Sweet Is the Work


Bees, friendship, love, loss, and a girl with hair like a tan flame. A guy never knows what he’s in for when he accepts a welfare assignment

Sweet Is the Work

They met in the kitchen for the priests quorum lesson. John sat in the back row and idly played with a set of keys while his adviser gave the lesson. He never volunteered any answers; it was a practice he had acquired early in school.

Brother Stewart came into the kitchen and interrupted the lesson. He had a large bald spot that made his head look like an eagle’s nest. John never did know what calling Brother Stewart had, but he always carried a clipboard.

“We need some help with the ward welfare project next Saturday,” Brother Stewart announced.

John hunched over in his chair, trying to make himself as small as possible.

Seconds of silence passed. Finally one of the priests cleared his throat: “I can’t next Saturday. That’s when we’re going to practice for the roadshow.”

“That’s right!” another remembered happily. “I can’t either.”

Brother Stewart waited, his pen ready to pounce on a name.

“John,” his adviser asked, “are you in the roadshow?”

“Are you kidding?” John scoffed, “No way.”

“Well, could you work for a couple of hours next Saturday?”

“I don’t know anything about the welfare project,” John complained.

“No trouble,” Brother Stewart replied, already writing down the name, “we’ll show you what needs to be done. Anybody else?”

Before he left, one other priest had agreed to work.

On Friday night John was involved in his usual TV marathon when the phone rang. His father answered it, took the message, and relayed it to John. “It was Brother Stewart. He just wanted to remind you about working on the welfare project tomorrow.”

Since his father now knew about the assignment, John realized that he wouldn’t be able to conveniently forget it.

“I guess that means you’ll need the car,” his father said.

“Yeah,” John brightened, “I guess I will.”

John stopped by Saturday morning for the other priest who had volunteered to work. On their way out, they stopped at a drive-in and had a milk shake.

They arrived a half hour late.

The welfare project was honey production, and the ward had 50 hives. The efforts on that February day involved building new hives for the coming season. John was given the job of collecting nine newly assembled wax frames from the assembly line of ten people making them. He put the new frames into a newly constructed box that people called a “super.” Then he carried the new super to a storage area.

On the second that the two hours he’d been assigned to work had elapsed, John was heading for the door. Before he made it out of the building, he was intercepted by Brother Stewart.

“Where are you going?”

“Home,” John answered. “I’ve worked my two hours.”

“But you’re not smiling.”

“So?”

“When I see someone leave here who isn’t smiling, I get concerned.”

“Oh wow,” John cynically thought to himself.

“Aren’t you happy that you worked here today?”

“Sure, and I’m also happy to be going home.”

Brother Stewart thrust his arm around John’s shoulder. “You can’t go home yet.”

John felt himself being escorted back to the assembly line.

“Why not?”

“You haven’t worked here long enough to catch the vision of Church welfare projects. You need to work here until you do.”

John stopped and squared off, facing Brother Stewart.

“You can’t make me stay.”

“I know, but please stay. Working on welfare projects is supposed to bring you blessings. It’s supposed to make you feel good. Stay here just a little while longer. I’ll even give you a different job.”

John was given a hammer and a place in the assembly line.

“Work with Brother Mattson. Ask him about bees.”

Brother Mattson was at least 70 years old. He had worked with bees all his life and helped the ward start its honey project two years ago.

“If you’re going to work here, you’d better learn how to build the frames right. Next summer, each of these frames will hold 20 pounds of honey. They’ve got to be built right so they won’t fall apart.”

Brother Mattson showed him each step in assembling the plastic laminated sheet and wooden frame together.

The first frame that John built needed some work by Brother Mattson before it was good enough. On the second frame, John had to pull out one of his nails and redrive it.

Finally, after 15 minutes, John showed Brother Mattson a frame that was built exactly the way he had been told. Brother Mattson examined it carefully, and then smiled and said, “I couldn’t do better myself. Now all you need to do is work on speed.”

At what seemed a short time later, his friend from the priests quorum came over to John.

“Let’s go. I finally got away from Brother Stewart. Let’s get out of here before he puts us back to work.”

“I think I’ll stay,” John said.

“Are you crazy? We’ve already been here three hours.”

“Can you get a ride with someone else? I’m staying.”

Sunday morning during their quorum lesson, Brother Stewart came again with his clipboard.

“We need to build some more frames next Saturday. We didn’t finish yesterday.”

Two of the quorum members began to tie their shoes.

“I’ll go,” John said.

“You went last week,” his adviser said.

“That’s okay. I don’t mind.”

“We need two crews, one to work in the morning and one to work in the afternoon. When do you want to work?”

“I don’t mind working all day,” he said. The priest next to John looked at him strangely.

On Monday morning John faced the ordeal of school and, much worse, American History and Mr. Lattimer, who had a theory that the more uncomfortable a student was in class the more he learned.

John was gazing out the window, coveting the cars in the parking lot, when Mr. Lattimer confronted him.

“You seem bored by our discussion.”

“No,” John answered. He had learned long ago that you never tell a teacher that you’re bored—even when you are.

“Maybe it’s because you already know about the Civil War. Let’s see, can you tell me when the Civil War began?”

“No.”

“Can you tell me when it ended?”

“No.”

“Can you explain the extent of foreign intervention in the war?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know,” Mr. Lattimer derided. He had a habit of repeating what a student said and making it sound ridiculous. “Did you read the assigned material?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know. There must be a better reason than that.”

“I don’t like to read,” John confessed.

“You don’t like to read. If you don’t like to read, then why don’t you pay attention in class? Do you think that might help?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know how important an education is today? What kind of a job do you think you can get if you don’t read?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you know? Let me tell you. I might as well give you a broom and let you practice using it because that’s all you’ll do in life unless you show a little interest in school. Do you read anything?”

“No.”

“I bet you watch TV though, don’t you?”

“Sure.”

Mr. Lattimer then went on about how TV was wrecking the education system. John sat quietly in his desk, outwardly quiet, but inside furious and embarrassed.

The winter months passed slowly. John’s grades that year were even lower than they had ever been before, which prompted several discussions between him and his father.

“How do you expect to go to college on these grades?”

“I don’t. I’m never going to school again after I graduate.”

“What will you do to make money?”

“I’ll work.”

“You need an education to get anywhere today,” his father said.

“Okay,” John exploded, “I won’t get anywhere!”

The next time the ward built new frames was in May. Again John volunteered to work. By then he was almost as good as Brother Mattson in assembling frames.

While he was working, Brother Stewart escorted a girl over to the assembly line. “John, this is Cathy Barker. Her parents just moved here a few weeks ago. Cathy’s just come back from BYU, and she’s here for the summer. Will you show her how to build frames?”

Cathy stood next to John and observed as he put a frame together. He found it hard to concentrate on his work. Her pale blonde hair flowed gently around her face. Once as she leaned over to see where he placed a nail, he could feel her hair brushing against his arm.

John knew guys at school who had clever sayings that could start up a conversation with a girl, but John didn’t remember what they were. The more good-looking a girl was, the less he could say to her. With Cathy he couldn’t say anything at all.

“How old are you?” Cathy asked.

“Seventeen.”

“I’m 19,” she said.

“Oh.”

Several minutes passed as they both worked silently.

“You must be the strong silent type,” she said.

“Why?”

“You don’t talk much.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“How about, ‘Tell me about yourself.’”

“Okay.”

“Okay what?”

“Tell me about yourself.”

Cathy talked about where her parents had lived before they’d moved, and about BYU and her roommates, and how she didn’t know anybody in the ward.

“How about yourself?” Cathy asked. “Tell me about you.”

“There’s not much to tell. I’ll be a junior in high school next year. That’s about it.”

“That’s not much.”

“No.”

At noon they walked outside and ate their sack lunches together.

“John, would you consider … no, forget it.”

“What?”

“Well, I’m going to go crazy this summer unless I get out of the house. Could we go roller skating or fishing or something this summer?”

“Me take you out?” John asked. “There must be plenty of guys who want to take you out.”

“Well, there’s a 26-year-old returned missionary I met last Sunday in church. But I’m a little wary of him. He keeps talking about how much he wants to get married and about the rising price of houses. He says if he waits any longer, he won’t be able to afford a house. I think he’d marry me just to avoid spiraling inflation. Anyway, he makes me nervous.”

“I can take you fishing, but I still don’t see why you’d go with me.”

“I’m waiting for a missionary who gets back in 18 months, and I don’t want a romance, but I could use a friend. Okay?”

“Okay,” John agreed. Before John left that day, Brother Mattson asked him if he’d go out with him next Saturday to work the hives. “I’ve got to install some new queen bees. The ward has a bee suit you can wear. How about it?”

“Okay,” John said.

A week later Brother Mattson picked John up about 10:00 in the morning. They rode in his old battered pickup.

“Sweet clover looks real good this year, don’t it?” Brother Mattson remarked as they bounced along a gravel road toward the ward’s beehives.

John looked out the window. It was the first time he’d ever noticed the tiny yellow flowers on what he thought were just weeds along the side of the road.

After they arrived at the site, they put on their bee suits over their clothes. By the time John got on the white coveralls, the veil, the long gloves, and put elastic bands around the cuffs of his suit to keep bees from crawling up his leg, he felt like an astronaut about to set foot on the moon.

Brother Mattson opened up a hive and examined each frame to find the old queen. When he found her, he killed her and set a small cage with the new queen carefully into the super.

“See that plug there,” Brother Mattson said, pointing to a plugged hole in the cage. “It’s made of candy. The worker bees will go to work clearing the plug, and by the time they get it open and get the new queen free, they’ll be accustomed to her and they’ll accept her.”

As they worked, Brother Mattson pointed out the drone bees, the larva cells, and explained about beekeeping. Even though there was a cloud of bees around them, John felt his fear leaving and being replaced by deep respect.

After they got back to town, Brother Mattson loaned him two books about beekeeping. John read the books in two weeks.

From that time on, he went out with Brother Mattson every chance he got.

A few weeks later in priesthood meeting opening exercises, Brother Stewart announced that a local beekeeper wanted to sell his 50 hives. The ward was going to buy 20 of them, but any members who wanted to buy any of the other hives should contact him.

As they were leaving to go home to get the family for Sunday School, John told his father, “I want to buy ten hives.”

“What for?”

“I can provide the family with honey for food storage and sell the rest.”

“I don’t know,” his father said. “The last project you started and didn’t finish was selling Christmas cards. That cost me $20.”

“That was four years ago. Besides, this is different.”

“Let me think about it. Okay?”

On Monday night after family home evening, the family talked about John’s plan. Finally they decided that John would borrow $500 from the bank on his father’s signature, and he’d also throw in $200 of his own savings to buy 15 hives.

By Wednesday, John found a place to put his hives. It was in the middle of an alfalfa field in a small valley whose hills were covered with sweet clover.

He took Cathy fishing a couple of times a month. She was easy to please, she could bait her own hook, and she seemed happy just to be with him without feeling pressure about getting serious. But John felt himself falling in love, although he didn’t tell her because he knew it would upset her.

Once that summer he took her out to see his bees. As he helped her get her bee suit and veil and gloves on, she half-seriously threatened, “If I get stung, you’re in real trouble.”

“Don’t worry. Bees don’t hurt anybody unless they’re being hurt.”

He took off the top hive cover, and pulled out a frame of honey, covered with bees. He gently brushed them off with a small brush. A cloud of bees surrounded them. He showed her the pattern of eggs laid by the queen, and, after some searching of some frames from another super, he showed her the queen.

“You love it here, don’t you?” she asked him thoughtfully.

He nodded his head. “I really do.”

After they were through, they moved several hundred feet away from the hives, took off their veils, and sat down and ate lunch. John looked up from his sandwich, and it seemed that his mind etched the scene forever into his memory. Cathy, her hair the color of ripe wheat, talked happily about the Church; her voice was like a pleasant song. The field of alfalfa was a sea of purple blossoms. Further up on the hill, the yellow sweet clover blanketed the ground. John watched a steady stream of his bees returning to the hives, each one carrying a small bead of pollen. Small puffs of clouds hung lazily in the sun-drenched sky.

It was a moment that lasted forever.

“Are you listening to what I’m saying?” Cathy asked.

“Cathy, you’re so beautiful.”

“Oh sure,” she said with embarrassment, “in a pair of coveralls.”

“Really you are.” He thought about telling her that the sun made her hair look like a tan flame, and that he loved her, and that the moment seemed perfect, as if all nature had contrived to give him one moment when all his senses would come alive and record forever in his mind one instant of his life, and that no matter how old he got he’d never forget this one moment.

“It’s real nice out here, isn’t it?” was all he said.

The next Sunday the bishop called him to be an assistant beekeeper for the ward welfare project. John learned as quickly as he could. When Brother Mattson applied powdered antibiotic mixed with powdered sugar to the church bees, John helped him and then hurried to his bees and did the same thing. When Brother Mattson split some hives, John split some of his hives.

By the end of the summer, he had extracted 1,800 pounds of honey from his hives, sold it for $900, paid off his loan, and put $100 dollars in the bank.

From that time on, John knew what he’d do with his life. He’d be a beekeeper.

A day before Cathy was supposed to go back to BYU, he took her out fishing. As they sat in a small rubber raft in the middle of a lake, he finally got the courage to say it.

“Cathy, I think I love you.”

“Do you? I think a lot of you too.”

“If I were older, and if I’d already been on my mission, I’d ask you to marry me.”

She touched his cheek. “I guess our timing’s not too good, huh?”

“I guess not,” John said.

“But you’ll always be one of my best friends,” Cathy told him.

The next day Cathy left for the Y.

The next summer, John set aside $2,000 for his mission from money he’d earned from his hives.

That November John worked with Brother Mattson to winterize each hive. They reduced the entrance holes and wrapped tar paper around each hive to cut down the flow of cold air. The hives were then two supers high, giving the bees just enough honey to survive the winter.

In January of that winter, Brother Mattson died. John learned about it from his father when he got home from school one day.

“It was a heart attack. It came in the night when he was asleep. Maybe he never even woke up.”

John didn’t cry at the funeral or out at the burial site. The graveside service took place in a snowstorm as the prairie winds whipped across the cemetery, slowly drifting over the flowers set there by friends.

The next day John drove out to the ward’s hives. Walking ankle deep in fresh snow, he trudged across the barren fields to the hives. It was too cold to open up the hives, and he didn’t really have a purpose to be there, but he just stood for a long time, his hands in his pockets, looking at the black, tar-paper-covered hives standing alone in the middle of the cold white field. It’s like the bees are in mourning, he thought, seeing the blackness covering each hive. And then the memories of Brother Mattson flooded into his mind, and he heard himself sobbing loudly, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself for a long time.

Two weeks later John was called in to talk with the bishop. “John, you’re the only one in the ward now who knows the details of beekeeping. We’d like you to take Brother Mattson’s place and be the ward’s beekeeper. You’ll work with the priesthood quorums when you need help. Will you do it?”

“Nobody can ever take Brother Mattson’s place,” John said.

“I know, but he’d want us to continue on, wouldn’t he?”

“He would,” John agreed.

“He told me once how proud of you he was, and how much you’d learned. He said that you knew as much as he did. After we cleaned out his apartment, we found a couple of books about beekeeping. I think he’d want you to have them.”

They were the same books Brother Mattson had loaned John after the first time they’d gone out together to work the bees. John handled the worn books with care.

“Bishop, I’ll be glad to accept the calling.”

“I knew we could count on you.”

“There’s just one thing. I’ll need to train someone who can look after the bees while I’m on my mission.”

“Who would you like?”

“My dad.”

“Okay, we’ll call him to be your assistant.”

That winter John spent an hour a week with his father, training him. It brought them close together again.

In April John received a wedding announcement from Cathy, who was getting married to her returned missionary. John attended the reception in the ward cultural hall. She and her husband looked radiant.

“I gave you some honey for your honeymoon,” he told Cathy in the reception line.

“How sweet,” she countered, kissing him lightly on the cheek.

“Have you met my cousin yet?” she asked. “She’s going to be staying with my parents this summer. I’ve told her all about you, and she wants to learn about beekeeping.”

He looked four places down the reception line where a girl with long blonde hair smiled back.

“She’ll be 19 when you return from your mission,” Cathy said with a scheming smile.

The last semester of his senior year, John took an elective course from Mr. Lattimer. It was a class in which each student could specialize in some aspect of American history. John chose to write about beekeeping in America.

“You’re the last person in the world I would have thought would take another course from me,” Mr. Lattimer remarked one afternoon.

“People change,” John said.

“You have. You seem like a different person. You seem to know what you want from life.”

“I do,” John answered, proceeding to outline his plans for a mission, marriage in the temple, and becoming a professional beekeeper.

“What’s made the difference to cause you to change?”

John thought back over the past two years and finally answered, “I guess it all came because I agreed to work on a Church welfare project.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Preston Heiselt