The people bunched up on the hill wanted to teach us to sing in perfect harmony.
The tarpaper shack was humming with activity. The thin paneling that Daddy and his brothers nailed up had sealed out the wind pretty well, and now they let us kids paint the interior doors. Jake and I painted the vertical planks of our bedroom door in alternating colors.
The peach trees bloomed a fluffy white. Short trees, about head high, the kind with small but sweet Georgia peaches that were only fit to each fresh. They were too soft to cut and can. Old Mrs. Brown in the farmhouse next door was planting peas in her flour sack dress.
Outside, a magnificent spring replaced the cutting winter bite. It had been so cold that big oak trees along Davis Street split asunder as sub-zero temperatures caught the sap rising just as spring opened one eye to the alarm clock.
With the vines and bushes still bare, we stumbled upon a discarded can of powdered eggs at the barbed wire fence where the privet jungle that separated the shack from the landlord’s house over on Church Street began. The can looked to be in good shape. We had never heard of powdered eggs. Maybe somebody bought them at an Army surplus store or something. We had powdered scrambled eggs for two weeks from the nondescript can, a can the size of a big orange juice can. They were quite good.
We had enough to eat then but were curious. The first company Daddy worked for on a welding supply route paid regularly (the second one wouldn’t). Mama stumbled into a job selling fire equipment. She sold one LaFrance truck to the county but was stiffed on the fat commission. Jake and I strapped a fire extinguisher onto each of the banana seat bikes we’d gotten for Christmas and rode all over town trying to help with sales. None of the puzzled merchants wanted one.
With firetruck sales lagging, Mama loaded the trunk of a long Cadillac that a rich lumberyard guy on the welding supply route outright gave her, and she delivered tanks of oxygen and acetylene to customers for Daddy.
Money was a bit tight but we were doing okay. The electricity was on, we had running water and indoor plumbing and a small TV. Me and You and a Dog Named Boo and Midnight Rider blared from a portable radio during the day. I scraped up five bucks for a used pocket transistor radio. At night the local stations faded but then I could hear stations several states away, and even some in Spanish.
Not that we were rolling in dough. We didn’t have the money to buy school clothes at the store or even the second-hand place. Being the smallest, I was chosen to dive into the clothing donation box. Classmates asked me if my pants were ski pants. They were too tight but the best I could find in the bin. I flushed and mumbled, “No.” If I wasn’t being picked on for clothing it was for being born outside the county or having black friends. Just one more annoyance among many.
A new song about apple trees and honeybees played every thirty minutes on the TV and radio. I liked it.
A farmer on dad’s welding supply route had given Mama some runt pigs he was going to kill. Two had died, two looked sickly, and two were healthy and growing. Another farmer gave us a pinto pony, on the condition that if it didn’t work out that we return her to him. We called her Baby.
We returned Baby after just a few weeks. We had no saddle or tack, no barn. She had never been ridden and was half wild. We managed to ride her bareback a few times with just a rope bridle, but I stopped trying the fourth time I bounced off, landing this time right between her flying hooves. It wasn’t fair to the horse to keep her.
We had a rabbit hutch out back until wandering dogs yapped at the rabbits until they died of fright.
We batted at the carpenter bees that were drilling into the soffits.
It was full-on spring when Daddy noticed the bees.
They were knotted up on a limb in the tree line at the end of Mrs. Brown’s garden patch. Daddy had noticed a lot of honeybees about and found the forked limb about head high to him where the swarm wrapped itself around the queen.
Daddy walked us out to see them. I’d never seen that many bees in one place. They were quiet and packed tight, a group about two feet long and nearly a foot wide.
“We can catch them and have honey,” he told us. “We’ll keep them in a box until we make a hive.” All four kids stood in wonder and apprehension.
“I’ll get a box, and if we smoke them, they won’t sting.”
We returned with a rolled-up newspaper, a cardboard box slightly larger than the knot of bees, and Daddy’s Zippo. Jake and I had buckets to stand on.
“Okay, don’t make a lot of noise. I’ll hold the box. Jake, you cut the limb off, real easy — don’t wiggle the limb too much when you cut.” Jake held a handsaw.
“Dean, you hold the limb so it won’t fall, and you close the box once they’re in there.”
Little Rachel stood close by me watching. Doris took up a position at a safe distance, almost in the Brown garden.
Daddy fumbled with the box flaps trying to get them to stay open. He lit the newspaper roll, holding the smoldering paper a foot or two below the bees. It didn’t make much smoke.
“Okay, cut it.”
Jake made three or four saw cuts before all hell broke loose.
A good number of the bees flew away from us, making a beeline down the garden. Some clung tight to the crotch of the branch, and the rest spread out.
“Oww!” Jake was hit first. Doris yowled.
I took one sting to the arm and one to my bare chest but hung on, for a moment.
No one yelled, “Run!” until we were already sprinting and halfway back to the house.
Rachel was stung on both ears.
Daddy grabbed a garden hose at the back door, spraying a mist all around us. It helped some.
The bees retreated toward the tree, then I saw the whole swarm rise up and move away.
Daddy and Jake were swatting and writhing in pain. I brushed a few off of Jake, one in his hair.
We both brushed a few off of Daddy’s back, their venom spent, leaving their pulsating stingers behind in his skin.
It took a minute to part Daddy’s hair to remove four of five from his scalp.
Mama poked her head out the back door and couldn’t stop laughing.
Snow-white turtle doves would arrive in my life a hundred miles and fifty years away. I wouldn’t complain about a late arrival. No one ever promised when they’d come.
We never did become gentlemen farmers at the old sharecropper’s house.