Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Let me explode

By third grade I was a veteran of illegal fireworks. It was a benefit of being a little kid with limitless access to firecrackers and lakes.

My grandparents spent their winters in Florida. On the drive back they spent hundreds of dollars at fireworks marts along the freeway. We had a cabinet at the family cottage dedicated to fireworks and hard liquor. The closet housed sacks and boxes of Black Cat firecrackers, standard bottlerockets, Roman candles, and jumbo missiles that exploded above the lake in flares.

I started thinking of this because of a post on the excellent new New York Times book blog. To my shock, the Times is trying to expand its feature pieces beyond the shallow-whore demographic to incorporate pro-boom crackers like myself.

My two cousins are much older than me. The oldest was late in high school when I was in kindergarten. He used to hold a firecracker, light it, and time his throw so that it exploded when it hit the surface of the lake. (He once climbed a stepladder that he positioned on a wooden plank while being pulled by a boat at about 30 miles an hour. Now he has five sons. There probably will be feats to report over the next 10 years.)

The allure of this to a six-year old: immense. When it came to fireworks, I wasn't risk-averse. My parents told me that I couldn't light illegal fireworks before I was 10, but they quickly relented, so I probably was seven or eight when I was allowed to entertain myself at the cottage with a pack of Black Cats.

We took a coffee can lakeside. Burrow the firecracker in the mud with the wick sticking out, press the coffee can over it, and when the explosion comes, the can shoots into the air.

My cousin and uncle drilled a firecracker-sized hole in a metal pipe and cut a wood plug to fit the end. Light the firecracker, and it worked like a cannon. The wood plug shot across the lakefront.

One July 4th we found a dead fish washed up to shore. We put a firecracker in its mouth, lit, and ran. The dead fish exploded, covering us in rotten fish guts. I remember my girl-cousin screaming when she found a fish-eye stuck to her T-shirt.

Bottlerockets don't work for shit when shot from a bottle. We had a special launchpad -- two boards connected at a right angle, forming a chute and allowing for perfect aim -- so perfect that I could target boats with accuracy. This was the only time I got in trouble because of fireworks: shooting bottlerockets at boaters.

In retrospect, it's a little surprising to remember, the crucial role that fireworks played in my childhood. They were my fascination, my rite of passage from little kid to big kid. My younger sister must have been four or five when she burned her finger on a sparkler. My parents left the cottage to drive her to a nearby emergency room, which must have been at least twenty minutes away. Grandma CrimeNotes monitored me while I ran ripshit around older cousins and my aunt and uncle, drunk on Faygo and Mountain Dew, setting off bottlerockets and Roman candles and screaming.

I remember thinking how ridiculous it was that my sister managed to burn herself on a fucking sparkler and actually cry about it. Sparklers were lameness. If she'd lost fingers in a firecracker mishap, then I might have felt sympathy. My heart had no room for a sparkler casualty.

We all grow and evolve, of course. In high school I moved on to bigger homemade projects. My friend Jack and I were partial to bottle bombs. One summer afternoon we mixed a bunch of chemicals in a fishtank and unleashed all kinds of noxious fumes in my bedroom -- enough that I gagged and coughed and my eyes watered. Bottle bombs sound like shotgun blasts, and at night, were a surefire way to scare neighbors and belligerent fast food employees.

Combustibles generally were a source of great joy. There was a night in sophomore year of high school when I had 15 or 20 of the troops at my parents' house for a bonfire. We decided to see what happened when you throw a can of spraypaint into a fire. To my delight, what happens is a 10-foot mushroom cloud and an impact that knocks down everyone within 15 feet of the fire. Like having their nine-year-old shoot bottlerockets at pleasure boaters, this was too much even for my parents, and is still cited as evidence of my bad judgment.

All I can say is look ma, no burn scars!

I've been in New York more than five years now. Every morning I wake up and thank Allah for that.

Except on days like today, when it's above 80 degrees. Those days, I just want to be on a lake, drinking a bottle of Oberon with a Faygo chaser, blowing up dead fish and shooting bottlerockets at boats.


amish said...

Favorite Line: My heart had no room for a sparkler casualty.

You bring back a lot of my own memories of my own childhood. One of the best ones is from high school, when I invited a bunch of friends over to set off some bottle rockets. Between all of us, we had hundreds of them, and soon got bored of trying to find new ways to set them off (tying them together, lighting a whole pack on fire and seeing what happens, etc). A few friends had walked a little further down the street, and I lay one down on the ground and launched it at them. Needless to say, this set off a HUGE war, two squads of people laying rockets down flat on the street and launching them at each other. Your special launcher sounds neat, but the imprecision of our method was what it made it that much more exciting. I'm surprised no one got hurt (though there were quite a few close calls).

Man, I miss those good old days.

VerbalD said...

"We decided to see what happened when you throw a can of spraypaint into a fire. To my delight, what happens is a 10-foot mushroom cloud and an impact that knocks down everyone within 15 feet of the fire."

True Story -- one of my friends in high school was knocked up and married within 6 months of graduation. Shortly after the baby was born, she and her husband went "up north" (you know what this means, you have some michigan ties) for their overdue honeymoon. They were with others, sitting around a bonfire, when someone threw a cherry-bomb into the fire, causing one of the logs to fly out of the fire into the husband's head, killing him.

Totally a debbie downer story, but as cool as these things can be ... crap like this happens. For reals.

CrimeNotes said...

Amish: I forgot a lot of this until I started thinking back on it. Lack of bottlerockets and lakes are the one downside of living in this city. Maybe we can arrange to have a bottlerocket war one night -- we'll end up on local newscasts for sure.

VerbalD: You clearly teach driver's ed. Don't worry, we took several precautions, like videotaping our activities and keeping cans of Coke nearby to douse the burning embers. The activities that actually were dangerous need not be discussed in a public forum.

VerbalD said...

I wish i were a driver's ed teacher, i bet it's more fun than being an attorney. personally, i'd be the videographer of that any day... you can participate, and so long as you keep quiet, no one will ever know it was you. unless one of your friends says "hey - crimenotes - make sure you catch this on tape!"

then again, that can of coke/explosion could serve the dual purpose of destroying evidence.

Flop said...

You're all wrong. The best part about this post is the fish eye. It's too bad this wasn't fiction, because I'd have to compliment CrimeNotes on such a shining, visceral detail.

Instead, I offer my gratitude toward the god of piscean pyrotechnics who clearly made that possible.

Cock D said...

Wow - that custom launcher sounds pretty cool.

After seeing Top Gun for the first time, we all decided that playing "Top Gun" on bikes and simulating dogfighting would be a capital idea.

After a while, though, we tired of the fact that we didnt have missles and that the only way to "shoot" someone down was to lob a tennis ball or a basket ball at your opponent while riding. As acheiving a quality throwing motion from atop a bike was just as likely to cause the attacker to fall off his bike as it was to "shoot down" the opponent, young minds went searching for new technologies.

I managed to mount eight little dowel tubes on the front of my bike, into which i inserted a bottle-rocket. I then strapped four model rocket launch controllers to my handlebars. Using these electric, push button controls (Yes - I did have a safety on them), I would pedal up behind a foe, dis-arm and launch a salvo of bottle rockets.

It was the greatest day of my life.

When no one else was able to match my technological advance, peace in our time (at least on Crescent Hills Road) had been achieved and we decided that bike jousting would be our new passtime.