It’s a work day at Boise Creek on the White River, in Enumclaw, WA. My workmate Josh and I are here to prep for an upcoming restoration project. A van pulls up with a corrections crew, all wearing orange vests. They’re clearing the road right-of-way with weed whackers. I study my own thoughts. What has each of them done to have been assigned this duty, this payment for past offences? Do I judge them? What do others think?
Josh charges down the roadside slope swinging a machete to cut a path through dense blackberries and reed canary grass. Suddently, he yells, “Ahhh, dang it! They got me!” He run-stumbles up the hill, “Hornets!” and rubs the red welt on his bare arm. “I aaalways get stung.”
“No way am I going near that,” I said. “I’m going around.” The weed whackers eat the brush along the road shoulder and kick up dust and gravels.
“We have to go right by it.” He points at the boiling nest with his machete. “I’m gonna hack it down.”
The hole in the nest swarms with black bodies of angry, bald faced hornets.
“Wait,” I say. “I’ll see if the crew has wasp spray.” I’d just spent the previous two days tip-toeing around five nests in a willow patch. “We need armor.”
The corrections supervisor offers me several cans. A guy that looks like the rapper Eminem fast approaches. He has a tattoo on the nape of his neck. His red baseball hat covers his clipped blond hair. He is shirtless beneath his dayglow safety vest.
“Hey, want me do that for you?” He takes the can. His eyes stare. Intense.
“Yeah, thanks. You should go in double-fisted though. The nest is the size of a football. Near the ground.”
Prepared for war, Eminem shakes both cans. For the next thirty seconds, the guy…goes…nuts. He barrels downslope at full speed, firing two cans. I say, “Dude, shoot from ten feet away. You’re going to get stung. You don’t have to be all up on it. You have no shirt on.”
He is now crouched down. He has both nozzles in the entrance to the nest. His crewmates stand impressed, at attention, on the side of the road. I yell, “Dude. I cannot believe you are doing that. Like that.” His head is a foot from the nest. I’m waiting for the hornets to squirt venom into his face. I have a lot of respect for this fearless, take-charge guy. I laugh, “You are just the right amount of crazy we need right now.” No fear when all I can do is squeal and cringe.
He drops both cans.
He’s not done. Next, he grabs the football of a nest with his rubber gloves.
I ask, “Now what are you doing?” I thought he’d punt or throw it. Instead, he smashes the paper-machete football into a baseball and rings it out like a dirty dishrag. It drips in a trail as he walks up to the road and tosses it to the side like he’d made a touchdown.
Josh whispers to me, “If he had a match he’d light that on fire to finish it off.”
I tell the hornet killer, “Thanks so much. Well done.” I clap. We all clap.
Then, much like Marshawn Lynch’s response, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined,” he says, “Man, I’m here so they’ll take ten tickets off my record. Do you guys hire felons? I need a job.” He lists a litany of other skills he has besides going full throttle on a hornet nest.
I shake my head from his frankness. “Sorry, buddy. I don’t know of any jobs right now. You seem very determined, so keep your focus. Get some training in something you love. It’ll happen. Oh, and no more tickets.” We exchange smiles.
I say, “Hi, how’s it going?” to a well-dressed African American guy waiting for his iced beverage.
“Great,” he says. “But it’s so hot today.”
“Hot? I ask. “It’s twenty degrees cooler than it was last weekend. Where’ve you been?
“Jail,” he says. “I just got out three days ago.”
“Whoa! Sorry you had to go through that. I commend you for being so open about it. I don’t know if I’d tell people that. Jail must change a person.”
“Yeah, I’ve had three years to reflect. I was stupid that night I got arrested. I got all high on Ecstasy, danced with this girl. The next thing I sort of remember is being in a fight. Apparently, I broke his knee, an arm and smashed his voice box. I know I did it, but I don’t remember doing it. That wasn’t me.”
“Dang. That’s harsh,” I say. “But now you can start fresh. Use your bad experience to do good things.”
He says, “Are you a motivational speaker or something? You’re really positive. You’re cool.”
“No. I just try to see good in all situations.”
“Yeah, I’m not going clubbing anymore. I’m going to hang out with good people. I already found a job. Life is going to get a lot better now.”
“Yes, it is.” I put my hand on his shoulder.
“Thanks man. I appreciate you talking to me.” He shakes my hand. “I’m going to preach good things.”
In one day, I talked to two men, both forthcoming with their label of “felon.” Each of us are imperfect. We’re not all felons, but we’re all guilty of misbehaviors. Each of us have made bad choices, mistakes, and have done wrong.
What label do we hold for ourselves? Are we like angry hornets, quick to attack those outside our nests? Do we label others, those who struggle with their own mistakes and self-images? We all need a little forgiveness, encouragement and sometimes we need to deliver that kind word to a stranger.
Love this day.