My father had an insatiable hankering for honey, and he knew where to get the best honey in the whole state of Wisconsin: Ingman Nelson’s house. Ingman was in his late 60s and lived deep in the woods of rural Coon Valley, in southwestern Wisconsin. He and my father had grown up together and were good friends. While my father left the area and traveled the world, Ingman stayed and never married, making a living doing manual labor and umpiring the small town’s baseball games. My father returned from his travels and bought a farm close to Ingman’s house, and that is how they rekindled their friendship.
Dad had sampled honey from different areas of the world, and he felt that Ingman’s honey was the absolute best. He loved Ingman’s honey so much that he often referred to Ingman as “The King of Bees.” Being a daily honey eater, he’d go to Ingman’s house often to replenish his supply.
One day, he took me along for the first time. I was excited; I’d never seen a real king before. The quest for Ingman’s honey started out with a bumpy ride in my father’s 1956 Chevy pickup truck. I was 10 years old and loved riding by Dad’s side as he drove the gray beast up and down the gravel back roads to Ingman’s driveway, a narrow lane that led to a glorified shack at the top of a hill. The King of Bees stood outside, waiting for us.
To my disappointment, he didn’t look like a king at all. He was small, with a slightly hunched back and a pronounced limp, due to a bad hip. He wore old, tan pants that were slightly dirty and a checkered oxford shirt. No crown sat on his bald head, and he squinted through scratched and smudgy spectacles. Ingman’s two mammoth-sized dogs barked excitedly when we arrived, waiting to inspect the new visitors.
“Stay there!” Ingman snarled at us as he limped to the front steps of his porch to get the plastic, bulbed turkey baster filled with water. He kept this weapon on hand for times like these. Squirting the dogs with streams of water from the baster, he motioned for us to come forward. The dogs whimpered and backed away; they hated getting wet. We walked as quickly as we could toward the house, and Ingman continued to bombard the dogs with water until we were on the crooked, wooden front porch. There, my father and Ingman talked, while I watched the dogs carefully. Every time they came closer, more streams of water came out of the baster, and another round of profanity, directed at the dogs, came out of Ingman’s mouth.
“I’ve come for honey,” my father said over the ruckus.
“Yes, that is what I thought,” Ingman responded. He then tossed the baster on the porch and led us inside his humble house.
Inside the palace
Ingman’s house was witness to a lonesome bachelorhood: newspapers strewn everywhere, dirty dishes and clothes left here and there. He was hospitable and offered us bottles of 7-UP. I accepted the unexpected treat with delight; drinking soda was forbidden at my house. I savored each sip as Ingman and Dad talked and finally got around to the reason for our visit: the honey.
Not only did we fetch our honey in old Ball glass jars, we got to see Ingman’s bees in action. In the living room – amidst the clutter and old newspapers, glasses and empty 7-UP bottles – taking precedence over any other thing in the entire house, stood a double-sided bee colony case made out of glass. Ingman managed to produce a small smile for me, as he knew that I would be utterly fascinated by his bee shrine.
As though coming upon a great treasure, I reverently walked to the case, put down my soda and gawked. There were hundreds and hundreds of bees, all busily crawling around their hive, making the delicious honey. I could lean in as close as I wanted to, with no fear of any bees hurting me. I stared for minutes on end, not minding how long Ingman and my father talked. To me, it was miraculous how these little bees could stay so busy and content in their glass case, all of them on a mission and happy with their little lives and purpose.
A changed man
“Can you find the queen bee, Heidi?” Ingman asked. I tried and tried, my eyes burning, looking for the telltale sign that one of those bees was the queen. I could not figure it out. Ingman stopped talking to my father and limped over to me. When he was beside that case with me, all of his scariness and snarl faded away. His weathered face softened as he shared his passion with me, pointing an old and gnarled finger to the grandest and most worshiped bee of all.
“There she is,” he said softly. “There she is.” Together, we quietly gazed at the queen. To me, she looked like any of the other bees, yet, she was the chosen one; she was the center of the bees’ universe.
I was intrigued by how Ingman’s passion and my fascination for the bees erased our age difference. Ingman was an old man often misunderstood by those who did not know about his bees or honey. He hadn’t aged well; many hours of working hard under a hot sun had taken its toll. Crooked back, skinny arms and legs, worn and wrinkled face, barely much to smile about – his life had turned him into an apparently grumpy old man. But the bees had brought joy and purpose to his days. He knew bees.
When he stood with me in front of his colony, all his eccentricities and bitterness over a hard life melted away and we connected. I sensed his love for his bees, and suddenly, he became my friend. He gave me an understanding and respect for bees I still have today. I learned that one man’s passion can be contagious; when that passion is offered, shared and accepted, differences melt away. Ingman and I rested in the contentment of quiet observation, and during that time, we understood much about each other.
It took a long time for my father to tear me away from the case, but I knew that when our honey was gone, we would return and get more. The King of Bees would be waiting for us, turkey baster and all. Wading through Ingman’s mess, we headed back out to the porch and the waiting dogs, watched another round of water-squirting, and listened to more disgusted outbursts from Ingman. Dad and I jumped back into the gray truck and backed out of the long driveway. I looked back to see Ingman and his dogs, and I waved. He offered a small gesture of goodbye and hobbled back toward his house. I felt a small twinge of sadness as I wondered what he did after we left. I imagined that as any good king would do, he went back to be with his queen.
Heidi Overson writes from her country home in southwestern Wisconsin, where she hopes to keep bees someday soon.