Monday, January 23, 2012

Papaw was an Ozark Alien

My papaw had many hobbies. I don't know if they were really hobbies or if they were necessary to help support the family. One of these activities was harvesting honey. When I was old enough, which I recall old enough was being able to walk and talk, he let me help him harvest honey. I had seen my Papaw geared up before when I rode with him to the hives. He looked like an alien from some far away planet in his huge white bonnet, much  like my Mamaw wore in the garden. His bonnet had a net over his face that draped across his chest. He would put on long gloves and tuck his sleeves in the tops. He would then slip on his waders, usually used for fishing, only part of his overalls showed between the waders and the drape of the hat netting. I would have run screaming if I didn't see him putting on this gear, warning the world that there were aliens in the Ozarks!

The day I didn't have to wait in the truck, he gave me my own bonnet and gloves then told me to tuck my pants legs into my socks. He used what looked like a cross between a coal bucket and a magic lamp to pump smoke into the bottom of the hive box. Smoke would eventually make its way out the vent holes at the top. Being this close I was as hypnotized as the bees by the smoke, the sounds and the excitement of being able to help with his harvest.

We used honey for everything. We put it on ice cream, on pancakes, in coffee, for cooking and sometimes just ate it off a spoon. The best part was when the honey was gone, all that was left was the wax. I got to chew on the wax that was stuffed in the jar, a major treat, hillbilly candy!

After Papaw smoked the hives, he lifted off the top ever so slowly.  The bees never swarmed when he did this, maybe out of respect for my Papaw. With the top off, he would lift rectangle shaped boards that glittered with dripping gold, some bees still clinging to the honey comb. Papaw told me to never be greedy, the bees needed to keep some to survive the winters, so he never picked them clean.

As he slid the honey filled wax off  the boards, he did his best to spare any bees that insisted on coming along for the ride. It was like a ballet and I got to be a part of this dance; get smoke into the hive to calm the bees, lift honey covered boards, collect sticky comb, return the empty board. We did this dance for the bees, hive to hive until there was no more room in our containers. As we lugged the honey back to truck it amazed me that the bees were not attacking us as we took their life's work, as Papaw told me bees only lived to produce honey. They didn't try to sting us, they didn't even seem upset when they landed on our cloths and face nets. It was like they were saying hello to an old friend who brought a new friend to their homes. I wonder if the bees thought all friendly humans looked like aliens so they only stung normal looking folks.

When we got to the truck, Papaw waited a few minutes, lifting his net to put a chaw of tobacco into his cheek. I reached down and picked a long dark green blade of grass and tucked it in between my teeth. Papaw eventually lifted his face net over his head, checked all around us before he told me I could take off my gear. When the gear was tucked away, he dug into one bucket and broke off a piece of honey comb. Thick gold dripped off his fingers and onto the ground. As he handed it to me, he plucked out a bee that was buried in the goo. I stuck the entire piece into my mouth.  My teeth bit into the sealed wax capsules. Honey dripped from my chin and I looked out over the field of clover at all the hives. It was as if we had never been there. The bees were busy with their life's work again.

I kept that piece of honey comb on my headboard, usually reserved for gum. Every night I would peek at it to make sure my Mamaw hadn't found it and tossed it in the trash, it was junk to her. To me, it represented the day I joined my grandfather for the first time in becoming an Ozark alien.

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