I’m pretty famous for telling horrendous stories about my childhood on the Planet Charismatic. How about this: a lighthearted story from my childhood, in which I almost burned alive? It’s seasonal too. This should be fun.
My younger brother M liked fire. He liked to stare in fascination at the hearth when we burned cardboard boxes for warmth in the wintertime; he burned inscriptions into plywood with a magnifying glass in the summer. On the rare occasions when we went to a fancy restaurant, he would try to toast bites of his dinner on a fork over the candles. When our mother threatened that Santa Claus only brought sticks and coal to bad little boys, M was pleased.
M and I were opposites in many ways– I was a trusting, gullible girl who believed everything my parents told me, while M questioned everything and took not a word on faith. I always sat back from fires; M sat far too close. I was afraid of getting burned, but M embraced his growing collection of small blisters and callouses as the necessary consequences of having a good time.
For obvious reasons, M liked the fourth of July– even though we lived in boring, milk-toast central Ohio where all the fun fireworks were illegal. There was always a municipal display in the park, after the annual fretting that it couldn’t be afforded this year and the annual last-minute rescue by an anonymous donor. But fireworks could not be purchased for home use in the whole state. You had to go all the way to Indiana or West Virginia for something that would explode or shoot off into the air, and my father wasn’t willing to drive that far to make Mike’s holiday wishes come true. The only pyrotechnics for sale in Ohio were snappers, party poppers, sparklers and a variety of smoke bombs.
Some shops required an ID from anyone buying Fireworks, to ensure that you were a competent adult.
Others didn’t, and these were the shops that M frequented.
“I’m going to put on a fireworks show,” M announced one year when he and I were young teenagers. “In the backyard, after sunset.”
My parents decided to skip the fireworks show, for which I’m grateful. I went outside to see it; so did my other two little brothers and my little sister. We all sat on the vinyl-seated bench swing; M crouched in front of us, on a bare dirt patch he’d made in the grass.
“First, some candles,” said M.
He’d seen on a science program that nuts were mostly oil and would burn with a steady flame, so he used a lighter to set fire to several different varieties from a can of Planter’s cocktail mix.
We applauded with genuine admiration.
“Now, something a little more,” he said, lighting a line of tall sparklers he’d embedded standing up in the lawn.
We applauded again.
“Okay, now party poppers.”
We each were given a handful of those little plastic champagne bottles; we shot them at the air and watched the jellyfish-like bundles of streamers litter the yard.
For the fifth act, he held a match to little piles of snappers he’d placed under Dixie cups half full of water. The tiny packets of gunpowder caused the Dixie cups to jump a little and explode, spraying water everywhere. It did look a bit like a firework, if you used your imagination.
“All right, now this.” he pulled out a gigantic triangular package with a name like “pyramid of flame,” which was actually a giant smoking sparkler. “I’m going to put this under the bench.”
My other brothers and my sister got off the bench swing. I started to get off as well.
“Mary, stay sitting. It’ll be cool; the smoke will rise up around you like a special effect.”
“It’ll burn me,” I protested.
“Oh no,” said M, waving his calloused hand back and forth right in the sparks of one of his sparklers. “It’s a very cool-burning flame.”
M actually believed this. He was so impervious to small burns from sparks at this point, that he didn’t think they hurt anyone.
“All right,” I said, ever the trusting and gullible one.
I struck a pose on the bench as my siblings watched. M lit the Pyramid of Flame and set it under the bench swing, just as the sulfur cloud began spewing out of the top.
I actually lasted a full five seconds before something– natural survival instinct or a guardian angel, perhaps– made me dive off of the swing. A moment later, a column of rotten-egg-scented sparks rose three feet high and engulfed it.
We all watched in awe. When the dust settled, I was unhurt but the middle seat of the bench swing was melted all the way through.
“I didn’t think that would happen,” said Mike. “Time for the grand finale!”
The grand finale was a pile of sparklers arranged in a circle like kindling, with all the remaining snappers, poppers and smoke bombs on the top. M lit one of the sparklers and jumped back. We all jumped back.
I had watched World War Two movies and episodes of “Combat” with my father, and I trusted everything I saw in those films. I knew to hit the dirt, and I did.
The cloud filled the yard from one end to the other: dyed smoke of four different colors mingling together in a diseased yellow fog, punctuated now and then by bangs and cracks and fizzles of bright sparks. I couldn’t enjoy the sparks, because my eyes were stinging from the fog. No one could enjoy the sparks. I clung to the grass with both hands and kept my face down until it was all over.
Despite our shrieks, my parents never came outside to see how the fireworks display had gone.
My father discovered the mess the next morning, when we were in bed. The fifth of July was spent cleaning up– though we never did replace that swing. The middle seat remained a gaping hole, a testament to Man’s folly and my trusting nature.
We all agreed, though, that it had been a marvelous show.
(image via Pixabay)