Blarney, bees, and bare behinds: a true story about my father

A headshot of my father
Richard Burke

For Father’s Day

A patch of fog glowed pink in the sunrise and curled around the reeds at the shore of Spring Lake in central Wisconsin. Birds warbled, frogs splashed, and a nearby field of alfalfa gently scented the air.

All that goes without saying, so the outhouse story, as I’ve always heard it, leaves those details out. It was simply a fine Saturday summer morning. The fabled outhouse sat on a hill next to the graveled parking area at little Spring Lake’s public boat launch.

A few miles away, our family kept a summer cottage on the shores of Green Lake. On long afternoons when the heat bugs buzzed or during breaks in evening card games, my father and grandfather would entertain us kids and themselves by re-enacting one of a large repertoire of dubious tales.

Like the time they toured in a circus. They had a high dive act — they claimed — and over successive summers, the pool of water at the foot of the diving board shrank. A lot. Eventually, as Dad would pause dramatically at the edge of an imaginary diving board a hundred feet high in the circus tent, Grandpa would run an imaginary handkerchief across his forehead, wring it out, and place it on the floor. That was the target. Sometimes in their story, Queen Victoria would order a command performance.

At other times, Dad and Grandpa panned for gold in Alaska. Or California. Sometimes they fought in the Civil War, hunted whales, or did whatever had been featured in a recent television show or was the topic of a school lesson for me or my brothers and sister.

Other stories drew on personal events. Dad and Grandpa told about the building of the cottage, about generations of childhood mishaps, or about Dad’s tour in the Marines, during which he bravely kept Virginia safe from the North Koreans.

And fish stories. They had a million fishing stories. The ones that got away, the ones that should have gotten away, and the lures that could hook anything but a live fish. Once a seagull grabbed a minnow in mid-air as my grandfather cast out his bait. Again and again, on the screen porch, Grandpa would re-enact the catch, reeling in the hooked bird from the sky, ducking as the seagull’s mate dive-bombed him.

Then there was the morning when Dad and Grandpa got up before dawn to haul their boat to the clear waters of Spring Lake to try for a few northern pike. After a while, they returned to the public boat launch so my father could use the outhouse. The lake sparkled in the early morning light. They were alone, savoring the glorious start to a summer day.

“And I was sitting there minding my own business,” my father would say, an aggrieved tone always in his voice, “when I felt the floor vibrate under my feet. Then I felt something tickling my behind. In an outhouse?” He couldn’t imagine what that might be. He looked down into the pit. He saw nothing. He was baffled. He sat down again.

He felt a sudden, sharp pain. The bee that was crawling on his behind had stung him. As he leapt to his feet, another got him. The vibration in the floor turned into a snarl. Bees lived in that outhouse floor, and they meant to guard their home from any intrusion.

With his pants and shorts still around his knees, my father fled. Bees pursued. He hobbled down the path on the hill. Another bee got him. He pulled up his pants, more in the interest of gaining speed and protection than modesty. Gravel crunched under his feet as he dashed across the parking lot and shouted to Grandpa. With the wisdom of accumulated years, Grandpa assessed the situation. What they needed was a fast get-away, and he was the man for the job.

In a flash, with the unerring skill of an accomplished fisherman, Grandpa untied the boat from the pier and revved up the old Evinrude motor. My father scrambled up the short pier, angry bees in a swarm right behind him. Grandpa carefully gauged speed and distances, and at just the right moment, shoved off from the pier. Dad leapt into the boat. Grandpa opened the throttle on the motor.

And then —

“I know,” sometimes my little brother would interrupt. He’d hop off the sofa and take Grandpa’s place in the story, one hand on the tiller of the outboard and the other grabbing an imaginary cap off his head. He’d swat away the last few pursuing bees as he steered the boat out into the safety of the lake over waves of laughter.

Wild America. Dad and Grandpa warned us. You never know when you might be attacked, maybe by the wolves that pursued gold hunters in Alaska, or maybe by the circus lions, or maybe even by outhouse bees. Then there was the time Dad and Grandpa tracked the Yeti in the Himalayas. No, wait, those mountains aren’t in America. It was in the Rockies. Bigfoot. Dad and Grandpa almost got him.…

My mother confirmed the bees in the Spring Lake outhouse story. She personally observed three bee stings on my father’s behind. It’s all true. Mom said so. She thought it was funny. Every time Dad told the story, he fought a smile and insisted that it wasn’t.

“And why,” he’d ask every time, still aggrieved until the day he died, “would bees want to live in an outhouse floor?”


Originally published in Great American Outhouse Stories: The Hole Truth and Nothing Butt in 2004.

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