It was a typical southwest Missouri summer. A summer where every breath filled the lungs with the smoky scent of creosote seeping from sweating fence posts, where squeaking fans barely stirred the soup of atmospheric magma and even the dogs were too tired to whine. It was a summer where the air lay heavy and wet, enveloping us in a soaking wool blanket of par-boiled humidity, where the sky dripped yet remained dropless, chuckling as the soybeans burned a sickly yellow and pond dams spackled with predatory crevices designed for unsuspecting ankles.
It was a typical southwest Missouri summer . . . almost. It was Independence Day, 1978, the closest I ever came to literally blowing my head off.
Youth is funny, imbued with the vim and vinegar of surmised immortality. We believe ourselves invulnerable, and my near decapitation came in the form of a homemade bomb. After all, it was the Fourth, and a 16-ounce Dixie cup packed with gunpowder, firecrackers, bottle rockets and a couple of mutilated Buzz Bombs seemed a dandy family fireworks finale. Hell, I would have stuck a chain saw and acetylene torch in there if they would have fit. I was enduring and undying. I was a teenager.
This was our last true pyrotechnically inspired Fourth. My cousin landed a burning parachute on the roof, something we barely doused just before it ignited the homestead. He also dropped one on the barn and one in an extremely dry field. Our water bill was high that month.
The cousin’s near torching of our property somewhat paled when my brother crammed 200 bottle rockets in a Mason jar and put fire to a gasoline soaked fuse. Initially impressive, a whooshing cascade of tiny ICBM’s with explosive report lit the sky. Sadly, Mason jars are highly unstable when used as mortars. The whole mess tipped over, of course locking and loading directly at the 10 or so relatives slurping homemade vanilla ice cream and lemonade on the patio.
One grandmother took a direct hit as a bottle rocket imbedded in her arm. Another did a long jump, beating Bob Beamon’s Mexico City Olympic record by eight yards and escaped impalement. My aunt and uncle dodged and ducked, Dad frowned, and Mom had a look on her face that could fry granite.
I didn’t get it. In my mind this was merely a mishap, an experiment gone awry. Fireworks are clearly labeled that they should be used only under adult supervision, and adults were supervising as stipulated. They were just supervising a little more closely than intended.
Finally it was time. I set my bomb carefully in a dirt pile, drilled a small hole in the side, and laid down a 20-foot trail of gunpowder that would allow me time to fire up and take cover before detonation.
Unfortunately, I had just started smoking, Unfortunately, I was a novice. Unfortunately the Marlboro slipped lip. It tumbled toward the deadly Dixie cup in slow motion as I threw an arm over my eyes and dived, which is why I still have my eyesight and a couple of unruly canines instead of a white cane and German shepherd. The 15-foot-wide fireball nailed me, rising high in the sky in a primordial mushroom cloud. I staggered toward the house, barely recognizing my cousin’s voice saying “Cool! Do it again!” I recall my Dad calmly walking forward, stating softly (so I didn’t freak out) a phrase I will remember forever.
“Hey Ronnie, your hair’s on fire.”
I lucked out with first-degree burns on my face, second degree on my arms, incinerated eyebrows and well-done hair. I was off work the remainder of that summer, but would have gladly traded the blistered arms and hairless face for the usual sheetrock hauling. I also lucked out in that I’d neglected to pack and seal the bomb, a fortuitous move in that I would have otherwise lost my head in more than rhetorical sense. This comforted me, for I was too young to go out like Vic Morrow even though he was pretty cool on re-runs of Combat.
It was our family’s last big Fourth, which was maybe appropriate. I was still a kid then, but wouldn’t be for much longer. The night provided an eternal Polaroid of youth, that innate sense the world revolved around me rather than vice versa.
I like remembering that. It isn’t true 34 years later and it wasn’t true then, but it’s still nice to remember.