Barry Smith: Irrelativity
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Summertime boredom in the pre-Internet Deep South is a very special breed of boredom, one that can lead to some pretty bad decision-making.
“Hey, let’s go pour gasoline on an anthill and light it,” one of us said. Can’t remember which one. We might have even all said it in unison. Doesn’t really matter – the Bad Decision Train is now leaving the station. All aboard!
I’m only 12, my friend James is 14, my brother Bryan a tender, innocent 6. Even though by our current cultural standards we aren’t technically doing anything bad, we decide it’s best to keep the grown-ups out of the loop on this project. So Bryan and I stand guard while James sneaks a plastic cereal bowl from his kitchen and then fills it with gas from the mower shed. I run into my own house to secure a pack of matches. Hooray for parents who smoke!
Finding a fire-ant hill is the easiest part. These big brown mounds of scorched dirt adorn our otherwise grassy field. As a kid in the South, you know full well to avoid these mounds. Stepping on a fire-ant hill even for a second will result in your leg being swarmed by tiny red biting demons. It happens unbelievably quickly, almost like watching time-lapse footage. A bite from a single fire ant will make you fight back tears. More than one bite, and you’re bawling in pain. A whole bunch of them, and, well … bless your heart.
I feel guilty about this behavior now, but at the time I had no moral qualms about dumping gasoline on them and setting them ablaze. I’m sure they have an important place in the ecosystem – or in God’s plan, whichever way you roll – but it’s important to remember that they’re pure evil. If a vegan were to get bitten by a couple of fire ants, they’d immediately sign a petition calling for their total and absolute destruction – even if the pen they were asked to sign with was made of tender, breaded veal.
Anyway … we dump the bowl of gas on a big old fire-ant hill, stand back and realize that one of us has to actually light it. Bryan’s too young to know how to work matches, and James, who’s sloshed gas all over his hands while carrying the bowl out into the field, doesn’t want to. So it’s up to me.
I strike the paper match and, standing about 6 feet away, throw it at the hill and immediately crouch down, shielding myself from the explosion.
So I get a little closer. Light the match. Throw it. Duck. Nothing.
A little closer still, and I try again, but I can see that the wind keeps blowing the match out before it lands. So for the next try I move right up close, crouch over the gas-soaked ant abode, strike the match, lower it in my cupped hands to the wet dirt and …
They told me later that I actually came off the ground and landed flat on my back when the ball of fire exploded in my face. All I remember is opening my eyes and seeing them staring down at me. By some miracle I hadn’t been blinded or disfigured by this fireball. And, perhaps even luckier, I hadn’t landed in an adjacent anthill.
I was not, however, unaffected.
My eyelashes and eyebrows were singed back to little nubs, and my hair had received a thorough, uniform scorching. Oops.
We send Bryan in to sneak some scissors from my kitchen drawer and set up an emergency barber shop behind the house, where James hacks off brittle clumps of my hair with the dull utility scissors. After a while we decide that our best bet is for me to wear a hat at all times for the next few weeks. And I do.
Many weeks go by, and my mother is giving me my regular haircut. I’m sitting on a chair in the kitchen as she grabs a clump of my hair and rolls it between her fingers.
“Did your hair get burned?” she asks.
Bryan gathers up his toys and quietly walks out of the room. I’ve known this moment would come eventually, and I’m totally unable to lie to my mother. So I begin my well-rehearsed explanation.
“Well, before I answer that question,” I reply, “I think we can all agree that fire ants are really, really bad, right?”
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