Day Eighteen: A Series of Anecdotes
I was still one year away from hiring age, so had to resort to mowing yards if I wanted to earn more money than my allowance gave; that or go back to lumber-jacking on the farm, which was one of the hardest, hottest, exhausting, sweaty and risky jobs one could imagine. I was a budding adrenaline junkie in my youth so the risk didn’t bother me. In fact, it was exhilarating; cutting into a 100 foot tall pine tree while listening cautiously for the tree to sound it’s warning of snaps and cracks before the entire trunk buckled on its own base, coming down with so much force that it jams its branches so far down into the dirt that the entire tree trunk settles 10 feet above ground, creating an air bridge that you can walk on (if you dare) with the growling chain saw in your hands. Limbing a giant tree as you walk on top of the 10 story natural skyscraper is definitely a bucket list item. But, wearing kevlar chaps, earmuffs and a hard hat in 100+ degree heat during a drought year in a forest full of briar patches, mosquitos and biting flies with every exposed centimeter of skin caked in deep woods off is no party…so I went with the lawn mower.
With a couple yards per week, I slowly amassed my firecracker fund. As the summer progressed there was little to do except avoid boredom with any activity that did not involve “inside”. Vegging out on MTV and CMT music videos was the default for teenagers who would soon enter the first year of high school, but one can only stand so much of the artistic stylings of want-to-be film directors and this new art form that exploited the seemingly idyllic lifestyle of middle class and suburban America of the late 20th century. I grew up in the city but spent the summer hanging with my boys, who lived out in a small rural suburb. This is the same neighborhood where my aunt and uncle, two cousins and their bull dog chopper lived (The city population was over 75,000 so this was an interesting coincidence). It was August 30th, 1990 and it was hotter’n hell. The fireworks had been on sale for a few days but this was the first weekend day, so discussion of the afternoon’s activities were only a formality. The plan was to meet up at Ray’s house. I still had a year before driver’s ed class so my mom dropped me off in the “vanilla bomb” (1978 cream colored Impala station wagon). Before long we were joined by Clint, one of the other 5 neighbors/soon to be fish at Robert E. Lee High School. We got in a little MTV fix before heading out for the fireworks stand, just down the road from the perpetually blinking yellow light at the only major intersection in the area which marks the location of the one and only retail establishment in the community…the Dairy Queen. The selection of fireworks seems endless when you come prepared. But, in spite of the selection, Texas Pop Rockets are hands down the favorites with irresponsible teenage boys because you can throw em and dare each other to hold on longer than the last. It’s kind of like the flinch game where you fake punch your buddy and if he flinches he gets a real punch with the middle knuckle. After picking up our pop rockets and sundry other recreational explosives, we proceeded with the usual itinerary carried over from the middle school years which was to walk around the area and explore, cutting through plots of land using one of Ray’s “shortcuts” to end up in some other unfamiliar neighborhood (being a city boy, I wasn’t familiar with the layout, so I never knew where we were at. I was just following the leader). As we went along, we got started lighting up the black cats, roman candles, and Texas pop rockets. By now we were old enough to be talking about girls and who had made out with the most during the last school year and speculating on what it would be like to be in high-school or about the trip to Ray’s grandparents’ lake-house later that summer, which was becoming an annual tradition. As we walked, we worked our way up to the rockets. I think bottle rockets are now banned but back in the day, they were pretty popular (probably because they had the word Texas in them….I wonder if there’s such a thing as a Wisconsin pop rocket?) Being 15 and in a group, there’s not a whole lot of sense to the culture from an adult perspective because teenagers just don’t think like adults…because they’re not. Once the goading, daring, and all manner of peer pressure gets started, very few teenaged boys will back down, no matter if it goes against their conscience (which is kind of the point of a dare). The Texas pop rockets have a delayed pop that shoots a dozen or so fireballs out the top. This is probably the reason why they’re called “bottle rockets”. If you launch them from a bottle, then its a pretty safe bet that the fireballs go “up” instead of “down”. After various consumer grade and highly patriotic incendiary devices went off without incident, we were feeling pretty confident and entitled…I mean, after all, we earned those fireworks, and to a kid who still gets an allowance, they ain’t cheap. The dares begun with the first pop rocket (held by the stick that is meant to go inside the bottle). As we walked along a rural road with the occasional house every several hundred feet, we were not paying attention to the long orange/beige colored grass. It was a common sight and in our youth, we didn’t keep up with the weather or the yearly rain total. The first pop rocket was lit and the count began – T minus 5…4…3…2…1 and after it was thrown into the air, it started to spin end over end, alternating between right side up and upside down. The first one was a pretty nice toss and it ignited while being fairly upright, high in the air. Of course, as grown ups, its obvious to us that this is all about luck, but to a 15 year old boy its a contest of courage and skill. After we each took one or two turns there were no major incidents. It was so long ago, I don’t remember who threw the last rocket, but as it did somersaults over the long dry grass of a small field in a remote neighborhood, it started to descend rapidly….not a great toss…. POP!…This one had ignited upside down and a dozen or so fireballs shot out straight into the grass. That was not the plan and a total surprise to us all. We froze and watched in horror as each fireball caught in the grass. “Oh Crap!” we exclaimed almost in unison. We bolted in a frenzy towards the impending disaster, intending to extinguish them by stomping them out with our shoes one, by one. Being young, another thing we didn’t realize was that each stomp was like a stiff pump from a bellows and soon the 12 little fires had grown into a sizable single one. Not being prepared for that, we ran. Fortunately, someone saw the smoke and called the fire department. As we ran back through the woods to Ray’s house, we hadn’t gotten very far when we heard sirens. At that age, we had no idea what the penalty was for something like that but knew that we could get into some serious trouble, so we kept running (I wonder if this is the same mentality that young banking professionals caught up in the financial crisis had when they helped their corporate employers to deceive low income homeowners and farmers in the various financial crises of the last 3 decades).
The next weekend, we went back to the scene of the accident to survey the damage. A pretty large section of the field was charred black but fortunately the fire truck got to it before it could spread throughout the neighborhood and threaten peoples homes. It sounds unbelievable that it would take a mistake of that magnitude to learn responsibility but it does…particularly when egos are involved.