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The Sting


I was riding to work Sunday, when, just a couple of houses away from home, I felt a sharp pain in my right ankle.

At my age, pain is a common enough occurrence, but this was unusual: It really stinking hurt.

I glanced down and saw a wasp waspishly going to town on my leg.

I’ve had unwanted passengers before: mosquitos, spiders, moths, inebriated coeds. The proper response in all cases is to check first for oncoming traffic. Generally it’s a bad idea to freak out, veer into an oncoming semi and get creamed because some creepy crawly landed on your arm. Once you’re sure the road ahead is clear, calmly brush away the offending hitchhiker (except in the case of the inebriated coed; they tend to be ... clingy).

But my calm dismissal in this case was thwarted by my bike choice. Because I was riding my fixed-gear bike — the pedals and back wheel are direct-drive; if the bike’s rolling, the pedals are turning — I couldn’t merely coast and flick off the insect. Instead, I had to wait ... until Waspzilla ... reached the top of the pedal stroke ... whereupon I’d try to convince it ... to get the heck off my flesh.

Which, eventually, I finally did, and I rolled to a stop, hopped off the bike, bawled like a 5-year-old girl (and I have nothing against 5-year-old girls; I had one once), sniffled a couple of times, brushed away the tears and propped my foot up on the curb to survey the damage.

I remembered reading something about bee stings. Bees die after they sting somebody, because their stingers are barbed. The stingers enter flesh, catch on it, then rip out the bees’ guts as they pull away. The poor honey-maker’s innards are left behind, and the poison sac keeps pumping away.

Thus, it’s recommended that bee stingees remove said stinger/stomach/poison sac ASAP, either by tweezer or credit card.

I didn’t have my tweezers handy — though I keep a pair in my desk at work in case I have an eyebrow emergency that calls for immediate tweezing — and I prefer cash to credit, but then I remembered I’d been violated by a wasp, not a bee.

I’m no entomologist, but I recalled wasps kept their wits — and guts — about them after stinging, leaving themselves free to sting again. And again.

So I gave myself a quick once-over, verified there was no sac, poison or otherwise, dangling from my gams, and pedaled away.

I considered turning around and driving. I figured if I were going to go into anaphylactic shock, I didn’t want just to keel over on the bike and instead wanted to be behind the wheel of my big, honkin’ SUV so I could take out a big swath of Lawrence with me. But since I already had gone, oh, half a block or so, I figured I could soldier on.

All the rest of the way — as I maintained a vigil on my airway lest it constrict and fantasized about rolling up to the hospital E.R. and proclaiming, "DOA"-like, that I wanted to report a poisoning: mine — I thought about the birds and the bees. Or at least the wasps and the bees.

I was about halfway to work, breezing downhill in excess of 25 mph, when I was stricken by a nightmarish thought. What if the wasp had built a nest in my bike and I had a speeding, winged deathtrap between my legs?

Every tickle or touch became another poised stinger.

Curiously — perhaps it was the venom coursing through my veins — I thought back to my childhood.

My brother and I frequently were given outdoor chores, like mowing and working in the garden, that put us in winged-harm’s way. My dad was not amused when we failed to pick the beans because we were frightened off by some insect hellion.

Back then, I thought my dad was 10-feet tall and bulletproof, but I’ve since come to see just how wrong I was. He’s only 6-2.

He’d work outside barefooted, and he crawled inside the tiny heads of the creepy crawlies to see what made them tick. He came to understand their motivations, which he shared with his children.

Bees, he explained, were territorial, but reluctant to sting unless the hive was threatened. I guess the whole certain-death-if-it-stings thing provided some deterrent. Wasps, he said, could do some real damage, but only attacked if provoked. But bumblebees ... they were dangerous like wasps, he said, but also were just mean. They’d stick you just for the fun of it.

So my dad would go all proactive on bumblebees. Whenever he saw one, he’d swat it from the sky and step on it — bare feet and all.

Like I said, bulletproof.

He and his dad at one time were beekeepers. How cool is that? My dad was a beekeeper. My claim to fame is, I once went grocery shopping on a Friday instead of the usual Saturday morning.

Now, his dad had something of a different outlook on winged stingers. After my brother and I would happen upon some flying menace, he’d take a look, announce, “Looks like he’s got fire in his tail. I wouldn’t make him mad if I were you,” then go back to whatever manly man-of-the-earth task he had interrupted to deal with his sniveling grandsons.

Anyway, back to my brush with long, slow, agonizing death.

I made it to work and realized my right ankle had swollen considerably. My usually prominent, bony — OK, I’ll say it: sexy — ankle bone had disappeared and been replaced by a slightly discolored cankle.

I showed it off to the wife, who thought it gross, and my son, who promptly jabbed it and asked if it hurt.

It wasn’t until the ride back to work at night that I had a truly gruesome thought.

My brother and I were especially fearful of cicada killers, which I consider to be the mack daddy of insectuous danger. They’re supposedly uninterested in humans. Instead, they sting cicadas, paralyzing them, then drag them back to their lairs. They lay their eggs in the snoozing — but still-alive — cicada. The eggs hatch, and the babies crawl out to dine on the unlucky locust. Fresh meat!

What if I wasn’t victimized by a wasp? What if a myopic cicada killer shanked me with his fiery tail and, sensing I was too heavy to drag back to his lair, laid his eggs in my cankle? Come to think of it, by the time I made it to work, I was unusually sleepy.

Now I’m afraid 12 days hence, I’m going to wake up, look down and see ankle-biter cicada killers chowing on my leg.

Talk about a nightmare.


unrents 6 years, 9 months ago

I'm fortunate enough to know your father. He's a LEGEND in his own mind -- er, time.

ehartsock 6 years, 9 months ago

I can't believe we were so afraid of Cicada Killers. It probably was the fact they looked menacing and had those twitchy wings. Dad has always been fearless. He could also rip the Yellow Pages in half. I still haven't figured out how to do that. Have you?

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