I have entered my second childhood, and the excitement and thrills are even better than they were the first time around. After the passage of 50 years, I again find myself using a slingshot, only now I'm not after rabbits and squirrels but far different game—yellow jackets and houseflies.
I owe my reintroduction to the slingshot to my dog, Buster. A high-spirited, 90-pound black Labrador retriever, Buster suddenly got it into his head not to come back to me after a retrieve but to stop 10 feet away and have me chase him. Chasing would only have worsened the problem, so I ignored Buster and stomped into the house. After an hour or two he scratched at the door, wanting to come in. The next day he played the same stupid game. Frustrated and angry, I called Jack Cassidy, an astute retriever trainer in Middletown, N.Y., who told me to drop Buster off at his kennel.
I did, and later, when I went to bring Buster home, Jack said, "Buster doesn't play chase anymore."
"How did you stop him?" I asked.
"I stung him in the butt with a marble whenever he pulled that stuff. Here, take these along with you," he said, handing me a slingshot and a bag of marbles. The slingshot was not the kind I used to make as a boy from the crotch of a tree branch; it was made of steel and had a finger-fitting plastic grip with the manufacturer's name, Saunders, stamped on the bottom.
At home Buster attempted to act up a couple of times, but he came to his senses the instant he saw me pull out the slingshot. In the summer of 1991, with Buster no longer misbehaving, I took to shooting marbles at fence posts and tree stumps and at an old metal bucket next to the garage (there is something very satisfying in hearing a pingggg). When Ed's Variety Store on Main Street ran out of marbles, I used pebbles from the driveway. I have always been a good shot—I was an expert with the M1 rifle in the Marine Corps—but it was impossible for me to be on target with the pebbles because they veered wildly in flight.
I phoned a friend in Damariscotta, Maine, R. Ian Fletcher, a fluid dynamicist and former professor of biomathematics at the University of Washington, who explained, "A piece of gravel has an asymmetric shape. As a result, the drag is not the same at all boundaries, and vortices shed from it are chaotic, so you don't know what it's going to do."
"Wow," I said to myself, "you sound like a Yankee pitching coach." Ian added that the best projectile would be round and dimpled like a golf ball.
No such projectiles are on the market, but toward fall, our oaks began yielding a bumper crop of acorns, and I collected more than a thousand of them. Those from the red oaks, almost round and about an inch long, proved to be the best ammo. With the caps removed, they went reasonably straight for as much as 30 feet and packed enough wallop to make the bucket ring.
Several days later, while working inside the house with the door to the deck open, I suddenly jerked bolt upright with a sharp, scaring pain in the back of my neck. It was as though I had been stabbed with a long, hot needle. A yellow jacket had stung me, but before I realized what had happened and could get up to close the door, I was stabbed again, on the arm and then on the back. It turned out that workmen putting an extension on to the deck had disturbed a nest of yellow jackets, and for some reason they had attacked me instead of the workmen.