Playing with Fire(works); a Lifetime of Adventures

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Playing with Fire(works); a Lifetime of Adventures

Warning: Do not try this at home!

James R. Aist

I have had a long-standing fascination with fireworks, especially the do-it-yourself variety. Playing with fireworks offers opportunities to blow things up without getting in trouble for it. It also invites the application of creative juices when one begins to get bored by mindless repetition. Finally, the ever-present threat of bodily harm adds a certain excitement to the entertainment value, perhaps not unlike that experienced by rock climbers and bungee jumpers. Here, I have elected to share with you some of the more interesting or bizarre experiences I have had with fireworks during the course of my lifetime. I hope you enjoy them; I know I did.

Roman Candle Peekaboo

When I was about nine years old and living in very rural Arkansas, we lived on a dirt road off of a dirt road, about half a city block from the small, Methodist church in Cypress Valley. It was Sunday evening, and the Fourth of July was coming up in a few days. But some of the more patriotic young locals had already stocked up on fireworks early, and they came to the Sunday Evening Service with mischief in mind. It was already dark when the congregation was dismissed, and these patriots made a bee-line for their automobiles. There they armed themselves with Roman Candles, touched them off, and began shooting them at whoever was shooting at them from behind the parked cars. It was all I could do to negotiate the parking lot without being shot down myself! And I marveled at the skill these combatants displayed at dodging the fiery darts after first seeing the flash from the candles aimed right at them. Obviously, this was not their first Roman Candle “rodeo.” It was truly a wonder that no one was hurt that night. I was frightened.

Blind Man Standoff

That same night, after the Roman Candles had all been used up, another fireworks battle took place, this time on the road in front of our house. And this time I was able to participate. A group of about 12 willing participants assembled, fireworks (mostly firecrackers, but some cherry bombs and block busters to make it more interesting) were distributed, two sides of six each were chosen, and the two sides stood in a row and then took about five steps back from each other. Since we were now well away from any source of light, it was pitch black on that dirt, country road, and we could barely see anything. I thought it incredulous that they (we) were really going to do what it was obvious they (we) were going to do. And they (we) did. Fireworks were lit by both sides and flung at the other side. You could see them being lit and thrown, and there were explosions all around us. We dodged as best we could while lighting and throwing our own ammunition in retaliation. I soon wished I had sat this one out, but it was too late! Oddly enough, though, no one was hurt in this battle either. But I swore never to do that again!

Arrow Rockets Rock!

Right around that same time, also in Cypress Valley, I invented my first fire cracker weapon. Here’s what happened. I had some firecrackers left over and was wondering how I might set them off creatively. I had a crude bow that I had fashioned out of the trunk of a persimmon bush and strung with bailing twine. A local weed left dry, straight stalks after flowering, and I had crafted these stalks into crude, but suitable, arrows for launching from my bow. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself, “I wonder what would happen if I were to fasten one of those firecrackers to the end of one of those arrows, light the fuse, and then, at just the right moment, fire it into the clear afternoon sky with my bow so as to explode the firecracker at the pinnacle of the flight of the arrow. (OK, OK, at only nine years of age, I wasn’t using advanced, three-syllable words like “pinnacle”, but that’s what I had in mind, I’ll swear it!) Anyway, that’s what I did. It took some practice to get the firecracker to explode at just the right time, but, after a few tries, I had the timing down pat. I would load, light and fire, and the explosion would give off, not only a loud bang high up in the sky, but also a puff of smoke would emerge and drift off slowly, carried by the wind. I had invented the “arrow rocket!” But I didn’t anticipate what would happen with my next launch. Up went the arrow, bang went the firecracker, and puff went the smoke, as before. “But wait, what’s that I’m seeing? Is that a perfectly formed smoke ring? Why yes, yes it is!”, I thought to myself. My arrow rocket had just produced a perfect smoke ring that drifted off slowly, carried by the wind! Was that cool or what!

Firecracker Time Bomb

In an earlier short story, I published a more complete account of my application of this ingenious time bomb (click HERE). So here, I will just relate essential details of its construction and use.

This invention took place when I was about 12 years old and living in Evening Shade, a small town in rural, north-central Arkansas. Now, the key to making a Fire Cracker Time Bomb is to first make a homemade fuse that will produce a delayed explosion of the firecracker, a “timer fuse” as it were, and then insert one end of the timer fuse into the free end of the fuse of a firecracker. As it turns out, the perfect, convenient raw material for a timer fuse is thin, white, cotton string, such as used to be employed to bind a flour sack or a bag of charcoal briquettes. When you light the end of the string with a match and then blow out the flame, the string will continue to smolder and burn shorter and shorter, much like a lighted cigarette left sitting in an ashtray. So, I did some test runs to determine how long the string needed to be to give about a two-minute delay, just long enough for me to make my getaway and appear completely innocent if there was an unexpected “incident.” The action plan was to mosey innocently down to the center of town (about one block), stop at the big maple tree next to the telephone operator’s house on the left; you know, the tree with a huge hole, about waste high, that was facing the sidewalk. Then, I would turn and face the big hole in the tree, reach in and assemble the “bomb” inside the hole so that no one could see what I was doing, light the timer fuse, turn back toward home and mosey innocently up the hill, waiting to see if anyone would be startled by the “bang” so I could watch (i.e., be entertained by) their reaction. And so I did. But, as it turned out, there was no one but me in the area at that moment to hear the explosion, so my prank was a bust (pun intended). Technologically though, it was a huge success. Woo-hoo!

Mater Grenades

This final caper with fireworks has had many variations throughout the years, but I think you might enjoy reading about this one in particular. It happened about 14 years ago at my home in Knoxville, TN. My wife’s daughter and her family were visiting, and the Fourth of July was coming up. The grandson and I were plotting to blow off a few firecrackers and wanted to add some kind of twist to it, just for kicks. Why not blow something up this time, besides the firecrackers, we reckoned.

Now, we were somewhat of a couple of cheapskates at that time, and I began to wonder how we could blow something up without spending too much money on it. As it turns out, a few days earlier, when I was shopping for vegetables at the supermarket, I noticed that some of the Italian tomatoes (you know, the ones shaped like shmoos) were perfectly sized and firm for this adventure, and several were rotting from fungal infections. No one would buy these tomatoes anyway, I surmised. So off we went to the supermarket to buy tomatoes to blow up. Well, sure enough they agreed to give us the rotting tomatoes for free. Now this little trick may not be as simple as you might think. To pull this off successfully, one must first create a clean hole in the tomato just the right size and depth to hold a lit firecracker while flying through the air at high speeds (the tomato, not me, silly!). Aha, a drill is “just what the doctor ordered” I thought. So I got out my electric drill and selected a drill bit of the same diameter as a firecracker.

When the time came for our little entertainment gig, we all went out on the deck (which, by the way, is ten feet off the ground) to enjoy this homemade spectacle. I drilled a hole in the first rotten tomato, and we inserted a firecracker; it fit perfectly.  So, we lit the fuse, waited a couple of seconds, and then flung it violently into the air, away from the deck. When it was about 20 feet from the deck, the firecracker exploded in mid-air, and instantly there was tomato juice, pulp and seeds flying everywhere…BAM…poof! That was awesome, and so we high-fived each other. Then we repeated the process 5-6 times before getting bored. And that’s when we noticed tomato seeds where we didn’t expect them: on the deck, on the deck rail and even on my van, which was parked a good 25 feet or more from the explosions. Now THAT was well worth the trouble!

(To read more of my short stories, click HERE)

My Favorite Pie that Wasn’t!

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My Favorite Pie that Wasn’t!

James R. Aist

When Daddy became an ordained Methodist minister in Arkansas in the mid-1950s, and I was about ten years old, our family became increasingly familiar with the tradition of churches having pot-luck dinners on the grounds after the morning worship service. This transition delighted me no end, because I had already developed a lust for food, especially of the sweet varieties. There was a plethora of different foods to choose from while filling your plate and no limit to the number of times you could return to the food tables for more! Consequently, I became most interested in going to church when I knew there would be a pot-luck dinner afterward. (Hey, cut me some slack; I was only ten years old!)

Speaking of desserts, Mama did a lot of cooking for us, and she was quite good at it. My favorite of all of her culinary creations was her lemon meringue pie; it had just the right combination of sweet and tangy with a gentle taste of lemon, and it always seemed to disappear from the family dinner table far too quickly to suit my taste, so to speak. So, I always looked forward to visiting the dessert tables at the pot-luck dinners to search out and sample the lemon meringue pies on display there.

On one such occasion, I reconnoitered the dessert tables ahead of time, and to my great satisfaction and anticipation there were a half-dozen beautiful and inviting lemon meringue pies just waiting for me to chose one to begin with. The “blessing” was asked, and I hurriedly filled my first plate with fried chicken, fried okra, tater salad and “poke salad.” After dutifully cleaning this plate, I moved on to what I considered the main course: desserts. Eagerly I rushed to the lemon meringue pies, looked them all over carefully, and chose the one most closely resembling the ones my Mama usually made. I was salivating as I drew aside to begin my conquest.

But, instead of the blissful, sweet and lemony satisfaction I was anticipating upon my first mouthful, I was met with a strongly sour, rather sulfurous sensation that nearly gagged me! “What kind of lemon meringue pie is this?”, I thought to myself. “Is it even lemon meringue? What am I going to do now? I don’t want to make a scene by spitting it out in plain sight, but there’s no way I can swallow this bite, much less eat the rest of the piece!” I looked around, desperately searching for a tree I could discreetly get behind and clear my mouth without being noticed. Having found one, I then needed to find a way to ditch the remains of that vile pretender without incident. Thank God there was a trash can handy, off to one side! I quickly made use of it and proceeded to rinse out my mouth with sweet tea, again and again.

The shock of that horrible experience was so severe that I was not sure, at first, if I was up to trying a different piece of pie. But my hankering for lemon meringue pie soon brought me to my senses, and I was soon rewarded richly for my bravery (with a different pie, of course!). And what was the lesson learned? Things are not always as they seem!

You may be wondering what kind of pie looked to me like lemon meringue and made me gag. I don’t know, but my best guess is that it was either a pie crust filled with deviled egg filling and topped with meringue, or some version of vinegar pie topped with meringue. Got any ideas?

(To read more of my short stories, click HERE)

God Still Makes a Way!

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God Still Makes a Way!

James R. Aist

“But the children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea. And the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.” (Exodus 14:29)

Sometimes God calls His chosen ones to embark on a mission that will put them in harm’s way, only to provide them a way out. Perhaps the parting of the Red Sea is the best-known example of God providing a way out for His people (Exodus 14:21-31). But, to further illustrate this point, here are a few more examples from the Bible of how God has made a way out, when it appeared that there was no way: 1) A prostitute named Rahab hid two Israelite spies from the King of Jericho and gave them a way of escape from certain death (Joshua 2); When King Herod had purposed to have baby Jesus killed in Bethlehem, God sent an angel to Joseph with a warning to flee with his family to Egypt until it was safe to return (Matthew 21:13-15); and 3) When King Herod had Peter put in prison and bound, God sent an angel to remove his bonds and walk him right out of the prison, in the presence of the guards, thus preventing Herod from having Peter executed (Acts 12:6-11).

With that backdrop, I have a story of my own to tell, in which God clearly revealed His hand in making a way for me to miraculously escape a cleverly conceived plan to put me in harm’s way. So that you can more fully appreciate the miraculous nature and extent of this escape, allow me to provide a brief backstory. In the early 1990s, while I was a Professor at Cornell University, I sensed that God was calling me to speak out about the gay agenda. Now, I was already quite familiar with the tendency of gay activists to use force and violence to bully their opposition into surrendering to their demands, even to the point of fire bombing a pastor’s home with his family still inside! Nevertheless, I agreed to embark on this project with the understanding that God would protect me from harm. With that understanding in mind, I did extensive on-line and library research to find out if there were scientific studies of homosexuality, as well as exactly what the Bible did and did not have to say about it. I found out that nobody was really born gay, that unwanted homosexuality could be overcome, and that the Bible repeatedly and consistently condemned homosexual sex acts as sinful.

With that information in hand, I began a local ministry (dubbed “AHA”, for Alternatives to Homosexuality Anonymous) to share these facts with members of the Cornell and surrounding communities. As expected, this ministry was met with outcries of bigotry, homophobia and gay bashing, along with threatening and lurid phone calls to my home phone number, hateful messages written on campus sidewalks and formal complaints to the Cornell administration seeking to get me fired. During the peak of these personal, public attacks against me, there was a clever trap set to corner me in my office and confront me face to face, with the local media invited to show up and publish explicit, front-page, pro-gay articles with me as the culprit. This trap set for me and how God provided a way of escape is the main focus of this article. Here’s what happened.

The Setup

I received a phone call in my office from a young woman by the name of Ariel, a Cornell student. She said that she wanted to meet me in my office to discuss my AHA ministry and help me understand why they wanted me to cease and desist. So, we agreed to meet in my Cornell office the next day at 1:30 p.m.

The “Mole”

About a half hour before the meeting was to take place, I received a phone call from a young man who was also a Cornell student. I had never even heard of him before. He said that he was a member of the Cornell Young Republicans Club. He also had signed onto the e-mail list of a gay activist student group, so that he could function as a “mole”, as it were, to monitor the group’s e-mails and upcoming campus activities.

The Plot

The Mole informed me that I must vacate my office before the 1:30 meeting with Ariel, because a group of gay activists was planning to gather at the lower campus, march straight up the hill to my building, trap me in my office and make demands to the College and Cornell administrators that they forbid me to speak out further concerning homosexuality. The appointment with Ariel was a set-up!

The Counter Plot

The Mole wanted to come to my office ahead of time and escort me surreptitiously to a safe location of my choosing on campus, circumventing the pre-determined route of the gay mob. So, I decided that the best place for me to escape to was the office of my best friend, Bill, a fellow Christian professor. When the Mole showed up at my office door, I immediately noticed that he appeared to be dressed and groomed more like a liberal gay person than a conservative Republican. He said he did that so he could join in with and spy on the gathering mob on lower campus without being outed as a mole! I also noticed that he was accompanied by a middle-aged gentleman dressed more formally, in a tan business suit. It turns out that the Mole had taken the liberty of informing the Campus Police of the mob’s intentions, and they dispatched this Detective to accompany me on my journey across campus to my place of refuge, just in case I was spotted trying to get away and things got out of hand!

The Escape

So, off we went, at about 1:20 p.m., to skirt around the route of the approaching mob and arrive safely at Bill’s office. Once inside, I thanked the Mole and the Detective for their help and protection, and they went on their way. Bill and I then settled in to chat about what just happened, and to wait patiently to learn what the mob did when they found out I wasn’t there. Later, I learned that they were demonstrably upset and surprised that their trap had been foiled. So, as to not be totally frustrated, they decided to invade and occupy the Departmental Offices instead, where, for more than six hours, they held the Department Chairman and his staff hostage while they made their demands to the higher administration, in my absence. Moreover, the gay activists failed to get me fired.

The Point

God still makes a way, when there seems to be no way out of the peril you are in! He will see to it that you are able to accomplish the task He has called you to do. And, in this case, He made good on His promise to protect me from harm as I conducted the AHA ministry.

Truth be told, my friend, we are all born into a world of great peril. “What peril?”, you may ask. The peril that the Bible refers to as the “law of sin and death”: “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23). But God has provided a way out of this “sin problem”, and His name is Jesus. God ordained that the death of Jesus on the cross would pay the price for our sins (Mark 10:45), and we need only believe in Jesus to be saved from an eternity in hell (John 6:29). Now that is a way of escape that none of us can afford to pass up! Have you let God save you yet?

(To read more of my articles with a biblical theme, click HERE)

Whoa Nellie!

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Whoa Nellie!

James R. Aist

Growing up on a small dairy farm in central Arkansas in the early 1950s sure had its moments, some more noteworthy than others. I was the youngest of four brothers, and I was, at times, eager to be like my two oldest brothers. They were more involved in manly, farm activities than I was, and I envied that.

We had other farm animals besides 40 milk cows and a bull. Of particular interest to me were our two horses. One was a run-of-the-mill work horse, a brownish stallion we called Tony. Tony was large and strong, and he had an attitude. He was so dangerous that Mama and Daddy would only let my two oldest brothers ride him. And that was fine with me, because I was afraid of him. But I still wanted to ride a horse, like my oldest brothers did.

Now the other horse was a beautiful black mare. I don’t remember her name, so for purposes of telling this story, I will refer to her as Nellie. She had a much more gentle spirit about her than did Tony, and she was much less dangerous to ride. So, about the time I turned eight years old, I was given permission to ride her.

At first I would ride her bareback, because it was difficult for an 8-year-old to saddle her up. The first time I rode her she seemed OK with me on her back, but she showed some reluctance to follow the “instructions” I gave using the reins. She wanted to go where she wanted to go, not always where I wanted her to go. Nevertheless, the ride ended without incident, and I enjoyed it. I can ride a horse…Yee-Haw!

With one successful ride under my belt, I was eager to ride again, still bareback. This time I felt more confident and relaxed, so I decided to not try and dictate exactly where she went, but to just enjoy the thrill of riding a horse without the hassle of controlling it. What could possibly go wrong, right? Now there was a large oak tree in the pasture field where I rode Nellie, and she and Tony liked to spend time under its shade during the hot summer days to keep cool. So, I was not surprised when Nellie made a bee-line for that tree, using a slow, steady gait. I was enjoying the ride so much that I didn’t notice the low-hanging limb directly ahead in the direction Nellie was taking. I can’t explain why, but when I did spot that limb, I just assumed that Nellie would navigate around it, for my sake. She was, after all, a gentle, kindly beast, right? Well, I was about to find out that Nellie had a mean streak in her. As we approached that low-hanging limb, I noticed that Nellie was still heading straight for it. Then I noticed that the limb was lower than I had first thought it was. Then I noticed that I couldn’t duck low enough to miss that limb. Then I noticed that Nellie was ducking the limb. Then I noticed that the limb hit me in the chest. Then I noticed that I was flat on my back looking up at the tree. Then I noticed that I was unhurt. Then it occurred to me that Nellie did that on purpose! Do you have any idea what its like to be outsmarted by a horse and end up flat on your back? Well, I do. Fortunately, no one was watching; I checked.

Because I am not one to give up easily, I purposed in my heart to ride again, this time with a saddle firmly in place to help prevent a repeat of the previous incident. And I was going to make the most of it this time; I was going to ride Nellie at full speed, just to find out how fast she could go! So, up the driveway and down the road we went, in the direction of the graveyard. (OK, I know what you’re thinking, but no, the graveyard has no particular significance to this story. I am, after all, sitting here writing this story, am I not?) Anyway, I had a plan for getting Nellie to open up and run like the wind: I would ride her slowly about a quarter of a mile toward the graveyard, stop, turn her around toward the house, then back her into the ditch so she would have a good place from which to launch, then kick her sharply in the abdomen with both feet while yelling “HEE-Yah!”, and then hold on for dear life.

Everything was going perfectly according to plan until I got her backed into the ditch. Then, as I was about to “spur” her into action, she suddenly shook and squealed and took off for home lickety-split, as if shot out of a cannon! I was both surprised and terrified at first, but I soon realized I could hold on. So that turned out to be a most thrilling and exhilarating experience, and I enjoyed it immensely. That is, until I realized that Nellie was now leaving the road at full bore and heading across the lawn and Mama’s Irises, straight toward the milk barn. She managed to come to a screeching halt in front of the barn, and I was unharmed, again. I can’t say as much for the Irises, however. Mama came running out of the house demanding to know why I had ridden right over her Irises! Of course, I had no defense; Nellie goes wherever she wants to. Mama soon cooled down and opted to let me live to ride another day. Just not through those Irises!

All things considered, it was quite a successful escapade for me, despite the surprises. I had achieved my main goal, and let me tell you, that horse could flat out run!

After Word

For many years, when I would cogitate on this thrill ride at the expense of Mama’s Irises, I couldn’t figure out what it was that had spooked Nellie in the ditch. Then one day I put two and two together: in those ditches along the dirt road we lived on were many wasp nests hanging from the bushes growing there. And those nests were crawling with wasps, just waiting to attack and sting any creature clueless enough to disturb them. And that day, Nellie just happened to be that creature. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it!

(To read more of my short stories, click HERE)