Having just arrived in Georgia, I really didn’t know anything about the flora and fauna. That proved to be a problem immediately.
As a kid of about 12, I was happy about the move. I knew the circumstances surrounding it had to do with my mother’s drinking problem, but not much beyond that. Years later, I got a half-assed version from my father, but it doesn’t make much sense based on who he is and what I’ve seen of him over the years. So rather than try to figure it out, I just don’t care. Anyway, I’m sure most kids would be really upset about being pulled out of school and away from friends at the end of the sixth grade year, but for me, there wasn’t a lot of angst about it. First, I didn’t have many friends. I was sent to “visit” the school one day in fifth grade, and I met some people that I thought were really cool. I even went so far as to think we were “friends.” Well, I didn’t see them again until the following school year. During that time, they’d pretty well forgotten me. Couple that with the fact that the group of them had been friends since kindergarten, and I’m on the outside looking in. Kind of the story of my life.
So when it came time to move, it was no big deal to me. I was going to have to make new friends, but maybe I’d have more success in the south than I did on the left coast.
Anyway, I didn’t know anyone in Georgia except some of my paternal family members. A couple of cousins, to be precise, and my grandmother. No one else. I met Chubs that summer, and his prissy little sister Missy; their dad and mom, who I thought were cool until much later when I realized differently; and that was about it. Some guy named Calvin, who Chubs’ dad called “Cahvin”, helped us move out when we left Georgia nearly two years later, but I don’t remember when I met him. So, for the rest of the summer between my sixth and seventh grade years, I had my brother Ryan and occasionally Chubs and Missy for company.
I didn’t know any of that when I got there, though. My maternal grandmother traveled with us on the plane. She was the “adjustment period” to help us get used to living in a new, unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. She and my father’s mom always seemed to like each other, though the language barrier between them could be a comedy gold mine. My mother’s mom is from El Salvador and has a thick accent; my father’s mom was from the general area where she lived (God only knows exactly where) and she had a thick accent. A simple statement of greeting could last five minutes.
Anyway, I really didn’t know anything about the place. I’d visited before, but only for a week or two at a time on family vacations. Those were small concessions my father received from my mother during their marriage, I guess. So, that bright, sunny day sometime after we moved in, my brother and I were getting the lay of the land and running all over the yard, looking in the new “house” (if you want to call it that) and just being kids, trying to get a feel for the new homestead.
Our parents had gone ahead of us to make ready. My father already had a job by the time we got there. He’s always been lucky like that. There were a couple of cars in place: a gold 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass with a black Landau top, and a baby-blue 1971 Olds Cutlass with a white Landau top. The furniture was all in place; the stuff that didn’t fit in the house, evidently, was discarded somewhere. The only thing for my brother and me to do was get settled with whatever clothes we had with us and start having fun.
The yards were strange to me. Having grown up in California, I wasn’t used to yards without fences. The neighbors where I grew up made sure to mark their territories immediately and often with 6-foot tall wooden walls between their property and the next nearest human being. Interestingly, they’ll wave at each other in the driveway and sometimes visit with one another over the top of the fences, but God forbid we leave the fences down. “Good fences make good neighbors” was always the motto.
Here, there was exactly one fence in sight, and it was between my grandmother’s lot and the lot behind hers. It was a fence of heavy-gauge wire in a mesh pattern, but not chicken wire. The “posts” of the fence were about three feet high, maybe four. It was overgrown with a tangle of greenery thick with leaves and flowers which I later learned was honeysuckle. The shrubbery was so dense, I couldn’t even see the fence wiring beneath it.
And that was the problem. I didn’t know anything about the wildlife in Georgia, and I couldn’t see the fence. See the problem?
So my brother and I were racing around the yard, whooping and yelling like chimps escaped from their keepers, and we get a load of that fence. My grandmother’s there, talking about a section of her yard near it, showing my other grandmother that particular little piece of dirt she called a garden, but I wasn’t really interested in that. There was something on the other side of the fence that got my attention, and so Ryan and I darted over to have a look.
We were excited and wound-up, making a ruckus such as the neighbors probably hadn’t ever seen. Everything was fascinating to us — my grandmother’s gravel driveway (never saw one of those next to a paved road before); the thick greenery in the middle of summer (that doesn’t happen where I grew up); the spacious, rolling lawns (it looked like they just grew wild, as though no one planned and landscaped the yards); the sky that wasn’t quite blue; the ancient, green lean-to and it’s weird, coiled-snake-in-the-wall electric heaters; the fact that the old shack was held up on the back side by a stack of cinder blocks; the huge apple tree and the swing hanging from one of it’s branches. You name it, we were amazed by it.
I ran toward that fence all gangly and awkward with my thick glasses and long, unkempt hair and my ultra-cool desert boots and jeans. I went thundering down the slope of the lot and raced to the honeysuckle, putting my hands out in front of me to stop myself from crashing into the wire beneath, never knowing it was camouflage for a predator waiting to spring on the innocent, unsuspecting children new to their territory.
I was looking over that fence and wondering about the other side, whatever it was, when I felt something between my index and middle fingers on my left hand.
Suddenly my hand burst into flames and the agony shot up my arm and all the way into my brain.
Okay, not literal flames, but the closest description I can give you to the sensation I had was like being burned. It was so intense and hurt so bad the hair on my body stood up immediately. I pulled back my hand, confused and trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I stared down at my hand in horror, panic gripping me like the convulsions of a heart attack.
There was a large, winged insect with piercing, black eyes and a yellow-and-red striped abdomen writhing between my fingers, jabbing at me with it’s ass as like it was trying to copulate with my hand. The brownish-red wings beat angrily in the air as it struggled between my digits. My finger, pulsing and red, told me this was obviously some sort of stinging insect, and clearly it wasn’t going to die after stabbing me with its venomous dart.
A shiver twisted up my spine and I felt the adrenaline rush flush my cheeks. I gritted my teeth to keep from screaming and clenched my fist as tightly as I could, crushing the buzzing, creeping, undulating miscreant and severing it at the needle-thin waistline.
I shook the corpse from my hand an
d clenched my wrist; the pain would NOT subside. It just kept pounding and pounding, and my finger was getting really, really big now.
I looked at the fence where I’d put my hand, and all I could see was the dense leaf canopy of the honeysuckle bush. Carefully stepping forward, I moved a couple of leaves aside.
Under that blanket of innocent, cool greenery, was a pulsing, humming network of papery tubes and yellow, buzzing monsters. Just like the one that tried to kill me.
A wasp’s nest. A big one — bigger than the span of my hand. It was alive with motion and sound as the pissed-off inhabitants geared up for a more massive counter-attack on me.
I back-pedaled so fast I almost tripped, and then took off like a bolt of lightning toward the house where my parents were still unpacking sundries. Somewhere there was a sound, a constant wail that sailed like a stream of wind through the air, and it was only after I crashed through the storm door into the tiny green asbestos-coated cabin that I realized it was me, yelling in pain and fear.
There was a few minutes of coddling by my mother, who gasped when she saw my ever-enlarging finger, which eventually swelled so large the folds of skin on the backs of the knuckles actually turned inside-out, becoming ridges. There was a chiding about not bothering wasps from my hayseed, hick-reverting father, despite my protestations that I hadn’t bothered them and didn’t even know the damned nest was there. There was an ice pack, which did nothing, whatsoever, and then the hours of vigilance by both parents to make sure I didn’t have an allergic reaction and go into anaphylactic shock (I didn’t).
That was my first memory of living in Georgia permanently. Welcome to the country, city-boy.