Running barefoot as a boy in the Philadelphia suburbs, I suffered the normal number of bee stings. Fortunately, I was never stung by a wasp, though I well recall the sight of miniature black dinosaurs with wings levitating through the neighborhood. These were a Pennsylvania version of the fearsome vespid wasp. My buddies and I took them seriously.
It wasn't until I was a teenager with a summer job in a county park that I heard about the worst characteristic of wasps.
One day the superintendent -- a big man named Moll Buhler who had an atrophied right arm and an enormous left one that ended in a foot-sized hand -- asked me, "Ever been stung by a wasp over and over?"
I said I hadn't.
"Well," he continued (because Moll never said anything without planning to continue), "yesterday I'm walking through the picnic grove and I look down and there's this yellow jacket on my shoulder stinging me like crazy. I had to wring that rascal's neck to get him to stop."
The image of Moll using his functional bear paw to artfully grab the yellow jacket by the throat amused me so much that I neglected to pursue the business of repeated stings. Perhaps the physical similarity between a yellow jacket and a bumble bee (in contrast to their cousins, the grotesque vespids) contributed to my underestimation of their powers, but in a way, it wouldn't matter what Moll told me, because nothing would prepare me for my first encounter with yellow jackets here in Arlington. And even that nasty experience didn't prepare me for the second coming of the wasps, something straight out of Alfred Hitchcock.
But now I know: There's a pain in the grass in the Washington suburbs that's dangerous and verges on the excruciating -- right out there in my back yard and yours.
Stung by Experience
Summer, 1998. I'm mowing the lawn in front of a house we've rented near Potomac Overlook Park. Wearing sandals. The rotary mower is noisy and throwing out its normal quotient of dust, so I don't notice a single, ferocious yellow jacket attacking my foot until it has already stung me two or three times. And I don't swat her away until she's made a few more sorties. Unlike with bees, the stingers of wasps do not have barbs. That's why they can keep attacking and not lose their weapon the first time it enters your flesh.
I ice the foot, but it swells anyway. Stays swollen, actually looking worse, the next day. By the third day, it's empurpled, overinflated and weeping in the areas where the enemy concentrated her attacks. So I'm sitting in my office with my shoe off (it doesn't fit) and my sock off (it doesn't fit, either) when a colleague comes in and gasps, "You better get you to a doctor."
Well, all right . . . doctors don't often occur to me. If my mother had called Doc McGinnis to tell him I'd been stung by a bee when I was a boy, he'd have hung up. Yet there at the end of my leg is something as odd looking as Moll Buhler's huge hand.
So I go to the emergency room at the Arlington Hospital, and there I learn a new word: necrosis. As a writer, I value learning new words, but be careful when one of them is built on the stem "necro" and it applies to you.
The yellow jacket has injected me with so much foreign protein and so many destructive enzymes in such a concentrated place that the tissue in my foot is on the verge of death. That's necrosis, which can spread, as it is doing up my shin.
"You could have lost your foot and your leg to the knee or more if you hadn't come in here today," the doctor tells me. "Or we might have had to debride you to save them."
Debride? Sorry, it doesn't mean a wedding-night divorce. Debridement is the surgical excision of dead tissue. It comes from Middle High German and picturesquely likens the removing of lifeless skin to taking off a horse's bridle, though in the case of a horse, no scalpel is involved.
The doctor gives me a powerful antibiotic and sends me to bed.
Yes, I recovered, but other than a few new words, did I learn anything? Apparently not. I was in my late forties, and this had never happened to me before, so I assumed it would never happen again. That yellow jacket had been flying low, took an unexpected interior tour of my rotary mower, and came out fighting mad. What were the odds?
Summer, 2003. We're in our own house in North Arlington now, and I'm outside with the same rotary mower doing my thing when I'm stung on the upper arm, then stung in the eyebrow, and immediately realize what's happening -- except that this time I'm being attacked by several yellow jackets, not just one. It's about 40 yards to the far corner of the house. I cover it fast, but the yellow jackets are just as fast, guided by an alarm pheromone released by the venom they've injected into me. I get stung around the waist, in the chest, on the wrist. Full of adrenaline, I circle the house. Still with me. I rush through the front door, pull it closed and stumble into the kitchen where I can throw cold water on myself and try to think.
But look, there's another one, it got inside! I grab a roll of paper towels and begin swatting. Hit it, knock it down, step on it.
Whoa, I'm dizzy, have to lie down. Upstairs on my bed, I feel an exchange coefficient taking over. As the adrenaline subsides, the "foreign protein" and "destructive enzymes" assert themselves. I grow numb and nauseated. Even though I'm staring straight up at the ceiling, I can barely see it. One eye is swollen shut, the other is open but out of focus.
And that's when my teenage son, Rob, comes home and opens the screen door, where two deeply offended yellow jackets apparently have been circling. Right away he begins shouting, "Dad, Dad, something's attacking me! They're in my hair!"
Before I know it, he's upstairs at my side grabbing wildly at his head. Forcing myself to see, I grab a towel and use it to press, squeeze, crush and essentially liquefy two yellow-striped predators picking their way in and out of the voluminous hiding places of his long black locks.
Somehow, I succeed. It isn't by delicately wringing anyone's tiny neck, I'll tell you that.
More adrenaline, more nausea and, even worse, the demonic horror of these ghastly things in the grass, in our yard, in our house!
Are there any more downstairs? Screw your courage to the sticking place, Shakespeare writes, but what did he know about wasps?
I descend to the first floor with a clipboard in my hand, ready to defend myself. No organic buzzing, just the humming refrigerator. No movement, just the cat's wide eyes staring at me from under the dining room table. Rob has my back. I tell him to go upstairs and let Dad do this, but he won't. Oh, this hurts. Finally, sure we're safe, we determine he's only been stung twice. Clearly, his assailants wasted valuable time working their way through his hair to the scalp itself before unloading on him.
Next day, he's fine, while I'm sort of body-poisoned. I see no signs of necrosis, however, which I take as good news. My wife thinks this is insane. She tells me to go to the emergency room for antibiotics again, but hey, who's the expert on yellow jackets around here?
Recovering physically is only part of the problem, however. The mower is still out in the yard, it's raining, and I go online to discover that yellow jackets often nest in the ground and like to take advantage of rodent holes and burrows (so the moles in my yard represent more trouble than I had thought). In a worst-case scenario, they can cause not only cause necrosis but even kidney failure. The life cycle of these devils, it seems, is nothing but death. It starts in April with a queen awakening from her winter slumbers and looking for a place to host her forthcoming brood, rises to a summertime crescendo that yields thousands of mature offspring by late August, and then subsides into natural extinction by late November, with only fat young queens surviving to repeat the cycle the following spring.
Well, it's still August, so those guys could be out there for months. What to do? I discover that their nest can be done in by a professional exterminator for $125, but the idea of spending $125 on these creeps threatens to make me sick again.
I get out my binoculars to have a look from a safe distance. This takes time because I'm really edgy, but at last I see them going in and out of the ground near the abandoned lawn mower. Obviously I had run right over their front door and that's why they pursued me to mine. Now what?
At Cherrydale Hardware, the sales staff and I have a good long talk. Several kibitzers join in. Finally, I decide to buy a mean-looking can of triple-X poison that I take home and shoot at the yellow jackets' portal from 20 feet away. It's a streaming foam similar to what they use to douse burning airplanes. Then I give it a day, check the apparently lifeless site with my binoculars, and tiptoe closer to empty my can right into their dark little entryway.
A week after that, I take a spade and destroy any traces of "home" so that no wasp ever thinks resettling there. The experts say the chances of this are remote, but the same experts also tell you not to run from wasps because the commotion increases their aggressiveness. Just calmly edge away to where it's safe, they advise. Inside, for instance.
Well, I could go on. Nothing is so intriguing as the sinister side of the suburbs. But the key, it seems to me, is that, starting in the spring and continuing on through the summer, you must walk around your lawn from time to time and look carefully for any sign of yellow jackets disappearing down into the grass. For obvious reasons, this is especially important if you have a child who plays outside or helps you in the garden.
Just remember, even if you made it through your own childhood without experiencing something like this yourself, it's never too late to learn a few new words.
Arlington writer Robert Earle, author of a new novel, "The Way Home" (DayBue Publishing), last wrote for the Health section about men's pickup basketball.