A sound immediately followed by a sharp pain at tip of my left index finger. I had opened the screen to my tent and placed my hand on my sleeping bag. It was the last night of a week of Boy Scout camp in the middle of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Northeastern Wisconsin.
I never actually saw the bee, or fully determined how it invaded my tent; it probably snuck in earlier in the day when Dan or I had opened the screen (which might’ve had a hole in it.) However, the quick procession of buzz-then-sting confirmed it. Thirteen years old, and one of my worst fears had finally come true.
I knelt there for a few seconds, a little dumbstruck. My tentmate was a few yards away, helping to put out the campfire along with Mr. Runkle, father to Bill Runkle, a scrawny eleven-year-old who had joined our Troop last year. His dad was one of four who’d come along on the trip to supervise us dozen Scouts.
I walked over to Dan and Mr. Runkle. “I think I got stung by a bee,” I announced.
Mr. Runkle asked, “Has this ever happened to you before?”
“Nope”, I replied.
“How are you feeling? I don’t see any hives or puffiness.”
“I think I’m fine,” I said. “It just hurts.”
“Well, you need to go to the infirmary. We don’t know if you’re allergic or not.”
An allergy to beestings had never occurred to me; however, given my long-festering hatred of the insect, I wasn’t all that surprised one existed.
Mr. Runkle grabbed his flashlight and ordered me to fetch mine. It was after 10:00 PM, and we were off to the camp’s infirmary. At least half a foot taller than me, broad shouldered and sporting a walrus mustache, Mr. Runkle in his lumberjack red flannel shirt led the way through the woods along a series of paths I barely recognized in the dark. As a city kid, the forest always seemed immense to me—you looked up and all you saw were impossibly tall, towering trees in every direction. If a clearing was anywhere near, you couldn’t sense it.
My finger throbbed a bit, the pain still present but contained, not necessarily getting any worse. As we walked for ten, fifteen minutes, I thought about my long-standing fear of getting stung. Ever since a bee flew into our dining room one summer when I was four or five, I’d been deathly afraid of them. Much of that had to do with the buzzing noise—like the roar of the titular weapon in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, just the sound indicated the possibility of something going horribly wrong. From an early age, I was taught by my mom to stay away from them. For years at my pediatrician’s office, the waiting room, amongst all the wrinkled back issues of Highlights, there was kind of a faux Golden Book with a story where some kids got into trouble for poking a beehive. One illustration portrayed them running away from the swarm, their faces covered in welts and sores as the bees followed, their stingers pointed directly at them. That would never be me, no sir.
Blame Fear of the Unknown: as a kid, you’re told not to mess with bees because they’ll sting you and it’ll hurt. I suppose some kids take that information in stride, not actively seeking out a swarm of bees to mess with but not caring much about encountering the insect either; I did not fall into that category—the possibility of suddenly getting stung was for me a phobia right up there with fire alarms, angry barking dogs and neighborhood bullies.
Thus, when this first bee sting finally arrived, so quick and finite, it almost felt anticlimactic. Sure, it hurt, but not nearly as much as the horsefly bite I’d received on the back of my neck two summers before. As I did my best to keep up with Mr. Runkle in the woods that night, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s it? This is what I was afraid of?”
By the time we reached the infirmary, the pain in my finger had lessened considerably. Mr. Runkle rang the doorbell and the Camp Medic, a wispy, white-haired man let us in. I followed him into an examination room towards the back of the cabin while Mr. Runkle waited in the entryway. From a large metal cabinet lined with rows and rows of pill bottles, the Medic selected one and from it gave me a capsule to swallow, along with a glass of water. “This is for just in case you’re allergic,” he instructed.
I don’t remember exactly what I was given, only that it was *enormous*, much larger than anything I’d ever been told to swallow before. It easily could’ve been a Horse-Sized Pill, although I didn’t yet have the language to describe it as such. Swallowing this behemoth capsule took some effort; it felt as if I were consuming a pinky finger (even though it couldn’t have been that big.)
Having downed the pill and the entire glass of water, Mr. Runkle and I said Goodnight to the Medic and made our way back to our campground. Everyone was in their tents, asleep or feigning sleep by then. I thanked Mr. Runkle for taking me to the infirmary and he responded, “You’re welcome; just let one of the dads know if you feel sick during the night.” The pain in my finger had pretty much disappeared, replaced by a nagging itch that would stay with me all the way home to Milwaukee the next day.
After my first bee sting, I still steadfastly avoided the insect but no longer feared it. I now considered them a mere annoyance more than the Insect Antichrist I’d previously made them out to be(e). I’d get stung again in my early thirties after trying to move a large opened bag of apparently bee-infected potting soil that had been left on the ground for hours. It happened as rapidly and unexpectedly as when I reached for my sleeping bag two decades before. It hurt like a motherfucker, but the pain gradually lessened and once again, I survived.