Of Parades and Fireworks and Your Second Cousin’s Missing Pinkie

2 Jul

by Roger White

 

As the blast-furnace breezes of July waft in, caressing our faces with all the warmth and subtlety of nuclear warhead testing, many of us harken back to the salad days of our youth and those old-time Independence Day celebrations—small-town parades, concerts in the bandstand, dazzling fireworks displays, and your second cousin showing off his missing pinkie finger as he regales you with his annual “cherry bomb accident” story. Why are the days of our youth called “salad days,” anyway? I never came near a salad when I was a kid. They should call them “Milk Dud days” or “Captain Crunch days” or something.

 

Nevertheless, as fond as I am of recreational explosives and intentionally putting oneself in harm’s way for a juicy whizz-bang, I must say that my earliest memory of Fourth of July festivities is not particularly joyous. In fact, it’s downright terrifying. I don’t recall exactly how itty bitty I was, but let’s just say the family mutt and I pretty much met face to face. And this was not a big dog. The family was in the back yard, my older sisters running around waving sparklers in the air. I was perfectly content to spectate; those white-hot sparklers scared the bejeezus out of me. Sure enough, my sister (which one shall remain nameless) placed in my itty bitty hand a sizzling, hissing sparkler, which I assumed would immediately set my entire arm ablaze—after which, knowing my sister, I would be waved aloft, an itty bitty human sparkler.

 

As fate would have it, my dad was bending down near me at that moment, lighting a smoke bomb or something on the ground. In blind terror, I dropped the sparkler—directly onto my dad’s back. Dad, clad in t-shirt and shorts, instantly began yelling and gyrating, doing every move from a Native American war dance to the electric slide. Dad’s t-shirt was a goner; Dad ended up with a permanent little line burned into his upper back, and I a permanent little scar burned into my psyche. To this day, I’ll light any firecracker, bottle rocket, roman candle or any other type of festive munition—but I cannot stand sparklers. Stupid sparklers.

 

While I’m on the memory train, however, I do have tucked away on the seldom-used tracks of my mind a much fonder pyrotechnic piece of the past. In this particular vinaigrette (OK, whatever), I’m about 12, hanging at Lake Benbrook with my middle sister’s boyfriend. He was probably 17 or 18, and he was a mad genius when it came to finding creative ways to blow things up. Bottle rockets were Brian’s medium of choice, and model cars and ships were his canvas. We spent much of that afternoon obliterating a great many unfortunate old hot rods of plastic and faux chrome.

 

Then came the piece de resistance. Or as the French say, the piece of resistance. Just as the sun was starting to set on the other side of the lake, Brian took from his car’s trunk five or six model ships. These were World War II vintage: battleships, aircraft carriers, and the like. Each model ship had a length of string tied to it, with a lead sinker attached to the other end. Brian had given this a lot of thought. He gave some of the ships to me, and we waded out into the lake. By 15 to 20 yards out, we were treading water. One by one, we gently released each ship’s line, and soon we had an armada of model ships anchored just off shore.

 

That’s when the fun began. With two coke bottles as cannons, we spent the good part of an hour firing bottle rockets at those brave battleships. As thrilling as it was to score a hit and watch our targets list and sink, the most exciting part to me was watching a smoking rocket dive just under the water and explode beneath the surface. This was like being on the set of The Longest Day. Of all the professional fireworks displays I’ve seen since, none match the “ooh” and “aah” factor of that special, simple day in my mind.

 

And then there was the time I nearly burned the kitchen down trying to make Rice Krispie Treats in a skillet. Wait, that’s a Christmas story. Oh, well, be safe out there, kids. Remember your second cousin.

 

Roger White is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, with his lovely wife, two precocious daughters, a very fat dachshund, and a self-absorbed cat. For further adventures, visit oldspouse.wordpress.com.

 

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