Shields Up, Fire at Will!

Shields Up, Fire at Will!

James R. Aist

If you are old enough to have been a fan of the Three Stooges slap-stick comedy series, the title of this article may have reminded you of the episode where the Stooges are armed for battle and someone gives the command, “Fire at will”, to which one of the stooges responds, “Which one is Will?” Well, this article is not about the famous Three Stooges, but it is about four not-so-famous child “stooges”, including myself, who lived so far “out in the sticks” of rural, central Arkansas that we had to invent games to entertain ourselves during the long, hot summers when school was out. And, to do so, we had to use whatever was readily available, which wasn’t much. [For example, you may enjoy reading also my account of “Wasper Warriors” (click HERE)].

This particular game we dubbed “Corn Cob Fights”, and it was practiced briefly when we were about 8-10 years old. Since we lived on a farm, raised a few pigs and had a dairy herd, there was no shortage of corn cobs and burlap feed bags. It wasn’t long before I realized that these were all we needed to create a new fighting game when we grew tired of playing “Cowboys and Indians.” The burlap bags made suitable shields when supported by a straight stick passed through one end, while corn cobs were readily obtained from the filthy, disgusting, germ-infested ground inside the pig pen. The fact that these corn cobs, because of their nasty origin, made terrifying projectiles when thrown, just made the game more exciting to us. (Remember, we were boys, we were bored, we were only 8-10 years old, and Mamma didn’t always know what we were up to!)

So, we collected our corn cobs, constructed our shields, decided on the ground rules and selected the venue: one team would defend the barn’s hay loft by “firing” corn cobs through the open door in one end – an opening that was used to pass hay bales into and out of the hayloft — and the other team would stand on the ground and try to “pick them off” by “firing” corn cobs when they appeared in the opening to “fire” corn cobs at us. The burlap shields were used by the ground team. This seemed innocent enough at the time. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

To start the fight, we chose sides, with two friends on each side. Tommy Joe was on the loft side, I was on the ground side, and we took our respective positions about 25 feet in front of the barn. The loft team fired first, suddenly appearing in the opening, launching their filthy missiles, and quickly dodging back behind the barn wall to safety. We easily dodged their reckless, return rounds with shields up, and then fired back. But, alas and alack, they could much more easily protect themselves than we could, because they could retreat quickly behind the wooden wall of the loft when we fired at them. After a few, futile exchanges, it occurred to me that I would have to come up with a new strategy, if we were ever going to emerge victorious over these lofty fiends. So, I took note of the time it took for them fire again after firing at us: it took about two seconds for them to reappear to fire back.

With that time in mind, I fired into the opening, waited two seconds, and then aimed and fired again where I expected Tommy Joe to appear just as my ordinance arrived. And, wouldn’t you know it, my new strategy (can you say “trickery”) worked perfectly: Tommy Joe popped his head out just in time to be smashed in the face by my filthy, airborne corn cob! I was astonished at this development, because the odds of actually hitting my target must have been at least a million to one! Then I heard Tommy Joe begin to cry, and I saw blood on his lip. “This wasn’t supposed to happen, not really”, I thought to myself. Then Tommy Joe complained loudly, through his tears, that I had cheated, to which I shot back that there were no rules in this game against trickery. For some reason, Tommy Joe didn’t seem to be comforted by my retort. Go figure. Then it hit me: “What if he tells on me, and what if he gets infected from the filthy corn cob? This could very possibly not end well for me.” “Oh, why did I ever invent such a game in the first place?” I asked myself, with sincere regret in my heart.

Well, Tommy Joe and I had been friends for a few years already, and when he had calmed down, he realized that his injury was never intended to be an outcome of this game. So, we agreed to never play the game again and moved on. Nevertheless, I must admit that I still admire the clever creativity that went into my trickery and the skill with which I pulled it off. Still, I am glad that I had the presence of mind to not suggest that we go for “two out of three” as a way to, somehow, console him. You see, sometimes it’s best to just keep your mouth shut and walk away!

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

A Day to Remember

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A Day to Remember

 James R. Aist

We all have our “good days” and our “bad days.” Most days it seems to be a mixture of the two. And so it is with me, as well. However, there is one particular day in my life that stands out far above all the other good days I have had. This day came together for me in the Spring of 1971, while I was a Ph.D. student in Plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

As I was soon to graduate with a Ph.D., I had been busy preparing for the next logical steps in my career and my family. Applications for a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, had been sent in. Job applications had been made to a couple of prestigious institutions with strong programs in Plant Pathology. My wife and I were trying for our first baby, as I was soon to be earning a suitable salary to support a family. Of course, I didn’t know either if or when any of these aspirations would be realized, but I did my best to make them all happen in the near future. I was optimistic, as is my nature.

After several months of anxious waiting, the unbelievable became reality, all in one morning: first, I got a letter in the mail from the National Institutes of Health, and they offered me a full-ride Postdoctoral Fellowship for Switzerland; next, I got a phone call from the Chairman of the Department of Plant Pathology at Cornell University offering me a tenure-track faculty position that was literally tailor-made for me (I kid you not!) at a starting salary of $11,000 per year; and finally, my wife walked into my cubicle and announced that she was pregnant with our first child!

Well, needless to say, I was truly amazed, overwhelmed and rendered mentally useless for productive work the remainder of the day, so I shared the good news with my Major Professor and went home to bask in the avalanche of good news that God had blessed me with that morning. It was hard to believe, but it really was true.

However, there was still one potential “fly in the ointment” that had to be resolved before I could benefit fully from all these blessings: my job offer and my Postdoctoral Fellowship were both scheduled to begin in September of that year. So, I called the Department Chairman at Cornell and asked if I could go ahead and accept the Postdoctoral Fellowship and start my job at Cornell in September of 1972 instead of 1971. “Sure”, he said, “Go ahead and get your postdoctoral training in Zurich first, and we’ll hold your job for you in the meantime.” Wow, I was delighted that it was all going to work out just as I had hoped! But, this fairytale-like adventure didn’t end there. When I returned to the U.S. to assume my faculty position at Cornell, there was a letter in my mailbox from the Department Chairman stating that he was including me in the salary-increase program for the year I was in Zurich, and my new starting salary would be increased from $11,000 to $12,000 per year; I got a salary increase before I even started work at Cornell!

I truly am a blessed man, and I give God all of the praise and all of the glory for the favor that had to come my way in order for all this to happen as it did. And His timing is impeccable!

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

Wait for It, Wait for It…OK, Now!

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Wait for It, Wait for It…OK, Now!

James R. Aist

This true-life experience happened when I was about four or five years old, and my family was living in central Indiana, near Marion. We were living in a large, stately, red brick farmhouse with tall, white pillars in the front and a long driveway lined with stately white pines. Daddy had been hired to manage this attractive farm property, which we called “the Love Farm”, after the original owner. Out back was a large barn used to store hay in the loft and to house animals and farm machinery on the bottom floor.

For some time I had been longing to climb up the ladder inside the barn and explore the hayloft, but I was forbidden to do so, because it was at least 10 feet high above a solid concrete floor. If I were to fall through the large hole that had developed in the hayloft floor, I would surely be seriously injured or even fatally wounded, according to Mama anyway. Then one day I came up with a brilliant idea: I would get my older sister, Carol, to accompany me in my adventure and make sure that I didn’t get close enough to the hole in the floor to fall through it. Voila! Problem solved. (For some reason, Mama agreed to this arrangement.) So out to the barn we went, where I promptly began to scale the ladder, with Carol watching closely. About half way up the ladder I began to get second thoughts about this adventure, because it began to dawn on me just high up 10 feet really is! And that hard concrete floor would not be a particularly hospitable landing pad should I, in fact, accidentally fall through the hole, Carol’s watchful eye notwithstanding. However, I was too far into the plot to quit now and have to suffer the embarrassment of returning to the house a failure, especially with an eye witness present to tell the story. So, I gathered my courage and scaled the rest of the ladder without further ado. At the top I crawled onto the hayloft floor, stood up victoriously, and began to walk around and explore the corners and edges of the hayloft to see what was really up there.

Nothing much of any real interest was there, so I approached the hole cautiously to look down at Carol and tell her I was done and ready to climb down. But, as I looked down over the edge of the hole, I got dizzy from the height, lost my balance and went hurtling down through the hole straight toward the concrete floor 10 feet below; “Carol can’t help me now!”, I thought to myself. As I was falling, I saw myself getting closer and closer to impact. It was terrifying. Then BAM, I hit the floor, landing perfectly flat, belly side down. By this time Carol was running toward me in a panic to see how badly I was hurt and console me until help could arrive. As it turned out, I had, miraculously, suffered only a slightly cut lip – no broken bones, no bruises and not even any scrapes from the impact!

I was so frightened by the fall that I was about to break down into full-blown bawling and crying, with tears, when Carol arrived to console and comfort me. But just then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mama running toward me calling out to us in fear of the worst. So, now I had a dilemma: do I start crying now and waste my tears on Carol, or do I hold off until Mama gets here so she can do the consoling and comforting instead. Well, that was a no-brainer. So I puckered up my face, held my breath and waited for Mama to arrive. Then I let-er-rip. Good choice; I was rewarded royally for my patience. After all, Mamas always trump big sisters when it comes to giving consolation and comfort. You just have to muster enough self-control to get the timing right!

Now, you may wonder, as I do, how I could have escaped such a fall with only a slightly cut lip. Think what you will, but I am convinced that, on that day, I put my “guardian angel” to the test, and he passed with “flying” colors (so to speak!).

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

Lazy Day Destinations: The Ball Field

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Lazy Day Destinations: The Ball Field

James R. Aist

Growing up in rural Arkansas left me with many fond memories of favorite places, especially when it was summer vacation, and I could just pick up and go by myself, or with a friend or two, on a hot, lazy summer afternoon.

The Ball Field

When I was around 12 years old and my family lived in Evening Shade (the real one, population 315 at the time, not the fictional one on the TV sit-com), one of my favorite destinations was the ball field. I loved baseball more than any other sport, even hunting. Fortunately for me, little Evening Shade had a fairly well-developed ball field (see photo at upper right) that served mainly as the venue for the men’s softball team. Most of the time, however, it was available for me to spend quality time alone on a hot summer’s day, secretly imagining myself as a big league baseball player when I grew up. To get to the ball park, I turned right toward town, walked straight through town, kept going until “town” turned into “country”, and I was there, in only about 10-15 minutes.  Watching the local team compete against nearby teams under the lights was only one of several ways I made memories there.

Bobby Johnson

One day I happened to be at the ball field when our team was having practice, in preparation for an upcoming night game against Ash Flat. As I began to watch, I was hoping that Bobby Johnson would be there. Bobby was a really big man, about six feet four inches tall and weighing 240 pounds, all muscle and bones. A few weeks before, at a home game, I had seen Bobby hit a ball harder than anything I had ever seen before. Bam! It was a sizzling line drive that sailed right over the center fielder’s head before it even began to sink to the ground. I wanted to be able to hit a ball like that when I grew up. And he could throw the ball so hard that no one wanted to catch it.

Anyway, back to the practice session. The guys decided to take a break and just have some fun for a few minutes. Bobby usually played first base, but he decided to take the mound and show off some of his “stuff” by pitching overhand to anyone who would dare to step up to the plate. He would buy anyone a large Coke if they could hit one of his pitches. What happened next was almost beyond belief. Bobby began to throw “roundhouse” curve balls. These pitches were coming so fast and curved so much that it was as if the ball was coming right at the batters from third base, at 90 miles an hour, audibly hissing (I kid you not!) all the way to the plate. That was enough to make them all bail out of the batters box before the pitch even got to home plate.

Needless to say, Bobby was the only one to enjoy a large Coke that day!

Toss-n-Hit

Most of the time though, the ball field was deserted, so I would bring along a baseball and bat to play toss-n-hit for a while. I would stand at home plate, hold the bat on my shoulder with my right hand, toss the ball high into the air with my left hand, grab the bat with both hands and then swing at the descending ball with all my might. I tried my best to hit a liner like the one I saw Bobby hit, but I just didn’t have the physique to take it to that level…yet. Nevertheless, I did hit some very impressive (to me) liners and got to experience that indescribable feeling when bat meets ball solidly with a loud “CRACK”! I’m sure some of you know, from personal experience, exactly what I’m talking about. Hitting the ball like this was fun, and I’m sure it improved my “ball-bat” coordination, but there is an obvious down side to playing ball this way: you always have to retrieve the ball yourself, and that dilutes the fun and gets boring pretty fast.

Good memories, though.

One in a Million?

But there was a memory I made at this ball field that was not so good. One late afternoon as I was on my way home from visiting a friend who lived just beyond the ball field, I decided to pause and “while away” some time; there really wasn’t anything better to do in sleepy little Evening Shade anyway. But, without my ball and bat, I thought, “What can I dream up to do for a few minutes on a vacant ball field? Oh, I know, I’ll practice throwing…rocks. That should be innocent enough to keep this preacher’s kid from getting into any kind of trouble, right?” So I collected a handful of stones and began chucking them, one at a time, at the wooden light posts that supported the light banks used for night games. I must admit that my aim was pretty good that day, and it wasn’t long before I got bored with the light posts and wanted a greater challenge, one that better suited my superior throwing ability. Just then my gaze rose all the way up to the light bank in right field. “No, you wouldn’t dare”, I thought, “What if I actually hit one of the lamps and broke it; then what? I would really be in big trouble, if anyone found out that the preacher’s kid did it!” After a brief pause, I swear I heard from the devil himself, “Hey, don’t sweat it. You’re good, but you’re not that good. The likelihood of your actually hitting a lamp is probably one in a million. Just chuck a rock or two at the light bank, and go on home knowing that you learned your limits today.” Well, with that seemingly solid advice in mind, I took a stone, wound up, and hurled it hard at the light bank, confident that I wouldn’t hit a lamp. But, alas and alack, this wasn’t my lucky day. The stone took off from my hand and headed straight for the light bank, and one in a million soon became one in one! The stone went straight into one of the lamps, which exploded with a loud pop, sending millions of glass shards raining down to the ground.  Suddenly, I was gripped with fear, and terrifying thoughts went racing through my mind, “Is anyone out and about?”, “Did anyone see what I did?”, “Did they recognize me?”, “Will they tell Daddy what I did?” But, thankfully, there was no one in sight that day. After all, this was lazy, little Evening Shade on a lazy summer day. “Besides, those lamps are always getting mysteriously busted, are they not?”, I reasoned, “So, I’ll just slip quietly away, and no one will suspect that this innocent little preacher’s kid broke this one.”

And I did, and, to my knowledge, they didn’t. But from then on, every time I went to the ball field and saw this very same broken lamp, I was reminded of my dirty little secret. Hey, you’re not going to tell on me, are you? Didn’t think so.

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