McFadyen’s Musings: The Winter Wasp
My plantation-owning friend in Raeford was most gracious in saying “yes” to my request to float about her pond that summer afternoon. Her lovely acre rested behind an earthen dam, fed by a timeless thread of spring water. My greatest admiration of it swam just below that surface in the form of the fat bluegills that proved so very willing to eat the crickets I suspended on small hooks above the bottom of the pond.
As I shared pleasantries with her that afternoon prior to launching my john boat, she considered what a lovely thing it would be for me to clean out her wood duck box. I would be floating around it anyway, and because no ducks were using it, it seemed a reasonable time for her to impose a small use tax for all the fun I enjoyed on, and just below, her water’s surface. While I unhaltingly agreed, from somewhere in the dark recesses of my 50 years of experience, I heard a tinkling bell. Unfortunately, it did not ring loudly or clearly enough.
My angling career began in the mid-60s on Devonwood pond when Uncle Reg had free reign there and total say over who fished and who did not. Lord only knows how many bream and bass he hauled from there, transferring their swim from tranquil water to boiling oil.
There was in that pond a turtle trap. It was a wooden structure standing above the water level with a board onto which the turtles would climb. Prior to my arrival on the scene, it had worked like a teeter-totter, depositing the reptiles into a fenced holding bin. The terrapins were eliminated without ceremony. The snapping turtles became the main ingredient for a now mostly-forgotten soup prepared by the hired hands at Uncle Reg’s egg farm.
By the time I was entrusted with my very own cane pole and boat paddle, the turtle trap was non-functioning. In poetic justice, it was a place where other turtles lounged in sort of a peaceful memorial to those fallen heroes who previously ventured out too far on the plank. It was also a place where you could count on a bluegill bite or two. I was warned not to drift too close; it was also the place where wasps nested and reared their squiggly white larvae into full members of winged society.
There are a lot of wood duck boxes in the world today; there are very few functional or even non-functional turtle traps. Still, they share the qualities of not only being above the water line but also being mostly undisturbed. Both attract critters of various forms that prefer not to interact with humanity.
On the aforementioned summer afternoon in Raeford, I had boated 10 or so fat panfish. I was ready to make my exit, so it was time to pay my tax to this generous landowner. I paddled slowly to the box, which had as its face a hinged door. My course was perfectly true, and I never even grazed the pole in the water. Yet I saw upon closer inspection that the door was screwed shut. So I gently back-stroked away, found and opened my little kit for a screwdriver, and repeated the approach. Only this time, my aim was not as true.
In just the slightest of nautical miscalculations, my bow barely bumped the wooden pole on which the wood duck box was mounted. Instantly, the sky in front of me darkened with a rancorous cloud of black wasps. It is noteworthy how quickly several things happened from there. First, I marveled at how quickly those wasps developed a violent hatred toward me. Secondly, I am retroactively fascinated at how quickly I processed in my mind that the $300 phone in my pocket eliminated diving into the water as an option for escape. Thirdly, it was painfully apparent (and I mean literally painfully) that nothing in my high school, college or professional experiences prepared me for effectively deciding whether to fight or run when “run” was defined as “paddling slowly backwards while getting repeatedly stung by angry wasps” and “fight” was defined as “swing your paddle back and forth in the air as fast as you can in an effort to swat wasps out of mid-air.” I did both, but neither did I do well.
That tinkling bell I heard in my mind earlier was saying, “Wood duck boxes should be cleaned out in winter!”
My best pal has a cabin void of electricity sitting between the inland waterway and the coastline. We use it most frequently together just after fall turns to winter, when the days are brisk and the nights require blanketing, when the redfish and speckled trout make hay on the thickened schools of mullet minnows. The cabin’s night light comes from Coleman lanterns; the heat from a wood stove.
On one such night, when winter was taking firm hold, my pal slept soundly on the weathered couch in the wee morning hours surrounded by three other snoring fishermen. Cold-blooded creatures had found their places of hibernation in the cabin as well. The plentiful heat from the wood stove, however, rose steadily into the cabin rafters, awakening all those critters that had taken winter refuge there.
About 2 a.m., my pal woke from his deep haze to a piercing on his arm. He swatted at the pain as he sat upright in an otherwise foggy state. Focusing down to the floor, he saw a black wasp fumbling for coherency after having been de-hibernated prematurely by the fire’s heat and after having been bludgeoned to the floor by the recipient of the sting. My pal jammed his foot into a sandal and audibly crunched to death the groggy wasp that had stung his forearm.
As he raised his gaze back to an even line of sight, he viewed the far wall where the stove pipe exited the cabin’s main room. To his shock, he saw flame creeping slowly up the raw plywood. The cabin with four sleeping men inside was beginning to burn.
My pal is a great protector today of wasps. No one is allowed to exterminate them in the cabin. He believes that he killed his very own guardian angel, sent to painfully wake him in the middle of the night and save him from a fiery death.
I drove home from Raeford that night with a swollen face and neck. I bought a ten pound bag of ice at a convenience store and held it on my head as best I could all the way home, ignoring the melt running down my body onto the seat of my truck. My nature is to curse such events as that one, where perhaps I should have discerned that the winter wasps would be less violent than summer ones. That said, if a single winter wasp saved four lives from a new flame, perhaps dozens of summer wasps were what it took to keep me from finding whatever was coiled up inside that wood duck box.
I am happy not to know.