It’s almost Independence Day here in the US, which we celebrate on July 4th.

July 4th, when I was a kid, was a lot – shall we say, louder, than it is today.

For me, it has always involved:

  • anything that could explode (or be made to explode)
  • anything that could fly (or be made to fly),
  • or anything that could make lots of sparks (or be made to make lots of sparks). 

Of course, if I was able to make something that combined all three, that was a serious bonus.

So – oh – fair warning, if you think about this for just a couple of seconds (me writing about something that involves things that go boom in the night) this story falls squarely in the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” category – a series of stories I told my son as he was growing up, in hopes that he would not do those stupid things.

Note… that’s known in the trade as “foreshadowing” – you have been warned.

So part of my standard Fourth of July routine when I was a teenager was to drive around with some of my friends either from school or from Civil Air Patrol and watch some of the air shows in the area (usually the one that started at Commencement Bay, in Tacoma, Washington) – and somehow or other, we’d find some of the fireworks that, depending on where you were, might have been a little on the slightly less than legal side of things.

One year, there were at least 4 of us in my folk’s 1967 Opel Kadett station wagon – the version with the 1.1 liter engine (with a power output roughly equivalent to 2.5 hypercaffeinated rabid squirrels) – and we bombed (yes, I used that word on purpose) around the greater Tacoma area, watching and contributing to the fireworks… My friend Bruce, sitting behind me was lighting bottle rockets and dropping them out the back window (the kind that flips out at the bottom, not the kind that rolls down), where they would occasionally add a little excitement to the festivities being, um, ‘enjoyed’ by people whose houses we drove past. For some reason, at one point he decided to throw a firecracker out MY window, and instead of going out the window, it bounced off the door pillar and landed on my shoulder belt, right next to my left ear.

Where it exploded before it could fall any farther.

The words I used to describe my thoughts about that particular action – while I couldn’t hear them because my left ear was ringing (as it did for several hours afterwards) – made it clear to Bruce that putting lit firecrackers next to the ear of the driver of the car you’re riding in gets aaaawfully close to the top ten list of stupid things you can do on the Fourth of July.

(Note, this closely resembled something I read about years later in Chuck Shepherd’s “News of the Weird” column, but with a larger ‘firecracker’)

Bruce resumed throwing smoke bombs and bottle rockets out the window. I made sure my window was rolled all the way down, *just in case* he chose to do something else…

…and – as I ponder this, while I’m writing – I suppose that given that I’m a little older now, if I saw kids doing that, I’d be a little torn between wanting to yell at them for doing something stupid, and yet remembering what it was like to drive around with my friends, doing stuff that was fun, didn’t damage anything but my eardrums (though I’m sure it could have gotten a *bit* more dangerous), or – oh who the HECK am I kidding? – we were driving around, throwing explosives out of the car… wouldn’t that be considered more than just a little dangerous?

Oh, if my son only knew of this one… his take is that I have set the stupidity bar so high that he either

a) has no chance on the planet of reaching it, or

b) it gives him such room that I have to cut him a stunning amount of slack, given what I managed to get away with and/or survive….

Sigh… the trials of parenting.

But hey – stupidity at that level – no – surviving stupidity at that level – is making for stories years later.

Anyway – over the years, our July 4th forays would take us over from one house (Bruce’s – who knew how to siphon gas out of his Grampa’s truck) to another (Bill’s – who knew how to siphon gas out of his dad’s VW 411) and we would just drive around Tacoma, enjoying the sights, watching and/or adding to the fireworks, and in general, having a good time.

Rather cheaply.

I wonder if Bill’s dad and Bruce’s Grampa ever noticed that their vehicles got worse gas mileage around the first week of July.

Now at some point, some of the people reading this who are now parents will have that little phrase “it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt,” going through their heads.

I need you to stop, because you’re getting ahead of me.

(Remember that ‘foreshadowing’ bit?  Right… this is more of it…)

So another year, it was our friend Doug, with Bill and me, and that year several of us were way, WAY into model rockets, and Bill, having much experience with them, decided that bottle rockets weren’t anywhere NEAR powerful enough… I mean, they ignite for maybe a 10th of a second, coast for a bit, then go bang.

Yay.

No, Bill decided we needed to go to his house and get something significantly bigger, and he found either a D or an E rocket engine that we ended up using. I remember his excitement as he taped about 10 firecrackers to the front of the rocket engine, with the fuses wadded up inside, and then taped the whole assembly to a hunk of bamboo he found lying around somewhere.

It was, we concluded, long before Saddam Hussein used a term like it, “The Mother of all Bottle Rockets”.  We handled it gently, and Bill knew of a ball field near his house that appeared to be suitable for launching rockets, so we piled into the car and headed over. We’d grabbed sodas at Bill’s house, so we all had aluminum cans and various aerial instruments of mayhem as we got out and headed out to the baseball diamond to let things loose. Bill jammed the stick end of his rocket into the ground and wiggled it so it’d be loose, so when lit – the rocket would go up.

Now since Bill had learned all about rockets and had built this one, we deferred to him to do the actual launch.

And I don’t know if you’ve ever launched a model rocket at night before – but they launch rather dramatically. They launch loud, and it seems that they run forever, compared to the bottle rockets we’d been launching.

I mean, in comparison, we’d have a bottle rocket:

Fffffffffffftttt!………………..bang!

Whee.

A good one might go up 100 feet or so.

But as Bill lit the fuse and told us to stand back – in case it tipped over, he said – we asked him how far that one would go.  He did some quick calculating in his head as the fuse burned, realizing that the motor wasn’t lifting anything more than itself and 10 firecrackers taped to a stick, and said something like, “More than 1,000 feet, for sure”.

About then the fuse actually lit – it roared and shot up so fast we could barely swing our heads fast enough to keep up with it.

And the engine kept burning, and burning, and burning, for what seemed like eternity.  I remember thinking it looked like a star up there, and then, the star went out, as if someone hadn’t paid their light bill. Bill said, “Keep watching” – and then we saw a bunch of little sparkles – which threw me, until a few seconds later, we heard, “bang!…… Bubububang! Bang!” as the sound from the 10 firecrackers actually got to us about 1,000 feet below…

We were pretty stoked, and were going to shoot some more stuff when Bill reminded us of one of those little pesky laws of physics – namely that what goes up, must come down…

So we looked up…

Nothing.

We looked up some more…

Still nothing…

Tapping our toes and looking at our watches, we waited some more…

Still nothing…

Then, faintly, we heard this sound coming from roughly where we’d last seen the rocket:

shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw

It was the stick of bamboo, with a dead rocket engine still taped to it, twirling down. It landed – and stuck in the ground – about 50 feet from where we were. Bill was glad it hadn’t landed on the roofs of any of the houses in the area. So, of course, were we – but we didn’t know, until that point, that we needed to be.

We weren’t done yet.

We still had quite a few bottle rockets left over – and so we started lighting them off. But they just weren’t anywhere close to what we’d experienced with the big one – so, one thing led to another, and we found ourselves shooting a little more horizontally.

Now remember, we were out on a baseball diamond… (I think this is it here – though there was a baseball diamond there that was, as I recall, closer to the tennis courts at the time.) I was standing on second base – Bill was standing on first, and our friend Doug was kind of where shortstop would be.  Bill, at that point, thought he’d fire a rocket between Doug and me.  (note – in case it’s not obvious, this is about 1:00 in the morning – July 5th now – and the only light on the field was from streetlights at the edges. It was about as dark as it could get in Tacoma.)

I heard his rocket go off, then felt what could charitably be described as a pretty significant sensation as it hit me right in the lower lip from Bill’s direction, flew a few more feet and exploded.

I looked at Bill.

No, that’s not nearly descriptive enough.  I glared at Bill. My eyes were focused on burning holes into his.

“You shot me! You freaking shot me!”

“I didn’t mean to – I was trying to shoot between you and Doug!”

At that point, I was in just a bit of pain, and tasted blood, in more ways than one. I found there was a second use for the mug root beer can I had, which was, if you held it just right after you put a lit bottle rocket into it – just like holding the handle of a pistol – so I lit it and aimed at Bill – he’d come over to see if I was okay – but once he saw the bottle rocket aimed his way, he started to run.  I remember just tracking him as the rocket lit off – the top of the can acting as a blast shield.  The rocket lit, sparks flew, and it tracked straight at him, but I wasn’t leading enough, so it flew over his left shoulder and blew up about 10 feet past him…

…and about then we realized that it was clearly time to call it a night.  We were no longer thinking straight, and besides, the root beer now tasted vaguely of gunpowder.

Everyone gathered to see how badly I’d been injured (a piece of my lower lip had gone with the bottle rocket as it hit – but what I really got out of it was a pretty fat lip.  This thing swelled up almost instantly.

Doug reassured me that these things swell up pretty fast, and not to worry.  I think there may have been an element of CYA there as we all decided that we were lucky and blessed not to have gotten caught, or worse yet, injured at the level of stupidity (also known as “Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®”) we were operating under.

By then, the pain was starting to sink in, and the thing I wanted to do was just get home and go to bed.  I’d often worked the closing shift at a restaurant in high school, so my folks were used to me coming in late.  However, this was somewhere between two and three o’clock in the morning, and despite my trying to be quiet, I managed to wake my mom up as I was trying to wedge my toothbrush around that bottle rocket-provided, formerly lip shaped obstacle in front of my teeth.

She was more than a little concerned that I was coming home with a fat, bloody lip at 2:30 in the morning, and wanted to know what had happened.  She was, as moms all over the world are, worried that I was hurt – and of course, I wasn’t telling her the whole story right then.

She kept asking questions, and I kept trying to turn away from her so she wouldn’t see the fat lip (it was pretty hard to hide, and was about as useful to me as the last time I’d spent several hours in the dentist’s chair, with half of my face numb and just hanging there.  It was just a touch hard to talk without it being obvious that there was something wrong) – but she was persistent, and wanted to see if I was okay.  Eventually I showed her, she was satisfied that I’d be okay – and suggested I get to bed.

And of course, it’s only later, as I think about what *could* have gone wrong, that I realize how much overtime my guardian angels were putting in.

Oh – it should be noted, by the way, that alcohol was not involved in any of these adventures.

Everything we did was done stone cold sober.

Which meant we remembered it all…

© 2012 Tom Roush

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