I loved the 4th of July!
Every year my Dad would buy a smallish bunch of firecrackers, smoke bombs, bottle rockets, Roman candles, sparklers, fountains and snakes.
And every year, my Dad, the Fireman or Fire Marshall, would give me The Speech.
Thou shalt not:
- Throw lit firecrackers like hand grenades
- Shoot bottle rockets at Steve or any other living creature
- Hold a Roman candle in your hand. Never. Ever. Not even once.
At this point, you are expecting me to tell a story about how Steve and I had bottle rocket duels at dawn and shot out each other’s eyeballs.
No, that’s a different story. This story involves a raging fire.
In about 1966 or so, for the first time I was allowed to keep my very own bag of fireworks in my bedroom.
The fireworks were required, by law, to stay in that bag until the weekend, when we were all going out to the country to shoot them.
At least that was the plan.
But these fireworks were evil. They kept calling out to me every night.
I would pour out the bag’s contents onto my bed and look longingly at them. I would hold them, smell the gunpowder and read the labels.
Over and over again.
I wanted to blow up something so bad that my whole head was about to explode. The torment was awful.
I knew that I’d get caught if I opened a pack of Black Cats or bottle rockets. Their packaging was just too tight, and the labels said exactly how many were inside.
Every night I would carefully examine all the fireworks and then put them back in the bag and unsuccessfully try to go to sleep.
After three or four restless nights, I suffered a moral collapse, and things went to heck.
I noticed that one bag of weird, little “crackers” had strings on both ends. I think the label said you should tie the “booby traps” onto a door and, “Scare your sister to death!”.
But if I’d done that to my sisters, they would have murderized me to death, then my Mom would have told my Dad and he really would have killed me.
But I noticed that the label did NOT say how many were inside the bag. With a lot of effort, I managed to ooch one booby trap out of the bag.
I wanted to rig it to my neighbor’s pickup. But I couldn’t figure out how to tie both ends properly, so that it would explode when he opened his door.
So I just tied one string to the truck’s door handle, and let it dangle like a sad piece of spaghetti.
It was a pathetic attempt at Fourth of July vandalism, and I knew I needed to lift my game.
That night I looked super closely at all my fireworks and found a pack I’d never noticed before.
These things were maybe half as long and wide as a pencil and supposed to be a powerful new kind of smoke bomb.
And best of all, the label did not say how many were inside.
The next morning, when Mom was shopping and Dad was at the Fire Station, I spent at least five minutes ever-so-carefully squishing one out of the package.
I was starting to feel like a master criminal!
I took the smoke bomb and a box of kitchen matches into the back yard. Oddly, there was no fuse on the smoke bomb, so I planned to light one end and chuck it over the fence into the neighbor’s thick cedar bush.
I’d then, casually, go back into our house and peep out the kitchen window as smoke boiled out of the bush, making it look liked it was on fire.
Was I a criminal mastermind or what?
But there was a problem. The instant the match touched the end of the alleged smoke bomb, it exploded louder than a Black Cat.
That was NOT supposed to happen and it scared the crap out of me.
I dropped the match and high-tailed it inside, holding my breath and praying the police wouldn’t descend on our house and drag me to jail.
I went back to my bedroom and read the label again to see what had gone wrong.
I was supposed to “strike” the smoke bomb on a matchbook, not light the stupid thing.
Some criminal mastermind!
Luckily, the police did not come kick in my front door. But even so, I had a baaaaad feeling.
So I took my football into the back yard to just, you know, casually kick it around and scan the area.
I saw that the grass all along the fence line was on fire, and I swear I had a heart attack.
I ran to the back of the house and grabbed Blondie’s water bowl, then sprinted to the fire to douse the flames, over and over again.
But I was losing the battle. The fire was spreading, and I really started to panic.
I actually thought about calling the Fire Department. But I knew that I’d have to run away from home if I did that, and there was no time to pack a suitcase.
So I grabbed the garden hose and turned the water on full blast. I stretched the hose to its breaking point and started squirting water, but it wouldn’t reach the flames.
I started violently moving the hose up and down, sort of throwing the water, and it finally started hitting the flames.
After maybe 30 seconds, which seemed like an hour, the fire was out.
I was shaking like a leaf and had no idea what to do next. I ran back inside and tried to calm down and think.
Maybe I should “Sgt. Shultz” the whole thing and just say, “I know nothing! Nothing!” if anyone noticed anything.
But the burned strip was too big to miss when you gazed out the kitchen window, and Dad always did that when smoking cigarettes and drinking his morning coffee.
I was doomed. So when Dad got home, I told him exactly what had happened.
Some strange kid who I’d never seen before threw a firecracker into our back yard and then ran away laughing.
I hollered at him to stop but he didn’t, so I grabbed the hose and put out the fire.
There was no way that my Dad, who served as Norman’s arson investigator, could see through his criminal mastermind son’s story, right?
There’s no point in rehashing the gruesome details of what followed.
Let’s just say that it was a very quiet and sad Fourth of July. And that, some 56 years later, I am still grounded, and rightfully so.