Saturday, May 5, 2012

Adolescents & Fireworks: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

One has lots of time to think when doing yard work, I’ve found.  I actually don’t mind doing it.  For me, cleaning up after winter is much like straightening up your house after the departure of an intrusive houseguest who attempts to kill you with snow, ice, harsh winds and frigid temperatures at every turn.  Okay, maybe there aren’t a lot of houseguests exactly like that, but you get my point.

The bulk of my yard work has been at my grandmother’s house across town.  I had a lot of fun times there while growing up.  Maybe I should say “as a child”. Some would argue I’ve yet to grow up.  While I was raking and hauling debris, I got to thinking about some of those times, particularly those associated with house next door, which had long been empty.  It was finally torn down just a few months ago, and is now a vacant lot strewn with hay and gravel.

An actual photo of Stace's old house on its last day. The green house in the background was the "Bumpus house".

My good friend Stace lived in that house with his mother in the 70s and early 80s.  Stace was two years older than me, and very adventuresome. We pulled a lot of crazy stunts that would have horrified our elders (and, in some cases, law enforcement) had they known.  I could almost smell sulfur as I recalled the time when I was about 11 years old, and Stace and I nearly blew the neighborhood up.

It was 1981, and Stace was going to be moving soon to another part of the state.  We knew our time to hang out was winding down, so we were making the most of it while his mom and my grandmother were busy packing and labeling.  At around that same time, Stace’s father, who lived out of state, sent him a box of fireworks.

Yes, fireworks.  A 13-year-old boy, his 11-year-old friend, and a box of illegal explosives, marginally supervised.  What could possibly go wrong?

Stace’s mother knew about this box, but did not know much about fireworks themselves.  Stace wisely downplayed the potential danger, and didn’t let her spend a lot of time investigating it.  She assumed, I think, that the fireworks were all in the same category as sparklers, or maybe firecrackers, but not something worth her worry.  As for me, my grandmother and parents knew nothing of this wonderful box of deadly fun, and I aimed to keep it that way.

One thing in our favor was that it was not a quiet neighborhood.  There was a lot of traffic nearby, and numerous houses occupied by unruly folks.  Remember the backwoodsy Bumpuses with all the hounds from A Christmas Story? (“He won it! Says it’s a major award!”)  We’re talking about very similar people here.  Unexpected and unusual noises and smells were the norm.

I can’t remember how many items were in the fireworks box, but it was easily over 100.  They were of a variety I had never seen before nor have I seen since.  Stace was going to be living in an apartment in his new city, so all of the fireworks had to be used prior to his move. We had about a month to detonate them.  Never had a challenge been so gladly accepted.

In spite of what you might assume, Stace and I were actually quite responsible (mostly) and the picture of caution when it came to handling explosives, especially those with which we were not familiar. We thoroughly read all the directions and warnings, and made sure to keep our distance after lighting any fuses.  I got hold of an old pair of leather work gloves which we used faithfully when igniting things, just to be sure we didn’t burn ourselves. Daring and adventure were great, but pain…not so much.  I can’t remember either of us incurring injuries requiring anything more than a Band-Aid.

Stace and I started small, with the sparklers.  Not only were they the only things in our arsenal that were legal in our state, but they were also the least lethal, so we were pretty comfortable using them out in the open.

Next, firecrackers. The main attraction of those babies was noise, and lots of it. They were awesome, but attracted attention that we didn’t want.  Stace always had a good head on his shoulders, and probably would have made an excellent crime boss if he had chosen to take that route in life.  (He didn’t, for the record.) He made sure we only set off a few packs of firecrackers at a time, in different places and at different times, so as to avoid suspicion.  Some of them were pretty high-powered. For fun, we’d take one, sneak into someone’s backyard when we knew they were home, and clandestinely light it off in a safe place, like the middle of a lawn.  After enjoying the tooth-rattling boom, Stace and I would nearby, watching and waiting for the bewildered homeowner to come outside to see if a jetliner had crashed behind their gazebo.

There were quite a few bottle rockets too.  Living in a neighborhood with lots of trees and wooden structures, we had to be careful where we aimed them. During the month-long rocket barrage, we accidentally lit one tree on fire (briefly), accidentally hit one vehicle (a battered old van parked behind a stoner’s garage), accidentally melted one sneaker (one of Stace’s) and managed to ignite zero homes, garages, or businesses.

Some of the other items in Stace’s box were more exotic. Roman candles, launching blinding spheres into the air every few seconds, were my personal favorites. There were also small discs that looked like they were made of charcoal. When lit, they curled around in a ring of ash like a snake. One of the most memorable were small metallic flying saucers that, when lit, would rise up to ten feet in the air, showering sparks in all directions and making a fantastic whirring sound.  They scared the daylights out of us the first time we lit one.  After that one, we couldn’t get enough.

As the day of Stace’s move got closer, a bunch of fireworks remained. We decided to use up what was left all at once.  The trick was going to be not getting caught.

Our attention turned to Stace’s playhouse in his back yard.  It was a decent-sized structure that we had used as headquarters for a number of years.  However, it was starting to get pretty dilapidated.  Moss grew on the roof, the floorboards were crumbling, the glass in the windows had been taken out, and the door no longer hung on its hinges.  Whoever moved into Stace’s house next was probably going to tear it down.  It was the best place to light off what remained of the fireworks with the least amount of risk of being found out.

On a rainy Saturday, the day before Stace and his mother were to move for good, he and I converged on the playhouse with our arsenal and a fire extinguisher that we had found in his garage.

What happened over the next thirty minutes or so can only be described as very loud, very bright, very smoky, and very, very stinky.  Firecrackers, bottle rockets, flying saucers, Roman candles…we lit them all off inside that ten foot by ten foot building that day. (We were not necessarily inside the building when they were going off, mind you.)  Miraculously, the building did not catch fire, nor did we, and we didn’t get caught.  The Bumpuses must have been at a monster truck rally that day.  When the smoke cleared, the interior had an evil, sulfur smell that would linger for ages, and the walls, floor, and ceiling were permanently blackened. Stace and I were not in much better shape.  The smell of smoke and sulfur clung to us, and we were covered in soot and ash.  We looked like chimneysweeps.

A genuine mea culpa here: In hindsight, the stunts Stace and I pulled with that box of fireworks were incredibly dangerous and foolish, and I would never encourage any child (or adult for that matter) to even consider doing such a thing.  If any kids are reading this: We were stupid and ignorant of the danger!  Don’t do it! Stace and I were lucky not to be seriously injured or killed.

Back to 2012.  It’s funny what triggers memories.  Who would have thought that an afternoon of spring cleanup in my grandmother’s yard would take me back in time over thirty years?  A lot has changed in that time, but I am fortunate enough to still have my grandmother around, and to still be in contact with Stace on occasion.  I know he reads this blog from time to time, so I dedicate this post to him and all the good times we had way back when.

How on earth are we still alive and in one piece, Stace?

1 comment:

  1. Have I written about the fireworks stand I ran as a kid, yet? Oh, who cares. If I have, I've forgotten. I will try to write one soon in honor of you and your childhood friend. Nothing will bond boys like mildly illicit danger. Sounds like a great summer.