James R. Aist
Growing up in the early-to-mid 1950s in Cypress Valley, Arkansas, one of the more rural areas of the state, did not afford much opportunity for the more standard kinds of leisure recreation, to put it conservatively. We lived on a dirt road off of a dirt road, and our friends were few and far between, literally. Consequently, we were often left to dream up novel activities to entertain ourselves, using whatever resources were at hand. These particular adventures took place when I was about 8-10 years old.
One of the most exotic and creative “games” we came up with was what we called “fightin’ waspers.” Now, we were already into sneaking up on large moths feeding on flowering shrubs and smacking them down with home-made ping pong paddles, or “snapping” them with home-made, woven “whips” constructed from cotton string. But we didn’t dare mix it up with our local wasp population, because we didn’t know how to make such an endeavor end well for us.
That is, until the Johnsons invited my family to enjoy Sunday dinner with them. After dinner, old man Johnson asked me and my next-older brother, Johnny, if we liked to fish. Well, of course we said, “Yes.” “Come with me”, he said, “and I’ll get you some great fishing bait.” So we followed Mr. Johnson out to his barn, where he fetched a long ladder and placed it against the barn near the edge of the roof. Johnny and I were confused at this point, wondering how he was going to get fishing worms from way up there. As Mr. Johnson began to scale the ladder, we stepped up closer to get a better look, and then we saw it…a dinner-plate sized wasp nest tucked up under the roof and literally covered with big, black “German waspers.” There must have been a couple hundred wasp larvae in that nest that would make excellent fish bait, but how was he going to fetch it for us without getting seriously peppered with nasty wasp stings? Without hesitation, Mr. Johnson calmly reached up with his left hand, snapped the stem of the nest, held the nest out to one side and gently shook off all of the wasps. Once the wasps had all flown away, down the ladder he came, unscathed, and handed the nest to us. Needless to say, we were dumbfounded. “How did you do that without getting stung”, we asked? “It’s easy”, Mr. Johnson explained, “All you have to do is move slowly so the wasps won’t attack you, and hold your breath so they can’t sting you.” Now that didn’t sound quite right to us, but we saw it happen right before our eyes; not one sting! “Are you kidding us”, we asked, to which he relied “No, I’m not kidding at all; I’ve done this many times without getting stung, but you have to do it just as I said.”
Well, it didn’t take long for us to put this new information to good use. How could we come up with a plan to, finally, take on the waspers and emerge victorious? First, we needed a “hand weapon”, just in case we wanted to actually engage the wasps in combat. For that, we would cut small persimmon saplings out of the pasture field, trim off the lower branches, hold the stems together in our hand for a handle and flail at the attacking waspers to knock them to the ground, where we could then stomp them to death. That should work. Then, after our twisted little minds had mulled it over for a while longer, we came up with the following rules of engagement: 1) decide beforehand whether we would either all stand still and let the waspers fly past without trying to sting us, or, instead, strike them down with our hand weapons and try to actually kill as many as we could when they attacked; 2) walk along the dirt/gravel road looking for suitable wasp nests in the bushes lining the ditch, and then throw rocks at them until we hit the nest, causing the wasps to explode off the nest looking for an enemy to attack; 3) always hold our breath, just in case we were attacked despite all of our precautions; and 4) everyone will do the same thing (freeze or fight) each time we engaged the “enemy”, no matter what.
So, it came time to give this plan the “acid test”; we were finally going to play “fightin’ waspers!” Sensing it would probably be safer to start by just standing still (we weren’t yet fully convinced that holding our breath would really work), we set out to find a small wasp nest to attack (fewer stings if this adventure went south on us). With our hand weapons at the ready, we hurled stones at the target nest until…BAM, bull’s eye. Instantly, a dozen waspers came right at us. We “froze” immediately, arms to our sides and stiff as a board, hoping, nay, praying, that Mr. Johnson was right, and the waspers would leave us alone if we didn’t move. And, sure enough, they all flew right by us as if we weren’t there! Needless to say, we were relieved and very proud of ourselves for displaying such courage in the face of danger (Never mind that we stirred up the danger ourselves; hey, this was Cypress Valley, where you either get bored to death or you stir up some excitement for entertainment.)
Feeling more confident and cocky than ever, we decided that it was time to take it to the next level and actually fight the waspers. So, we found another small wasp nest (we were not dummies, despite what you may be thinking right about now), struck it with a rock, took a deep breath, held our breath and swatted at the angry waspers with our hand weapons as they came at us. One by one we knocked waspers to the ground, stomped them to death and then waited for an oppurtunity to catch our breath and continue the fight. When the skirmish was finally over, we had killed about half of the dozen or so waspers who had left the nest to engage us. And even though several of the waspers had actually struck us to sink in their stinger, not one of us reported getting stung. Holding your breath really does prevent stings, just as Mr. Johnson told us!
Well, those successes established “fightin’ waspers” as a permanent part of our repertoire for dispelling boredom in Cypress Valley. Many a time we would summon Herman Lee, Tommy Joe, Fred Ray and Danny Lee to come over and play “fightin’ waspers” with us. And, as God is my witness, I can recall only two or three times anyone got stung, and that was only because they happened to take a fresh breath at just the wrong moment during the fight.
And now, for this story’s “grand finale”, I will relate the most spectacular and amazing encounter of all. It was late August, and we were nearing the end of the “fightin’ waspers” season. I was in the back yard and just happened to glance across the well-grazed pasture field when I spotted it. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Right there in the middle of the pasture field was a lone persimmon tree about six feet tall with a dinner plate-sized nest covered with the large, black German waspers! It must have been there all summer, growing larger and larger, so how in the world did we not see it before?! We had never attacked such a large nest, and it was so far into the field that in order to get close enough to hit it with a rock we would have to walk right out into the field and become prime targets for dozens and dozens of angry German waspers. So, which would it be; leave it alone because of the real and present danger of getting covered with nasty wasp stings and, instead, just revel in our prior victories that season, or…or, crown our already impressive summer campaign with a truly mind-boggling battle, the mother of all wasper battles, as it were? Well, needless to say, we chose the latter. This nest was just daring us to try and conquer it, what with it’s “in your face” location and all, and the only way we could emerge from this challenge with a story to tell was to attack. And attack we did, but with a unique strategy that would address the unique demands of this particular nest. Actually fighting such a large hoard of winged, oncoming abdomens loaded with formic acid would be virtual suicide, so we decided to not even try that. Instead, we would walk to just within striking range, throw rocks until we finally hit the nest, fall immediately to the ground facing the nest, lay still and straight (presenting the minimal possible target size to the oncoming waspers) and hold our positions – no matter what – until all of the waspers had passed by.
Slowly, then, we walked toward the nest, picking up suitable throwing rocks as we went. When we were within throwing distance, we began to hurl rocks at the nest, one at a time. The first two chucks were so far off the mark that I began to wonder if we would be able to hit it at all. Then, summoning all of my strength (and luck), I gave the next rock a powerful heave (if I do say so myself), and…Bam, it struck that big nest smack-dab in the middle. Immediately 20,000 (OK, maybe it was “just” 200) vicious German waspers rose from that nest in unison, like a dark cloud, and suddenly I was no longer convinced that this was a good idea after all. Wisely, I reminded the others that our only hope was to stick with our plan, because in that open pasture field, there was, literally, no place to hide and no way to outrun them. So we hit the ground, facing the nest. What happened next was quite unexpected, immensely terrifying and wonderfully spectacular.
The cloud of waspers leveled out about three feet off the ground, forming a flat line of ferocious fighters arranged wingtip-to-wingtip and heading right for us. (It was hauntingly like the infamous German “blitzkrieg” of WWII; they were, after all, German waspers!). As they came closer and closer, they held this amazing formation perfectly, and I began to wonder if, somehow, this was their plan to punish us if we dared to attack their well-placed and well-guarded position. When they were about half way to us, we began to hear the beating of their collective wings making a low-pitched, very intimidating, humming noise. That’s about the time our bodies wanted so bad to bolt and run for our lives that it was all our minds could do to prevent them from doing so. Surely they had “made” us and were about to give us the licking that we deserved. But hold our positions we did, and as the well-disciplined, angry air corps passed over us, we braced ourselves for the worst. Then…nothing happened; they all just flew right over us, as if we weren’t even there. We waited for about another 30 seconds, and then we looked back to see where the waspers had gone. Low and behold, they were all clustered together in a tight ball in another persimmon tree that was about 100 feet behind us. We looked at each other in amazement and agreed that that was a very close call, but we won! Now, we had to come up with a way to retreat from the battle scene without attracting their attention and inciting another attack, perhaps with a less agreeable outcome. So we rose slowly to our feet, paused for a moment, and then circled nonchalantly way around to one side, ending up at the barn, safely outside of the purview of the ball of restless, and still-angry, ball of waspers.
Now, I will admit this may have been one adventure that was seriously ill-advised, but, WOW, did we have a story to tell this time!
DISCLAIMER: You know the drill … “don’t try this at home” … “only for trained professionals” … “not responsible for accidents” … “blah, blah, blah.”
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