So seeing as we’re living through the worst wildfire season in Colorado history, our annual fireworks show in the town of Westcliffe was canceled due to a Stage 2 fire ban. I missed it. As a kid, fireworks were a big deal on July 4th weekend, our own little rocket launchers and mortar rounds with which to shell the Summer People. (Now I am a Summer Person.) Here’s a story of that world gone by.
FIREWORKS FOR THE SUMMER PEOPLE
“We never meant to hurt anybody.” When push came to shove, that’s what we said. And sure, that’s what they all say: facing an indictment, pleading for bail, for leniency from Judge Judy or a fleshy, gruff honorable presiding justice o’ the peace in Goliad or Victoria, Texas. It’s what you say, too, when you’re simply trying to wriggle off the noose of “disciplinary action.” It was July 4th years ago and we could have hurt someone, badly. That we didn’t mean to seemed crucial to us and a likely story to the others, the Summer People.
The trouble began with bottle rockets. We never thought them particularly dangerous. We’d affect a casual sangfroid as we’d hold the stick and light the fuse on the firecracker-sized tip, wait for it to burn close, then toss it in the air and watch the fizzing golden sparks as they shot into the sky to explode in a dramatic but hardly life-threatening pop. We bought them at a gaudily painted plywood stand off Highway 35 that always appeared around that time of year, decorated with a snarling Black Cat image, manned by a jowly old cuss who seemed indifferent about selling us enough gunpowder to launch an airstrike on Aransas Pass. That particular year we bought them by the gross, which, if my memory serves me, is a dozen dozen. 144. And we had several gross.
Why so many? Pure foolishness. The thrill of watching a fiery explosion. We were local kids in a resort community full of part-time people, families who owned weekend homes, families who came now and then to fish and ski and sail, sunburn their shoulders and noses and define their tan lines, make a nuisance with their outboard motors and drink too much from Friday to Sunday, then had back to their “real lives” in Houston or San Antonio come Sunday evening or late Monday on a three-day weekend. To them our town was a weekend getaway. To us it was mundane, humdrum home. We local teens tended to say, “This town is so dead,” or “There’s nothing to do in this dump.” We longed to split that burg. Meanwhile the Summer People rushed down every weekend to do nothing and revel in it, chatting up the convenience store aisles with three-martini gusto.
Their children, our coevals, were the objects of slight derision coupled with much envy and curiosity. They tended to be moneyed city kids who we always suspected were disdainful of our small-town, local-yokel status. Still they admired our dark tans and sailing prowess, as we envied the automatic glamour of their department-store, name-brand lives in big cities. Somehow ours only seemed an imitation of life, of their glamorous existence, like a cheap imitation perfume that doesn’t have an aroma, it just stinks.
So we were rivals. On the 4th of July, during the heady festivities of barbecuing pork or beef or mackeral even, a gang of them clustered on the pier parallel to ours, some fifty yards away, and we thought for a prank of sorts we’d aim our bottle rockets their way and try to arc them to explode with a dramatic pop and hopefully unlethal spray of sparks right above their heads. Some of the kids on the opposite pier were girls and this caught our attention: We actually believed this would display our potential affection or dateworthiness via a kind of brutal caveman charm. Grog like girl. See? Grog explode fire. Girl come run to seek protection from fire god.
Only the plan backfired. The evening was lovely, with fireworks blooming and exploding throughout the neighborhood: no sissy laws against it where we lived, outside any city limits. Red and green roman candle bursts against the black, velvet Elvis, star-spangled sky, reflected along with a tremulous line of moon spangles on the surface of Copano Bay. The night was alive with oohs and ahhs and good cheer. That is until a too-well-aimed bottle rocket zizzed from our pier in a fizzing rainbow arc and exploded right above our big city rivals heads, the explosive pop echoed by frightened teenage screams.
First there was a hush. A saltier version of “Oh, dang,” escaped our lips. Then our neighbors loosed an angry shout of What the hell did we think we were doing? Martini-holding parents emerged from the house next door and glowered our way from their balconies. A few minutes later my best friend’s mother came stomping down the pier toward her son and his hoodlum friends (myself included), threatening either grounding him for life or taking away his car keys, a double-kiss of death.
We went to apologize. What else could we do? We weren’t bad kids. Really. We were just thoughtless. We walked over to the neighbors with our tails between our legs, heads bowed, our whimpered postures befitting the beta-wolf status of the local yokels that we were. We didn’t mean to do it. Honest.
I limped along at the back of the pack, my ankle sprained and swollen enormous from another Jackass-type stunt gone wrong. That was pretty much standard operating procedure for our small-town life. Pranks were how we killed time. And for hick-town kids who envied life in the big cities of Houston or San Antonio, there always seemed to be too much time to kill. So earlier in the day I had jumped aboard a moving skiboat from my parents’ pier, and landed awkwardly. My best friend, Ralph, just shook his head, adding, “Bill? You know, you have the coordination of a hard boiled egg.”
The sprained ankle got me off the hook for the bottle rocket semi-assault, blame-wise. My friends at the front of the pack got more dirty looks and what-kind-of-crazy-stunt-was-thats than Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin in “The Wild Ones.” It took me a few minutes to catch up with them and reach the end of the pier. I hobbled up like a puny Tiny Tim Cratchett, poor little crippled boy, shuffling into the awkward silence in the interval between apologies offered before acceptance received. The attention turned on my Elephant Man ankle and obvious portable agony.
One of the girls asked, “What happened to you?”
I told them, wincing as I tried to keep weight off the foot. Then I added one more apology to the mix. It did the trick. A gang of hoodlum teenagers shooting bottle rockets at your head is something to be feared; a limping, apologetic kid with a bum ankle on July 4th is something to be pitied.
Another girl urged me to sit down in one of their folding chairs. What? Was I a crazy person or something? “You’re just going to make it worse if you keep walking around on it like that.” I nodded, took a seat, and thanked her. Everyone stared at me and the mood lightened. One of the guys said, “You jumped from your pier into the boat? While it was moving? Good shot, Oswald.”
Ralph laughed. “You should have seen him. It was like Hawaii Five-O gone wrong.”
Another kid asked where we were from. “Here,” we said.
That must be fantastic, they said.
We shrugged. “I guess you could look at it that way.”
We ended the night by promising to take them sailing the next day (a ploy we aimed at the girls), and sharing with them our huge bundle of bottle rockets. We took turns lobbing them into the bay, doing our annual homage to Francis Scott Key and his rockets red glare. It was Independence Day, after all, and we were celebrating. Safely. Which was a bit dull for us, but we weren’t asking for any more trouble. We didn’t want to be grounded. Or have our car keys taken away. That would be the worst. We’d be stuck there for life.
Lastly, here’s a cloud shaped like a woodpecker over my house.