Joseph F. Berenato
On reflection, serenity and running for my life
While some associate the month of May with fragrant flowers, sunny days and the like, I often associate it with the time I thought I was going to die.
One of them, anyway.
In May of 2015, I was a busy man. Besides my work at the farm, I was in my last semester of grad school, often pulling all-nighters putting the finishing touches on my master’s thesis.
On top of that, I was teaching freshman composition at South Woods State Prison.
That job was equal parts frightening and rewarding.
It was frightening for what I believe to be obvious reasons: my students, several of whom were serving life sentences, had, between them, committed every possible felony imaginable.
Yes, even that one.
And, it didn’t help that I was the only authority figure in the classroom—which was all the way at the end of the hallway, and the only guard in the building was 300 feet away. If they wanted to harm me, there was nothing that could be done about it.
It was rewarding because, of all the students I ever taught, these had the greatest drive and desire to learn, and offered some of the most insightful and entertaining discussions I’ve ever moderated.
Also, they loved me.
To wit: when Leonard Nimoy died earlier that year, they knew I was upset about it. I’ll never forget how, after I had finished writing an assignment on the blackboard, I turned around and saw each and every one of them with their hand raised in the Vulcan salute—their way of expressing their sympathies.
Be that as it may, I never lost sight of where I was. True, I could strike fear in their hearts by announcing a pop quiz, but the occasional siren or lockdown reminded me of the dangers of the place, and I always looked forward to the work on the farm as an escape and a release.
As any farmer will tell you—and if they say otherwise, they’re lying—tractor work is the best part of the job. There’s a certain serenity that comes with driving in slow, large circles, with the white noise of the engine drowning out the cares of the world. It offers the opportunity for the mind to wander, and, given everything else going on in my world, it was a vital part of my day, allowing me to organize my thoughts on my thesis, my lessons and my life in general.
My favorite tractor work, without fail, was cutting the grass on our hill. I’d start by cutting around the perimeter, then around our woodchip pile, spiraling ever outward as I went until the whole thing was complete.
This one particular day was no different; first the outside, then a few rotations as close to the pile as possible.
Suddenly there were bees.
I certainly was no stranger to bees; they’re a vital component to farming, and I had worked near and around them for years. But here were thousands of them, out of nowhere, swarming and angry.
I looked at the woodchip pile and saw two large holes, and knew immediately that I had destroyed two hidden hives.
I had always read stories of some hapless farmer, out on a tractor, who had done something similar and gotten stung to death.
I was terrified.
This is it, I thought. This is how I go out.
I knew that my tractor—which was currently traveling a whopping 3.9 mph—could not get me away fast enough, nor was there enough time to shift out of low gear and hope I get up to the max speed of 13 mph before I met my doom. I put the tractor in neutral so it wouldn’t drive over the hill onto the expressway, and hopped off without even bothering to turn it off.
I screamed and ran for my life.
I have never, before or since that day, run so fast (I later saw that my footprints were nearly six feet apart, to give an indication.). I came barreling down the hill to our main packing compound, more than 1,000 feet away, in record time. I saw my father and step-mother outside of our packing house, and shouted the only warning I could think of to impart the danger of the situation.
They both jumped. Literally. Their feet left the ground.
It wasn’t until I reached them that I turned around to see how close the bees were. When I started running, they were following me, but had given up pursuit halfway down—save for a few stragglers, one of whom left a large welt on the back of my neck.
Miraculously, that was my only sting.
Once I was no longer in immediate peril, I stood in shock. The farm—my safe haven since childhood, the one place on earth I could seek refuge and mental relaxation—had betrayed me; to this day I am still unreasonably frightened of bees.
I cursed. Loudly. I grabbed my keys and headed for my car.
“Where are you going?” my father asked.
“Home,” I said.
“Because,” I said, then laughed, because the answer that popped in my head was so absurd—and so obvious. “I’m safer at the prison!”
Joseph F. Berenato began as a mild-mannered reporter for The Hammonton Gazette in 1997, and returned to that position in 2019 after an 18-year sabbatical, during which he farmed, taught, became a grandfather, dug graves and wrote, but never so prolifically as he has since his return. You can email him at email@example.com or find him on social media at @JFBerenato.