Well, It Could’ve Been A Bear!

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Well, It Could’ve Been A Bear!

James R. Aist

“Things aren’t always as they seem!” – Carl Hurley, Kentucky Humorist

The background for this short story is that, just a few weeks before this happened, a front-page article gave an account of a young woman who was camping in a national park out west when she was attacked by a large bear and partially eaten…alive! The report was gory and very frightening, so I’ll spare you further details. And, wouldn’t you know it, when we arrived at our campground destination in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, a forest ranger warned us that there had been a couple of bear “episodes” in this very campground within the past couple of weeks! So, it was with a bit of trepidation that we proceeded to pitch our tent and set up camp that evening.

Now, we were not yet fully apprised of the wiser ways of setting up camp when in the presence of hungry black bears that were accustomed to to being at the top of the food chain. So, we foolishly left a latched basket of our food on the picnic table, along with a locked cooler of meats and other goodies placed on the ground. But, just in case, I did make sure that I had a hatchet in the tent with me. The first night came and went without any troubling encounters, save for a few sounds of, apparently small, harmless night creatures pausing briefly to check out the possibilities for sustenance. But, that was about to change.

On the second night, we had just drifted off to sleep when we were awakened suddenly by much louder, and sustained, sounds of something trying to get at our food, something obviously much larger than a small, harmless night creature. Moreover, we were sure that we could even hear breathing and some muffled, snorting sounds, such as might be expected if it were a black bear! So, “What do we do now?”, we wondered out loud. At first, we were going to just ride it out and hope that, whatever it was, it would give up and go away. But, alas and alack, that was not to be.  The noises just kept on getting louder and louder, and, we surmised, more violent. Then, assuming it must be a black bear, I realized that I had no choice but to go on the offensive, as I was determined to go down fighting!

I don’t know how I thought I was going to fend off a black bear with only a hatchet in hand, but that was all I had in terms of weaponry. So, I firmly gripped the handle of the hatchet, took a deep breath, quietly unzipped the door of the tent, and then burst forth, hatchet held high, to confront this massive beast, with at least the element of surprise going for me. At first, I wondered if I had scared him away, because there was no such beast in sight. And that’s when I saw them: two, little, masked, ring-tailed, would-be bandits just trying to survive. One was trying to get into the basket, while the other was working on the cooler.

These darling little raccoons, quickly recognizing that they were out-manned, scurried off into the night, leaving us to have a good laugh at ourselves before retiring for the remainder of the night. Alright, laugh if you will, but hey, we both know it could’ve been a bear!

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

Hush Little Baby…Uh-Oh, Run!

tobacco-barn

Hush Little Baby…Uh-Oh, Run!

James R. Aist

This true story is one of my earliest memories, having taken place when I was just three years old and my older brother, Johnny, about four and a half. We spent a lot of time playing together, so what happened to one of us usually happened to both. The year was 1948, and we lived on a dairy farm in rural Maryland. To supplement the family income, we grew and processed tobacco on the farm and then sold it at a local auction.

It was early Fall, time to harvest the tobacco and hang it to dry in the tobacco barn. For this, it was customary in our region at that time to hire temporary farm help, so this particular year we hired a young “colored” couple, let’s call them William and Mary, who had a small baby boy, probably about six months old. Well, one afternoon this couple drove their black Ford Coupe into the barn to keep it cool while they worked on the tobacco and the baby slept peacefully on the back seat.

Out of curiosity, Johnny and I decided to mosey on down to the barn and find out for ourselves what the heck they were doing. There in one corner of the barn they were, William as skinny as a rail and Mary almost as wide as she was tall. They were standing at a work bench with their backs to us, busily slicing off the green tobacco leaves from the stalks with machetes and hanging the leaves on slender poles for drying. We had never seen such really big, long knives!

After a few minutes of watching them do the same thing over and over again, we got bored and decided to entertain ourselves by playing tag around the car. It was so much fun that we began to laugh and giggle loudly as we chased each other round and round the car. Mary heard our noise and turned around, machete in hand, and warned us to be quiet, because the baby was sleeping in the car. To make sure that we understood the gravity of the situation, she (jokingly) promised to cut off our heads if we wake her baby up. Well, that put the fear of God in us, but we were, nonetheless, confident that we could play quietly enough to keep our heads attached.

After a quick peek into the back seat of the car to verify Mary’s story, we were right back at it, very quietly at first, but gradually louder and louder as we were pulled increasingly into the joy of the game, oblivious to the sleeping baby in the car. Next thing we knew, there came from the car the ominous sound of a baby crying, softly at first, but quickly rising to the amplitude of a full-blown tizzy-fit. Whereupon, we froze in our tracks and looked straight at William and Mary. What was she going to do? By that time she had already swung around, waving her machete in the air, and she was coming right at us scolding angrily, “I TOLD you not to wake up my baby!”

Well, Johnny and I were convinced that we were about to be murdered right then and there, and so, without the need of prior survival training, we instinctively began to run lickety-split out of the barn and toward the house, yelling repeatedly at the top of our lungs, “Mama help, she’s going to cut our heads off, she’s going to cut our heads off!” We ran like the wind all the way up the farm road to the long, wooden gate, at which point we each took a “rut” and dove under the gate. Picking ourselves up, we looked back, only to see Mary in the farm road, chasing after us, (innocently) waving her machete in the air and yelling, “Y’all come back, I was just kidding, I’m not going to cut your heads off, I was just kidding!” Well, that just convinced us all the more that she really was going to cut our heads off (What would you think?). So, we continued our flight toward safety, still yelling, “She’s going to cut our heads off, she’s going to cut our heads off!” By the time we reached the front yard, Mama had heard the ruckus and was out the front door to rescue us. After enjoying the humor of the situation for much too long, she hugged us and reassured us that Mary was not really going to cut off our heads, and that she really was just kidding all along. Needless to say, Johnny and I were very glad to hear that, and Mary was relieved to be exonerated!

And that’s why I survived to tell this terrifying tale. As it turns out, William and Mary were the nicest folks you would ever want to meet, but for a couple of minutes there, it sure didn’t seem like it to Johnny and me!

(For more of my TRUE TALES, click HERE)

Sounds a Bit Fishy to Me: Let’s Take Turns

Sounds a Bit Fishy to Me: Let’s Take Turns

 “You Go First!” – John

James R. Aist

My good friend, John, introduced me to stream fishing when we were both students at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, in the mid-1960s. Stream fishing is where you walk and wade yourself up a stream and fish the relatively still and deep pools as you get to them, hoping to find an unsuspecting bass lurking within, just waiting for his next meal to appear. The best lure for this kind of fishing was a plastic worm with hooks attached by hand, as John had taught me. After I had tried stream fishing by myself, with just enough success to get “hooked” on it, John invited me to drive up into the Ouachita Mountains with him to try our luck up there. That sounded to me like a fun adventure, so one bright, sunny day we headed for the mountains.

John drove us up to one of his favorite mountain streams, and we soon discovered that this stream was nearly dried up. It was running underground between the “fishing pools”, coursing through the creek stones (gravel) from one pool to the next. John assured me that this wouldn’t be a problem, as we could just walk on the dry creek bed from pool to pool. And so we did.

When we arrived at the first pool, it was obvious that it was too small and narrow to be fished by two fishermen at the same time, so John came up with a brilliant idea. “I know”, he said, “Let’s take turns, and whoever catches the biggest fish for the day gets a “large coke”, compliments of the loser.” That sounded fair enough to me, so I agreed. After quickly surmising that the only suitable spot to land a plastic worm was right under an overhanging branch at the end of the pool, and assuming that it would be impossible to do so without getting the worm caught on the branch, John, with a sly grin on his face and confident that there was no way this pool was going to produce a catch for either of us, said, “You go first!” Realizing I had been outsmarted, I had no choice but to go ahead and give it a try.

So, stepping forward and taking careful aim, I anxiously cast the worm toward the calm, open water, just under the overhanging limb, at the far end of the pool, thinking “There’s got to be a good one lurking under there in the shade, and I can catch him if I don’t get my line tangled up on the limb.” The worm sailed swiftly through the clear mountain air and was heading straight for the intended landing site, when – alas and alack – it just barely flew over the limb, hung up there, and left my worm dangling helplessly about a foot above the water. Needless to say, John and I had different reactions to this development. John was elated that he had talked me into going first and was trying to suppress his laughter, while I was clearly bemoaning the fact that I had just barely missed my opportunity to catch the first fish, against all odds as it were.

So, admitting defeat on this first pool, I began to try and free the worm from the branch by making quick, small jerks on the fishing rod to get the worm to hit the branch on its way up and clear the limb without getting hooked on it. This maneuver caused the wiggling worm to dance up and down vigorously, with its tail splashing in the water on each downward motion. Well, as it turned out, there was a good-sized bass waiting under the branch, and this splashing action of the worm was more than he could resist. Just when I had raised the worm up about a foot above the surface of the water to make another quick jerk on the fishing rod to free it, the bass suddenly jumped straight up out of the water, grabbed the worm in its mouth, and fell back into the water, freeing the worm from the limb in the process! Really.

Now, I was as surprised as John was, and it was all I could do to keep my composure. But, in order to maximize the impression I wanted to make on him, I had to pretend that this remarkable turn of events was just commonplace for me and had nothing to do with dumb luck (i.e., “I meant to do that”). So, I just matter-of-factly reeled in my trophy and proudly held it aloft in John’s face as if to say, “Who’s laughing now, John?”

Well, we remained friends and fished on from pool to pool for a couple more hours that afternoon, and we both caught fish on the way. At the end of the day, I owed John a large coke for the biggest fish (He was, after all, the better fisherman), but I took solace in the fact that I had caught the first fish, against all odds. So, as it turned out, we both had “bragging rights” at the end of this fun-filled fishing foray into the Ouachita Mountains. And John enjoyed his large coke.

(To enjoy more of my TRUE TALES, click HERE)

Bumblebees? Surely You Jest!

Bumblebees? Surely You Jest!

James R. Aist

“Some people live and learn; others just live.” – Gene

In an earlier story (click HERE), I introduced a childhood activity that we called “fightin’ waspers.” 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 meager resources were at hand. This particular “adventure” took place when I was about 8-10 years old.

One of the most exotic and creative “games” we came up with to counter the boredom was what we called “fightin’ waspers.” Now, we were already into sneaking up on large “hummingbird” 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.

Not to worry, though; help was on the way. Through the intervention of a family friend, a Mr. Johnson, we learned that wasps cannot sting you while you are holding your breath. Well, it didn’t take long for us to put this new information to good use. But, how could we come up with a plan to, finally, take on the waspers and emerge victorious? After our twisted little minds had mulled it over for a while, we came up with the following rules of engagement: 1) decide beforehand whether we would either a) all stand still and let the waspers fly past without trying to sting us; or, b) strike them down with hand weapons fashioned from small persimmon bushes 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 stones 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 exact same thing (freeze or fight) each time we engaged the “enemy.”

After numerous successes, “fightin’ waspers” became established as a permanent part of our repertoire for dispelling boredom in Cypress Valley. Many a time, Johnny and I would summon Herman Lee, Fred Ray and/or 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. Amateurs!

But this, admittedly risky, game took a turn for the worse one fateful Sunday morning. Tommy Joe, Herman Lee, Fred Ray and Danny Lee had joined Johnny and me at our house to “chill” until it was time to walk over to the local church for Sunday School. Now, Tommy Joe had heard about “fightin’ waspers”, but he had never actually participated in any of our wasper fights, and he didn’t know the rules. For some reason, while we were waiting in our living room to walk to church, Tommy Joe asked if we could play “fightin’ waspers” right then and there. When I heard him say that, “Satan entered into me”, and I devised a sinister plan to play a practical joke on Tommy Joe. Boys will be boys, you know.

So, I explained to Tommy Joe that we didn’t have time to roam the road-side looking for a suitable wasp nest, but there is a bumblebee hole (nest) – in the road embankment almost directly across the road – that is easy to find. “But”, I explained, “we only fight waspers, because bumblebees are so big, fly so fast and pack such a wallop in their stingers.” I was sure that would end the conversation. Not to be denied, however, Tommy Joe insisted that he wanted to fight the bumblebees anyway. So, thinking that he was really just bluffing, I led Tommy Joe through the front screen door and out into the front yard to show him the bumblebee hole. Without hesitation and to my surprise, Tommy Joe picked up a stone and proceeded to hurl it at the hole. By that time I was running like the wind back toward that screen door and the protection it would afford.

Alas and alack, and as luck would have it, Tommy Joe’s aim was true, and out came the bumblebees, mad as a hornet (so to speak)! Next thing we knew, Tommy Joe was making a bee-line (pun intended) for the screen door too, yelling and screaming and flailing his arms in panic. Once he was inside the house, we quickly gathered around him to see if he was alright. Well, he was not alright, not at all. A bumblebee had “nailed” him right on the tip of his nose, and his face was already beginning to swell up and turn red. The pain must have been intense, as he was crying and holding his hands to his face. This ruckus attracted the attention of my Mama, who rushed into the room to assess the situation. The moment she asked, “What in the world is going on?” I realized that this was not going to end well for either Tommy Joe or me.

With “such a cloud of witnesses surrounding me”, I had no recourse but to tell the truth and face the consequences. The exact sequence of the ensuing events was like a blur to me, but Mama dealt appropriately with me, making several swift and strategically placed contacts with my rear end, before driving Tommy Joe home and apologizing profusely to his Mama for what had transpired and for the now fully inflated, beet-red face of her poor little boy. And, much to my chagrin and regret, that was the first and the last time Tommy Joe was given permission to attend church with us. Go figure!

To this day I feel really bad about this – perhaps somewhat innocent – practical joke I played on my friend, Tommy Joe. If there is a moral to this story, I suppose it would be to carefully think through a practical joke before you set it in motion. Or, perhaps better yet, don’t set it in motion at all, because it could turn out to be a serious and irreversible disaster, as this one did. That said, “Y’all have a ‘fun-filled’ day, now, ya hear?”

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