During the summers between college I worked at a grain storage facility. We called them grain elevators, or just elevators. When grain is brought to the elevator, it’s dumped in a pit. At the bottom of the pit is a hopper that feeds the “elevator,” from which the site draws its name. This is just a belt with buckets attached that lift the grain to a turn-head almost 200 feet high. The turn-head is a swiveling pipe that can direct the grain falling from the top of the elevator into one of several pipes that lead to either a storage bin, a dryer or another turn-head somewhere beneath the elevator turn-head. A lot of the movement of grain is done by gravity, feeding the falling product into different pipes leading off a turn-head.
The Big-4 , named after the company that manufactured it, was an elevated grain bin that stood atop 30-foot legs. It had a slide gate at the bottom. A truck could drive under this gate and be loaded with grain by simply opening the gate and allowing the grain to fall in. When grain was sold, it would be dumped into the Big-4, ready to be loaded onto the customer’s truck.
Usually I’d be out of school for the summer and start work just as oat harvest began. We’d run 12-hour days, seven days per week for about four weeks. Then things would begin to slow down and we’d start cleanup, maintenance and waiting for rice harvest. We learned to stay busy, or at least out of sight, during the lull between harvests. And during this time, you never completed a job in an hour if you could drag it out for six hours.
One day the boss called us over the intercom to, “get rid of the wasp nest on the Big-4.” The little rascals had decided that the slide gate handle was just the place for a big nest. One can imagine that certain territorial disputes would arise when the time came to open the gate to dispense grain. We were being called upon to resolve the issue by diplomatic, or other, means. The usual procedure here involved chemical warfare. We’d climb up the legs and out onto the bracing of the bin to get within the range of a can of bug spray. Thus I found myself hanging upside down from a piece of angle iron 30 feet above the concrete as my co-worker prepared to anger a couple hundred wasps.
I watched Slick, nobody used proper names in those days, take careful aim with the spray can, then hesitate. I foolishly thought for a minute that Slick was getting nervous. I’d known him long enough to know better, but that was still my first thought. It disappeared quickly when I heard him say, “This is too easy.”
Slick had strange ideas about what was easy. I personally didn’t find the prospect of fighting off a couple of hundred angry, poisoned wasps with one hand while clinging to an inch-wide piece of angle iron 30 feet above a concrete floor particularly easy. But then I wasn’t Slick.
“I’ll be back,” Slick said as he slid down one of the legs to the ground, then disappeared into the main storage building.
True to his word, he was back barely a minute later carrying two yard sticks. He shinnied up the leg opposite from me and approached the wasp nest from the other side. Reaching around it, he handed me one of the yardsticks. Before I could ask just what in Hades I’m supposed to do with it, he began to poke at a single wasp with his stick. He eventually angered the insect to the point that it jumped on the end of the stick and began to furiously stab at it with it’s stinger. Slick then extended the wasp-laden end of the stick toward me.
“Smack it!” he answered my questioning look. I smacked the end of his stick with mine catching the wasp in between. We both watch the tiny body spiral to the ground below. By the time I looked back at Slick, he was already tormenting our second victim.
You know, this really was fun. You’ve got to be careful about poking at the wasps. Occasionally one of the smarter ones will jump off the nest and attack the stick holder rather than the stick. Try hitting an attacking wasp with a yardstick, hanging upside down, etc., etc. We took home a few whelps as souvenirs. And things could get real interesting if you messed around and hit the nest while wildly swinging at an attacking wasp. But even this was too easy for Slick, so he cut our yard sticks in half length ways making them even more narrow. It became a point of pride to have the narrowest stick. One at at time, wasps soon became an endangered species at the elevator.
Just a few days before I would return to school that summer, another one of the crew came running up as I was unloading a truck and excitedly said, “Slick found a wasp nest!” Frankie never found the thrill that Slick and I did from participating in these hunts, but he seemed to enjoy watching us do it.
Even though rice harvest had started and I didn’t really have time for this, I hurriedly gave the customer his ticket and a bum’s rush out the door. We hadn’t seen any wasps in weeks, and this would undoubtedly be my last chance this summer. Following Frankie across the yard to a different building I spotted Slick among the tangle of angle iron bracing almost 200 feet up at a turn-head.
“Hang on ’til I get there!” I admonished Slick. He was known to go solo by smacking the wasp on a wall or brace as it rode his stick. He’d have the rest of the summer and fall to wasp hunt. This would be my last shot this year, and he could darn well wait for me.
I breathlessly arrived at the battle ground. In this flat rice country, we seemed to be at the pinnacle of creation. The turn-head was 5 feet above us, above that is only sky. I could see our competition, DeWitt Grain and Storage, in the city of DeWitt 14 miles to the north. It was here, at the edge of space that this last ragtag band of six-legged refugees made their stand. And a sad little affair it was. The little wad of perforated paper was smaller than a golf ball with 4 wasps clinging to it. Something stirred in me and I looked to Slick to see if he also felt the urge to grant amnesty to this last colony.
Nope. He’s already handing me the first wasp. Oh well. Smack, smack smack smack, and it’s done.
That was my last summer at the elevator. Slick’s dad and the other partners sold it that winter. The new owners had their own crew, so I found a job on a tow boat the next summer. That was many summers ago. But to this day, I never see a wasp nest or yard stick without thinking of Slick, and the fun we had that summer. It’s an oft-repeated truth that you don’t recognize the best days of your life while living them. It’s only now, looking back across the years, that I realize what treasures they were.
－ Guy Wheatley