Holy shit! Shit!” Jeff B. shouted.
“Keep hitting. Keep hitting,” I hollered.
The cadence of our exclamations soon matched the rhythm of swipes and smacks. I’d like to think that we battled like the older, Order of the Arrow scouts might, the young men who danced around the weekly campfire, faces painted and in colorful Native American garb, fluid and graceful and confident. Or like Pop and the sailors on USS WASP, dedicated to helping each other return home while defeating the enemy.
Of course, that’s not how it was. There was no grace to it, just desperate boys united in frenetic combat, a seemingly endless, vicious assault.
Jeff B. slashed at my back and arms. “Don’t move so much,” he hollered.
“What are you talking about? Get ’em off!”
I swatted and brushed at Cary’s thick legs. At one point there were more insects than flesh.
Cary smacked at Jeff B.’s back and blue bucket hat.
I don’t know how long we fought like that, in that triangle formation, our puny voices barely slicing through the cacophony. Eventually, though, the pandemonium and adrenaline rush wound down, the drone faded and the strikes eased to gentler brushing and flicks. We were huffing and puffing and panting and crying, but it was quiet in the woods. Just when we declared ourselves clear of wasps, victorious; just as Jeff B. and I exchanged uncertain survival glances, just then is when I noticed we were much closer to the road than when it all started, just then is when Cary dropped his fishing pole, fell to his knees, and curled up on the pine needles as if settling in for a nap.
I’d earned First Aid Merit Badge earlier that summer so I knew that this was shock. I also knew it could be anaphylactic shock, a potentially deadly allergic response to the stings.
“Go! Go! Get help. Go!”
Jeff B. tossed down the fishing pole, pulled down on his blue bucket hat, and took off down the dirt road, back the way we’d come.
First, I knelt and stuck a couple of dirty fingers in Cary’s mouth to see if his tongue was swollen. It seemed normal size to me. He was out, but his breathing was steady. The sting sites, mostly on his legs, were bright red, looked like gigantic mosquito bites. He lay there in fetal position, a brave, fallen scout.
I paced for a moment, strode up the incline to the road, sipped from my canteen. That’s when Cary called out.
Pop remained. I am not sure why. We played after school and weekends, but there was an undeniable tension in the air, like when it’s autumn and yellow jackets hover around the picnic table. You know it’s only a matter of time until someone, for no particular reason short of breathing or maybe shooing the pest away, gets stung.
The beatings erupted out of nowhere. Maybe I ate some of the leftover roast chicken that was meant to be part of his dinner. Pop lined us up and cut loose on our backsides with his thin black-leather belt. One of my brothers left a dirty cereal bowl on the coffee table. Pop lit into us with the dog’s leash because that’s what was in his hands when he came in. One day a transgression like forgetting to flush the toilet or arguing over the television would draw thoughtful and calm reminders about how to live our lives the right way, live in peace in the house. On another afternoon the same thing would wake the monster. The beast had yellow, gnashing, cigarette-stained teeth. His green veins swelled and pulsed on forehead and forearms. He administered punishment with eyes clenched shut, his thick, black-framed bifocals set thoughtfully on a nearby end table.
When he hit us Pop muttered, “Do you see this coming?” Through grinding teeth, “Do you see this? Do you see this coming? Do you see this? Do you?!”
It took me years to put the pieces together that Pop wasn’t speaking to us, not really. He was addressing the pilot of the Japanese bomber, the whole Japanese air force. Wailing on us was an exorcism, a purging of toxins. For the short term, the beatings expelled some of the rage, but they were not a long-term answer to eradicating the poison.
After a few months we rarely cried, passively absorbing the blows as if we were each one of those child-size dummies you practice CPR on.
I was 11 the night things reached a head. It was a Saturday. Pop was babysitting so Mom could go out with friends for a while. He never hit us when she was around. When we would cry and show her the welts she would say things like, “What do you want me to do, move us out so we can live on the streets?”
I don’t recall the triggering incident, really. I just recall that he had already beaten me, and then Richard. We were curled into opposite corners of the couch while Pop spanked David with his implement of choice, a brushed nickel hairbrush. I was having a familiar out-of-body experience, watching as one lone tear rolled down my baby brother’s ruddy cheek and, in super slow motion, dropped onto the plush brown living room carpet.
When the tear landed I bolted to the kitchen and grabbed the broom from between the fridge and the cabinets, the same wood-handled broom Mom chased us with when she was pissed, or goofing. Pop didn’t know I’d left the couch, or that I’d returned and was standing behind him. That’s when I whacked him. Then I swung again. I smacked him across the back, across his head, yelling, “Stop it! Stop it!” Five times, or a couple dozen, I don’t know. “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!”
Pop sloughed David off his lap and opened his eyes the way you wake the morning after a couple too many drinks. I was trembling.
Then he yanked the broom from my hands, stood, looked down at me, all three of us for a long moment. I shielded my head with my arms. “Enough,” he said. “Enough. Enough is enough.” He put on his bifocals, returned the broom to the kitchen, and splashed water on his face at the kitchen sink.
What remains is a soggy, sagging nest, and very light activity, more like a tiny regional airport than a busy, international one. I text Alex.
I am wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, no armor.
Alex, his wife and pajama-wearing twins watch from the same window.
I uncoil his garden hose, tighten the nozzle, crank open the spigot, climb the ladder, aim, and release a narrow, direct stream, and blast the papery mass off the garage, like scattering wet, autumn leaves.
A few survivors flee.
I replace the hose, fold and pass the ladder over the fence.
Alex opens the window as I go by. “All good?” he asks.
“All good to go,” I reply, and head home.
“Moss,” Cary called, rolling onto his back. “Moss, man, I am going to make my parents feel soooo fucking guilty about not coming up this weekend.”
I dropped down next to him on the pine needles. We looked up at the sky through the trees and broke out in laughter.
“Holy shit,” he said.
“Holy fucking shit,” I answered. We laughed, laughed the way only kids can after surviving such an ordeal, one they brought on themselves.
We heard a car approaching, crunching down the dirt road. A dusty, blue Nova pulled up. The nurse performed a cursory check of Cary and me, and then drove us back to the infirmary.
She tsk-tsked at Cary’s legs, wet a cotton ball with some pink lotion, and dabbed it on. “This will soothe the stings,” she said. “Give it a minute.”
Jeff B. said, “Cary, you are the clear winner.”
‘Yea,” he replied. “First one off the boulder wins. You know I’m digging into your snack stashes later. Both of you, right?”
“You’re actually kind of lucky,” the nurse said. “Yellow jackets don’t leave behind a stinger the way bees do. If these were bee stings we’d be here for a long time while I extracted the barbs. Much more painful.”
The nurse dialed Cary’s house and filled in his mom. When she passed the phone to Cary he threw a “just watch this” grin our way and said, “Mom, it hurts so bad. It was scary as anything.”
After the call the nurse said, “Camp’s empty. I think we can sneak out for a few minutes. You boys interested in some pizza and ice cream to soothe those stings?”
We piled into the dusty Nova and on the way to town we counted up our stings. Jeff B., in the front seat, had ten in various locations. Cary had over thirty. His legs looked like cotton candy from the pink cream and swelling.
“Four,” I said and shrugged. “Arm and stomach.”
“How are you so fucking lucky?” Jeff B. asked.
“Long pants?” I answered. “Boy Scout motto, right? Be prepared.”
Cary punched me in the shoulder and said, “That was genius, though, to use the fishing poles. Saved us, Moss. You saved us.”
“It just came to me,” I said.
Alex and his wife are searching in the grass.
“Lose something?” I ask.
“Nope,” he says. “We read that a dead wasp’s stinger can still pierce the flesh, like if it’s stepped on, so we’re making sure there are no dead ones back here before we let the kids run around. And thanks for handling this,” he adds. “You looked like a pro.”
The remnants of the hive cling to the vinyl siding.
I make a note to research if yellow jackets ever return to an eradicated nesting site. They generally do not.
I also make a note that there are two pretty much-unused cans of wasp-killing spray on a shelf in the garage.
Every summer, after retiring from his career as a linotype operator, Pop set out in his silver Impala for a month-long circuit of the country to visit shipmates individually before joining their ever-diminishing numbers at an annual reunion. He cherished returning to the WASP collective.
Pop passed in 2000. I took a leather-bound photo album from his apartment. Tucked in the back, along with his honorable discharge papers and dog tags, I discovered my grandparents’ divorce proceeding documents:
A – That on or about January 4, 1973, at the marital residence of the parties, the defendant did punch the plaintiff about the arms and back, and beat her with a leather strap about her back and legs; did choke her, and did threaten to kill her;
B – That on or about January 18, 1973, at the marital residence of the parties, the defendant did strike, with a closed fist, plaintiff about the chest, did grab her arm and throw her forcibly on the bed and did then strike her in her right eye with his shoe and did threaten to kill her.
I hadn’t thought about those dark nights or my grandmother’s pain in a long time. The answers to these decades-old questions were not a salve or a balm. It was not a healing moment. Some truths bite more than vague memories.
I also inherited Pop’s silver red-roofed Chevy Impala. My wife and I dubbed it the Impoppy. When I registered the vehicle I kept the Florida vanity license plates, WASP USS. One is hanging over the desk where I am composing this piece. It reminds me of what Pop and so many gave to our country, what my brothers and I endured. It also reminds me that some threats are clear in your sights and others are hidden and can swarm any second. I gave the other license plate to my youngest brother. He doesn’t display it, keeps it buried in a box in his garage.