(Honey, Don’t Crash On Me Now)
Hot, still summer days can be a lazy time, days when time is suspended. They can also be harrowing and action packed. There was such a time as this long ago that began innocently enough. It was a day just like any other, the average “help out the local beekeeper” day.
As a school teacher, I was determined to spend my summer actively, doing things I had not done before. When the opportunity arose a few days earlier, I volunteered to help a local beekeeper gather a little honey from beehives in central Nevada and move the honey to Rio Oso. At the time, I did not realize how long it would take, the length of the trip, or all the minor details involved.
The afternoon before the trip, I arrived at the apiary and put on borrowed white long sleeved coveralls. Listening to advice from Jorge, another worker, I put on boots and laced them tightly. I pulled the legs of the coveralls down over the tops of the boots. Then, he told me to tie laces around the tops of the shoes over the legs of the coveralls. “Okay, “ I thought. “This is going to be way too hot.”
I slipped on cotton sleeves, which had elastic on both ends, over the sleeves of the coveralls. “When you put on your gloves, you will pull the ends of the sleeves over the ends of the sleeves, leaving no skin exposed.” “Why?” I asked. “I already have on coveralls.” He laughed. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
He handed me a round pith helmet, the kind worn in hot climates. “Put it on,” he said, “and then pull this bee veil over the top.” I followed his instructions and found string coming from the bottom of both sides of the veil. “Pull the string tightly around you and tie it in front,” he said. Finally, we slipped on gloves and slipped the sleeves over the ends of the gloves. “I think you are protected,” he grinned. “If there are any openings the bees will find them.”
“What have I gotten myself into?” I thought. “Surely I’m safe in these double layers of clothing.”
I was doubly confused when I saw the beekeeper, a young man two years older than me, unclothed except for swimming trunks and sandals, moving bee hives with a forklift. Bees filled the air, zipping this way and that, but the owner went about his business unconcerned.
Bees headed my way and I swatted at one and then another. One stung through my clothes, then another. I ducked inside a building and hid. I saw Jorge outside and called out, “Why are they after me?” “They can smell fear,” he replied. “They know you are afraid.” The rest of the day was spent in learning how to move slowly but efficiently, a pace that was accepted by the bees. Any sudden movements drew their attention with painful results. I was not a beekeeper yet, but I was learning fast through trial and error, stings and swellings.
“Be here early tomorrow. We leave at four,” Wes, the owner stated. My heart sank. Was he kidding? Who in their right mind got up in the middle of the night? Wes looked at me again. “Bring water and whatever you want to snack on. It’s going to be a long drive.”
I was there at four, dressed in jeans, blue chambray shirt, and lace up work boots. I had a thermos of coffee, two tall bottles of half frozen water, and several kinds of snacks. I was ready to tackle the world as long as there were no bees anywhere close.
Wes and Jorge had already loaded the truck and trailer with empty supers. The supers, upper stories of hives which would be replacing the honey packed supers on the bee hives in Nevada, were already tightly tied down with trucker‘s knots, ready to resist the rigors of travel. The rest of the equipment, extra veils, hats, smokers, hive tools, extra coveralls, burlap for burning, and miscellaneous bee supplies were packed and locked in side compartments.
We climbed into the truck with Wes at the wheel, Jorge in the middle and me. We drove south and then east, finally picking up Highway 80 which would take us over the foothills and the majestic Sierras.
Hours passed and Wes stayed at the wheel. I looked over at Jorge who just shrugged. “Wes always drives,” he said. By now the sun had come up and was slipping over the mountains and the drive was beautiful. Oaks on the hills began changing to pines on steeper slopes. We stopped once for a restroom break and also got more coffee and water.
By noon we had reached the summit and soon were in Nevada. The landscape was dry and hardly suited for bees. “How can bees survive here?” I asked. “You’ll see,” was all Jorge said. By late afternoon we were passing round fields of irrigated seed alfalfa. I could see why the fields were round because the irrigation wheels were tethered to the center, and the wheels carried the irrigation pipes around and around, spraying water as they went.
The alfalfa was tall and full where the water hit, and the ground was dry and barren where the water couldn’t reach. Around the edges of the circles I spotted pallets of bee hives, stacked three and four stories high. The air was alive with a humming sound as bees busily raced from hive to alfalfa flower, carrying pollen and fresh honey.
“When the flowers are in full bloom,” Wes announced, “they can fill a super in a day or two.” We drove around the field, watching the bees and checking hives. “Most of these supers are packed,” West said. “We’re here just in time. Each of these supers will weigh seventy to eighty pounds. The bees will soon overfill the hives and run themselves out of their homes.”
Wes rented a motel room and that evening we ate hamburgers, drank cokes, and set up cots for Jorge and me. Wes, of course, slept on the bed. In the morning we ate breakfast leisurely and I wondered why we weren’t rushing to get the honey loaded. Wes saw my concern and said, “Bees aren’t very friendly early when it’s cool. We want to wait for the field workers to get out. Then when we smoke the hives the bees will tame right down.”
At nine it was already hot and bees were busy working the alfalfa. Wes showed me how to tear the burlap into strips, light it, fill the top part with grass, and then put out the flame. Although the flame was out, the burlap smoldered, the smoke working its way up through the grass and out the funnel. By properly using the bellows, the fire continued to slowly burn and wisps of smoke could be directed outward. We went to the first hive, smoked the entrance, lifted the lid on the super and forced a small amount of smoke into the hive. Wes took a special lid made with canvas on the top from off the truck. He sprinkled a liquid on the canvas and placed it on top of the hive. One minute passed and then bees began pouring out of the front entrance of the hive.
Wes quickly checked the top super to see if it was filled with honey and then pried it off the beehive. “Put it on the truck,” he said, “and bring back an empty super.” Jorge was also at work. He had already pulled lids, sprinkled the liquid on several canvas tops and waited for the bees to vacate the top supers. Wes and Jorge then pulled the honey packed supers off the hives and replaced them with the empty supers I was bringing from the truck.
We stopped for lunch, eating under the truck in the shade where the bees could not find us easily. Occasionally Wes or Jorge would reach out and quickly snatch a persistent bee that was buzzing about their heads. They would catch the bees between their fingers and the dead bee would fall to the ground. I could not catch a bee and bees occasionally found me.
They would dive at my face, looking for exposed flesh, and not finding any, would land and sting through my clothes. Wes and Jorge both looked amused at my antics of slapping at bees or trying to avoid them. After lunch we resumed our task, pulling off full supers and replacing them. Soon all the empty supers were gone and the truck and trailer were stacked high with heavy supers of honey.
Wes was anxious to go since we still had hours of daylight left. We began carefully tying down the hives. The ropes would catch so I climbed up onto the supers. That was a mistake because there were still a few bees left. I collected a few more stings while untangling the ropes and then climbed down. When all the ropes were taut and the boxes were secure and unable to slide in any direction, we loaded all our equipment and started back to Rio Oso.
The trip through Nevada was slow but uneventful. Because the honey was so heavy Wes was careful and took extra care when he stopped at stop signs or stop lights. However, there was a glitch in the plan. Before we went down the slopes of the Sierras we had to go through a truck weigh-in station. Wes was worried because he knew the truck and trailer were overloaded and he would have to pay heavy fines if the truck and trailer were over the weight limits. Even worse, if the truck and trailer were thought to be unsafe, he might have to leave the trailer there and return for it later.
For that reason Wes eased the truck to a stop away from the scales. He walked into the station and returned a short time later. He was smiling. “I told them we had a truck load of bees and we could not stop for long. I told them the bees would stir and fly all over the place. They told us to keep going.”
Wes was jubilant because we had permission to continue. The truck moved forward and merged onto the freeway. Things went smoothly for awhile and I relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. Jorge, too, relaxed, and closed his eyes. Before long though, I glanced at Wes and realized that something was wrong. His hands were clinched on the wheel and his face was pale. “Something’s wrong with the brakes,” he muttered quietly. Jorge shook himself, sat up, and looked at Wes. “If you pull over, I’ll look at the brakes.” “I can’t,” replied Wes. “I haven’t seen any place to get off the freeway and the truck won’t even slow down.”
Wes began applying pressure to the brake pedal but nothing happened. Jorge put his foot on top of Wes’s foot and pushed. The truck slowed, but gradually picked up speed. I glanced out the window. Thick smoke was pouring from the brakes, stretching the length of the trailer. I watched spellbound, but at the next turn of the freeway I saw another horrifying sight. The trailer’s wheels were lifting off the ground. Another inch or two and the trailer would turn over, and in turn, causing the truck to roll with it.
As we passed cars some people were irritated that our truck was taking up too much of their space. They shouted and gestured obscenely at us. “Move over,” “Stay in your own lane, you idiots!” were some of the kinder words spoken. And yet we paid little heed to the other motorists for the truck continued on its relentless journey downward, unstoppable, going faster and faster. All those supers, full of that beautiful golden honey, were pushing us towards disaster.
Our lives were soon to be over. There was nothing I could do to help. I prayed. I prayed earnestly and desperately. “Oh, God, if this is my final moment then thank You for my life and all I’ve been able to do. Tell everyone I love them.” We entered another curve and I glanced out the window again. The trailer wheels lifted, and I felt the truck tilt slightly. “Oh, God, if this is not our time to die, show us what we need to do.” The truck continued onward, in spite of the best efforts of the two men. They continued to press the brake pedal desperately, smoke still billowing from the brakes.
There was no truck runaway safety ramp. But there was a road leading off the freeway and up a hill. Wes pulled the wheel. The truck groaned, leaned eerily, and then responded. The momentum of the truck and trailer was cut in half. The brakes, which I had thought to be long worn out, now responded by slowing the truck even more. We went up and up until the road descended once again. But with the truck over the top, we finally stopped.
We looked back at the trailer, smoke pouring from the brakes. We looked ahead, down at the freeway. We climbed out of the truck, our shirts soaked with perspiration, and collapsed. I prayed again, thanking God for our delivery. Wes and Jorge looked at me and shook their heads. “We were lucky this hill was here,” Wes said wearily. “It saved our lives.” Jorge had a different view. “It was our persistence,” he said. “If we had given up and had not kept pressure on the brakes, we would have died.” But to me, my prayers had been answered. Nothing we had done or could have done, would have saved our lives. The trailer should have tipped over carrying the truck with it. I believed we should have died. Each of us held to our beliefs and would not budge.
Later when the brakes cooled and we were calmed, we continued our journey, safely reaching our destination. The honey was extracted and placed in containers. It looked pure and sweet and harmless. But I knew how it had almost shortened my life. To me it was still a reminder that I am not in control of my life. Honey still reminds me of a miracle, a miracle of a runaway truck, and I thank God that I’m alive.
By Dan Roberson