Jul 4, 2005

Will Smith

will not be appearing in this post. Nor will references to patriotic movies, flags, or policical idealism. What will be appearing in this post will be lame jokes, thought-provoking stories of my childhood, obscure references to people and places, and perhaps even some chicken anthropomorphism.

The Fourth of July. We call it "Independence Day," the British call it "Thank God They're Gone Day." It's the day of picnics, beer swilling, and fireworks. But mostly fireworks. Blowing things up is no longer a kid's game. I can recall as a kid being overjoyed at the thought of driving with my parents down to the little white wooden fireworks stand near the house and standing there in the glare of a string of bare bulbs, staring enraptured at the wall of potential second degree burns , fingers shot off, and eyes shot out. We never had a great deal of money when I was a kid, so my brother and I were always fairly restricted, and neither of us was willing to risk our small budget on something crappy, so we always went with the usual: smoke bombs, to give the place that atmosphere, sparklers, to get warmed up to the idea of holding burning things in your hand for as long as possible, roman candles, because you got a lot for a little bit of money, some jumping jacks, or 'ground flowers' I think they're called now, a whole pack of those beautiful red-paper wrapped Black Cat firecrackers, and the piece de resistance, bottle rockets.

Now when I say "bottle rockets" I'm not referring to the modern bottle rocket, the kind that sells about six to a pack and has a red balsa wood stick like a chopstick. No, I'm talking real-deal outlawed in most civilised states 1 gross to a pack stick like a toothpick put your eye out in a heartbeat bottle rockets. We'd always get one gross each, 144 pink-sticked opportunities to blow a finger off, blind one another, or blow out a window. Sweet gracious death on a stick.

I remember being completely and utterly crushed the year they were outlawed. I could not believe that any self-respecting boy grown into man could possibly do that to his fellow boys and men. How could anyone limit the utterly boundless range of imagination of a boy, the thousand and one chances to maim, mutilate, or otherwise dismember himself or someone nearby? How were we expected to launch action figures into lower Earth orbit, or make wooden boats suddenly Jet Boats From The Year 5 Billion? No, it was too painful to imagine.

So, every 4th we'd go to my grandmother's house in Mississippi to meet the rest of the family, celebrate, and just as we crossed the state line into Ferriday we'd stop at the first fireworks stand and buy a gross each of bottlerockets, because (thank our lucky stars) they were still legal there. We'd spend the Fourth up there with my cousins trying to shoot each other, and then on the trip back that Sunday we'd make another stop at the fireworks stand for ANOTHER gross, which would be shot over the next month or so, carefully parceled out by our own trembling hands.

Memories of those times are still sweet in my head. Evenings covered in sweat, racing around to hide behind trees and walls, trying for the perfect shot at my brother or a friend. I can still feel the slick PVC pipe that I always kept hidden away, year after year, for just this occasion. The smell of burnt gunpowder still makes me think of those bydone days, and every time I get a burn I think of the evenings after the Fourth spent packing ice on fingers.

I think the last year we bought bottle rockets was the year that I made probably the most monumental mistake any of us had ever made. It was New Years, and I was traipsing around the field firing at random targets. I thought I was being clever by wearing one of my father's old canvas field jackets, and I had about four dozen bottle rockets in the right cavernous pocket. I was packing another opened dozen in my left hand and my trusty grey PVC cannon in my right, for fast reload and fire times. As best I can reassemble the sequence of events, I was stumbling around firing blindly into the night, I reloaded and fired, and sparks from a firing rocket made it from the front tip of my cannon directly, perfectly past the open flap of my ammunition pocket, there to fall upon gunpowder-impregnated paper fuses, where they lit at least one bottle rocket still ensconsced safely in it's plastic dozen-pack wrapper. The lighting of one set off a reaction, lighting a few more, and the firing of those few lit at least six or eight more in other packs, and before I realised what was happening my pocket was a flaming, screaming mess. Or was that me? I can't recall clearly.

I do recall my pocket suddenly coming alive in fire and smoke, me beating on it uselessly, as though I might somehow put them out, and the explosions that kept going off in the vicinity of my hip, then someone came up behind me, grabbed the collars of my jacket and ripped it off me with enough force that it dislocated one of my arms and bruised the other. You see, it was still buttoned up, and when the Air Force makes something like a field jacket, they make it to stand up to a certain amount of abuse. But somehow my friend (at the time) managed to pull that jacket clean off, buttons exploding into the night to match the carnage taking place in my pocket.

The laughter was uncontrollable for everyone but me, who had to stand and watch as my so-called friends stomped my prized green canvas jacket into a smouldering pile. The final tally was a massive hole burned/exploded on the outside of the jacket, a bigger massive hole exploded on the inside of the jacket, a hole the size of four fingers burned/exploded clean through my sweat pants, and a first degree burn on my hip, which went away in a matter of a few days. The shame? Oh, that went on for decades, and still makes me wary of carrying more than a few of ANY explosive in my hand.

Has it stopped me? Not in the least. I'm just a bit more cautious now, and jumpy around large quantities of gunpowder. We went last night and racked up two bags of goodies, will be going this morning to purchase my favourite, the mortar-shell style firework where you get a dozen packed low-end professional starburst shells, and then tonight we're going to have a fairly sizeable (for us) gathering for hamburgers and explosions, because I know that K., my wife's stepfather, is just as taken with the idea of firing those beautiful mortar shells into the night sky, and I might have a few others to make believers out of.

If I type a little funny tomorrow then you'll know it was good.

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* For those of you still wanting bottle rockets.

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