My father was two different people. At work he was a respected computer software engineer with multiple patents, headed research and development groups, and was interviewed by industry magazines. At home he was a goofball; the quick, the fast, the oft injured family punching bag. It was always ok to make fun of dad, and he usually took it well. His willingness to take the punch deflected some of my mom’s tendency to catastrophize situations.
Exhibit A: The hallway light goes out.
M: “If you don’t get that fixed it will short out and burn down the house.”
D: “Oh honey, it’d probably just blacken the hall wall!”
This is a paraphrase, of course, but they played these roles in each other’s lives and mine. About that hallway light, it really did go out, and my mom really did make my dad fix it.
I always want to learn whatever handy thing I can, so I asked my dad if I could help and watch him fix the hallway light. We needed to take a socket out of the wall and strip some wires so that they would make contact and work. It was an easy job, and, at home, my dad liked to do things the quick and fast way. So, when I asked if I should go down to the basement and turn off the circuit breaker just to be safe, he snarled at me “I have a degree in electrical engineering, I know what I am doing.”
He did have the degree (in theoretical electrical engineering), and, to be fair, the snarl was probably because mom had spent a good half hour yelling at him to fix the socket. So, I backed up a little bit and tried to watch what he was doing as best I could. I was so absorbed in the work that I almost didn’t notice the slight tremor that went through his body and the muffled “ummf” sound he made to cover the shock he had just received. “Do you want me to go turn off the circuit breaker, dad?” A sullen “yes.” And the project was done in five more safe minutes. My dad’s penchant for taking the easy way got him in to a lot of trouble on the farm.
After a terrible August thunderstorm, a tree had fallen on the beehive behind the greenhouse, which was itself attached to the horse barn’s rear. This was a particularly important and large hive as the garden was, for convenience’s sake, located in front of the greenhouse. The tree had knocked open the beehive, which made it possible that the queen would decide that this location was no longer ideal and the entire hive would “swarm.” That is, they would follow the queen to a tree, a bush, a scaffold—anything really—and form a ball of terrifying fury around her as they sought a new home.
So I understand that my dad was in a hurry to get the bee suit on. The suit was hot and he didn’t want the hive to swarm. But I, if you remember, personally understood the misery of an incorrectly sealed suit. He would have none of my warnings that we needed to check the cuffs more and adjust the seal on the hood. You may begin to see the pattern if you recall the breaker box. And so, rather heroically, he rushed behind the greenhouse to put the hive boxes back together. He lasted. . . . I’d say ten minutes.
I was watering the horse at the front of the barn when I saw him come skidding around the corner like Han Solo chased by Storm-troopers yelling “the water! Get the water!” While bees may need a certain amount of water, they don’t like rain or simulated rain. So I turned the hose full blast on my dad.
Now, we’ve all experienced the feeling of plunging into ice cold water when it’s hot outside. You remember that specific sensation that centers itself deep in your loins and pushes out like warm fire until you can’t contain it anymore. You want to pee.
Under the August sun and a gush of ice-cold well water, he peed himself. But at least he wasn’t getting stung. “Ahhhh, too cold! Turn the water off!!” he yelled, followed by “No, no, turn it back on! Turn it back on!.” This pee-sting cycle continued probably four times before the bees located me as the source of their resistance. Having no suit, I dropped the hose and ran. Observers, from afar, said that I moved with the elegance and speed of a gazelle. My dad was left to awkwardly shamble through the garden shucking off bits of pee soaked bee-suit until he too was beyond the range of the bees’ aggression.
Instead of quickly fixing the hive, we laundered the bee-suit with what could probably be described as “far more bleach than necessary.” Then we washed it again.
Several hours later, the almost pristine bee-suit was carefully arrayed by the entire family. My dad stood like a surgeon as we moved around him. All cuffs were well taped. All seams were triple checked. The bee hood was secured and checked. With the suit now impervious to, we’ll leave out what my dad called them since he was in the Navy and his description was very long, he was ready to try again. He approached slowly, smoker blasting away. He carefully picked up the fallen bee box, put it on top of the hive, capped the hive, and backed away. This process, done at the unhurried pace of simple fear, took twenty minutes.
It took almost as long to dress and then undress him after the whole debacle. I suppose the fire story should go here too since instead of making a proper burning pit, we had simply bent two cattle panels into a circle with half-foot holes in their sides. We’d stomped out enough little fires that we should’ve realized a big one was coming.
He did start to learn though. When my mom fancifully suggested that we (the boys) build a “summer home” on a shady hill near the woods for the chickens. We did our best to make a Fort-Chicken-Knox. Enclosing all sides and the top with chicken wire, we dug a two foot deep trench around the new coop, extending the chicken wire into the trench to prevent animals like weasels or raccoons from getting in since the coop was so close to the woods. Until the chicken wire rusted through, no bird or beast escaped that coop unless someone simultaneously opened the quarter-inch bolt and two latches on the door.