Topic: The Contest by Roger McGirr

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

The swamp at the rear of my parents’ home was a place of endless discovery and entertainment. From a young age, I would search there for the nests of wild ducks, pukeko, pheasants and quail.

The constant drone of the frog population, always rising and falling in unison, was as much a part of daily life as daylight and darkness. All day every day, throughout the summer months, the frogs kept up their unmelodious din. Only the mysterious booming of the solitary bittern, which came to stay for a month or two each year, caused any distraction to the usual sounds of swamp life.

In the wintertime it would fill to a depth of many feet and allow me the possibility of sailing the little punt I constructed from old corrugated iron and scrap timber.  Although the swamp had all the appearance of being a natural feature of the landscape created eons ago, it was, in fact, man-made. Soil was need to construct the railway embankment from Waihou to Te Aroha in the early 1880s, so this huge cavity was carved out of the virgin earth by teams of powerful draught horses pulling scoops on low wheels. They dug down to a depth of at least twenty feet over an area of five acres or more.

Nature eventually disguised this man-made crater and embellished it with all the plant life of a natural swamp. Steep banks provided many places for wild-life and insects to live.  Quite early as a child, I discovered that German wasps would burrow into the banks to make their nests. I took the greatest delight in burning them out by pouring white spirit into the entrance hole and then setting fire to it with a long taper. Occasionally I got stung, but always considered it worth the risk just to see the fierce flame venting from the entrance while the wasps crash-landed all around me, on fire. Such were the challenging pleasures of life in the countryside.

Time passed and I got older, but I still liked to wander over to the swamp. On one such occasion, I again discovered another wasps’ nest. This one, however, was obviously much larger than those discovered in childhood. Now large numbers of wasps were constantly arriving and departing the burrow in the high bank. The entrance hole was about two feet from the top of the bank which would necessitate the use of a length of tubing to gain access to the nest. I hurried home to see what I could find to effect my plan for the unsuspecting wasps.

Our good old neighbour Sam was talking to Dad on the back lawn and I told them what I had discovered. Sam was a man of action who had fought as a volunteer in the Irish Civil War of 1921. He rubbed his hands together at my news and said, “We’ll fix them to be sure. I’ll go home and mix a good brew and you find some tubing and a funnel.”

Sam came back with approximately a gallon of petrol mixed with other combustibles and we both hurried over to the wasps’ nest to give them the ‘medicine.’

Leaning over the bank, I managed to insert one end of the large diameter polythene tube into the nest entrance hole. I pushed it in as far as it would go. Sam placed the funnel in the other end of the tube and poured in the ‘medicine.’ In no time at all, the enemy was swarming around our heads like so many Spitfires in the Battle of Britain.

Our adversary was a vicious and unrelenting opponent, who, once stirred into action, became totally focussed on striking home with his poisoned lance. From many previous encounters, we knew how painful the consequences would be if he managed to land on our unprotected faces.

We were forced to beat a hasty retreat, but not before Sam had emptied the gallon of his home brew down the tube. From a small thicket nearby, Sam broke off a long length of bamboo and tied a piece of his old pyjamas to one end. We then descended to the bottom of the bank below the wasps’ entrance hole. Sam lit the pyjamas and lifted the bamboo up to the entrance.

This, then, was the moment when, in all great contests between two determined rivals, the outcome is decided. A distinct hissing noise could be heard as the flame was sucked down the narrow passageway into the nest. In an instant, there occurred an almighty explosion; the earth shook and debris of every description rained down on us both - pieces of gorse bush, blackberry, clay bank, moss, burning wasp-nest and burning wasps.

Above us appeared a large crater.

Sam gave a loud expletive as we surveyed the field of battle. All around us was carnage.

“I think we deserve a whiskey,” said Sam, and we trudged off back to his place across the paddock.

His wife heard us coming and came out onto the back porch.

“What on earth have you boys been up to?” she said, “You look as though you’ve just come back from a war.”



This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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The Contest by Roger McGirr

Note:About the author: Roger McGirr is a member of the Ruakura Writing Group in Hamilton.