Ah, the Fourth of July. It means apple pie, fireworks, and a surging sense of patriotism. For you, probably. For me it means remembering the time I went deaf in one ear for about a week due to the trickery of one Pee-Wee Bumbleberry.
The Bumbleberrys (Bumbleberries? Bumbleberri?) were a family in my neighborhood when I was a kid. I liked them; they were a vast pack of disheveled hippie-types in a neighborhood filled with uptight, yard-maintaining families like … well, mine. The Bumbleberry clan didn’t know a lawn mower from a pack of Zig-Zag papers. Smoking grass they got. But not so much with mowing and trimming it.
One of the Bumbleberry collective used to babysit me when I was a kid: blond Jane Bumbleberry, then sixteen. I had a crush on Jane Bumbleberry so bad it practically turned me prematurely pubescent. I won’t go into details, but trust me: JB was the best babysitter ever.
Jane had a younger brother called Pee-Wee. Pee-Wee was four years older than I, a lifetime in kid years. I admired Pee-Wee, because even though he had amazing athletic abilities, he didn’t seem to care about them; he was Rebel Without a Team Jersey. Plus, he smoked cigarettes. And above and around his freckled and finely featured face flowed follicles of fiery red; his hair was red-red, instead of the usual orange-red. I thought that looked kinda cool. I don’t know. I just liked him. He had an easy-going looseness about him I thought was pretty groovy.
“Johnny, c’mere,” Pee-Wee said to me one day. Because it was him I let it slide, but generally speaking I did not tolerate being called Johnny; even at eight I knew that life was emasculating enough without having to help it out any by taking on cutesy nicknames.
Wait. I wonder how Pee-Wee felt about emasculating nicknames? If being called Pee-Wee ever bugged him, he never said anything about it.
“Have you ever seen one of these?” Pee-Wee asked me. He opened up his fist to reveal the the first firecracker I’d ever seen.
“What is that?”
“It’s a thing that makes this really bitchin’ sound. But you gotta get real close to hear it. Do you wanna hear it?”
“Sure.” I like bitchin’ sounds.
“Okay, now, I have to light it before it’ll make its great sound. So lemme put it on the sidewalk here, like this.” I plopped down on the sidewalk opposite the intriguing little object. “And then you bend up this little stick part right here, see? That’s the part I’m gonna light. And when I do, you put your ear as close to it as you can get, okay? So that you can make sure you hear it. Okay? You ready?”
Pee-Wee pulled out a cigarette lighter and lit the fuse. “Put your ear real close!” he said, standing. I lowered my ear down near the fizzing fuse. “Closer!” he said. “As close as you can!” I did. I was already amazed at the crackling sound of the fuse.
It was just as I saw Pee-Wee’s feet running away that the firecracker exploded. It was like getting slammed in the side of the head by a two-by-four. It instantly shot me right past tears or screaming into dazed. This was a violent, ringing deafness I’d not known before.
Knowing Pee-Wee had betrayed me hurt worse than the physical pain–or, at least, it hurt first. That emotional pain was the first pain to strike.
A few days after that literally stunning event I gathered up my courage and approached Pee-Wee. “How could you do that to me?” I said. “I didn’t think we were friends, maybe—I mean, you’re older and all that. But I never thought you’d do something like that to me.”
Pee-Wee looked at me for a long time. I couldn’t tell if he was going to get mad at me, or hit me, or what. Then he hung his head for a moment, looked back up at me, and said, “You know what? You’re right. I shouldn’t have done that to you.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I really am.”
“What?” I said. “What did you say? I can’t hear you.” Pee-Wee looked truly dismayed.
“I’m kidding.” I said. “It was a joke. My hearing’s fine. Now. Anyway, buy me a Coke?” And he did.
There’s no moral to this story or anything. It’s just something that happened to me one Fourth of July a long time ago. But I think it was one of the first times I realized how important it is to tell someone who has hurt you that … well, that they hurt you. In my life I have found that most often, if you talk to someone who has hurt you, and just honestly tell them that they hurt you, they’ll apologize for what they did or said.
And if they don’t, that’s cool, too. Because then you know that they’re not anyone worth spending your emotional energy on anyway.