When Paul and I were still living at home, Paul's parents hosted an annual 4th of July cookout. Every year I would spend most of the day over there stuffing my face with hot dogs and hamburgers and pasta salads and chips. Before we turned 18, we'd steal beer when nobody was looking, chug them in the basement, and hide the empties behind the bar. Later on, when we were legal, we'd bring our own beer so we didn't have to drink his dad's Black Label. All in all, it was a good party, and we looked forward to it. The food was always good, and the fireworks afterward were the highlight of the day. I don't think I missed a single fourth of July there throughout all of high school and college.
After dark, when the coffee was brewing and the desserts were on the table, Paul's dad would break out a metric ton of illegal fireworks and put on a show for everyone in attendance. Most of the neighbors came over to watch, too. Everyone would applaud and ooh and ahhh over them, and Mr. C loved every minute of it. Because it was a residential neighborhood and fireworks in New York are technically illegal, he always went easy on the rockets and tended to stick with the stuff that stayed earthbound. I'm not talking snakes and sparklers here, I'm talking things like giant spinners, jumping jacks, boards full of nailed up pinwheels, and ground blooms.
Paul liked rockets though, so his dad always got him a few extra-large rockets that he was allowed to launch over in the baseball field of the nearby school. Part of our yearly routine would be to head over to the field at dusk and launch one right before the show started at the house. Then after his dad's show, we'd go back over with the others and send them up, too.
The one year I'll always remember is the year that things didn't go according to plan. That year, I think Paul and I were getting bored with the same old thing. We were probably around 15 years old, we were tired of the whole "family cookout" extravaganza. In our minds, we had become too cool for that. As we were walking down the street toward the shortcut through the woods to the schoolyard, Paul said, "I wonder what would happen if you lit one of these things horizontally? Ya think it would go anywhere?"
"I dunno," I replied. "It would have to be on something pretty smooth."
"Like the road," he said, looking up and down the street to see if there was anyone around.
There wasn't. Everyone was in their backyards with their grills going full-bore. The fronts of the houses were deserted.
"Yeah, like the road," I agreed. "The road would do it."
The road that Paul lived on was about a quarter of a mile long, and straight as an arrow until the right angle turn slightly past his house. He laid the mammoth bottle rocket down flat in the middle of the street and took out his lighter.
"Think we should?" he asked.
I could already tell he'd made up his mind to do it, regardless of what I said.
"It's your rocket," I said. "I'm just here to watch."
For some reason, I think we both expected that the rocket would just shoot straight up the middle of the street and that would be that. A boom, a laugh, and it would be over. Looking back on it now, I have no idea why we would have believed that sort of trajectory was even a remote possibility. These rockets were powerful, and wanted to go up.
He checked again for cars and people, and when he didn't see any of either, he reached down with his lighter and lit the fuse. While we were clearly ignoring the majority of the safety instructions written on the rocket, among them being minor details like "CAUTION: VERTICAL LAUNCH ONLY," and "USE WITH ADULT SUPERVISION" we did follow the bit that said "light fuse and back away quickly." We very quickly put about 20 feet between us and the sputtering rocket.
If you've ever lit the fuse on a large rocket, you know there's always that second or two when the fuse disappears into the body of the rocket and nothing happens. You wonder if it's a dud, or if it's just taking its sweet time. You are torn between waiting for something to happen, or walking up to it to see what's going on.
The fuse disappeared into the rocket, and nothing happened. We looked at the rocket, then at each other, and then back at the rocket. Paul said, "I think it's a d--" and then the street erupted.
The rocket took off down the road with a deafening whoosh! amid a huge shower of silver sparks and a billowing cloud of smoke. This was made all the more impressive because the rocket only traveled about a hundred feet down the street before it hooked left and jammed itself under the front tire of the neighbor's car with a loud, hollow PONK!
It sat there spewing an ever-increasing shower of sparks as we looked on in horror. I barely had time to think, "no, no, no, No, NO!" before the rocket petered out.
We had taken a step or two toward the car before we remembered what came next -- and decided that maybe moving toward this thing wasn't such a good idea.
What came next was not good.
As we watched, cringing, the rocket made a noise like a warm bottle of seltzer being stabbed with a knife, and then shot two dozen flaming red balls in all directions. The balls started spinning around madly, bouncing around under the car and jumping onto front lawns and driveways alike. Then, almost simultaneously, each of the 24 burning balls changed color to vivid green and exploded with a high-pitched crack.
At that point we figured the worst was over. We were wrong.
We had been watching this unfold for what seemed like an hour, but had been, in reality, perhaps six to ten seconds. A split-second later, fresh activity began under the tire. We looked at each other with expressions that were half "What the fuck did we just do?" and half, "What the fuck should we do?" For lack of an answer to either question, we just continued to stand there and watch as another huge cloud of smoke and a fresh burst of golden sparks shot out of the jammed rocket, right before it blew itself to tiny smoking pieces with an explosion that sounded like a mortar shell.
"HOLY SHIT!" Paul exclaimed.
I had no immediate answer to that that statement. It really said it all.
We waited another minute for the car to explode, and when it didn't, we walked cautiously toward it to assess the damage. Surprisingly, other than some gray powder burns on the tire, there wasn't any. There were some scorches on the road from the fire balls hopping around and exploding, but there didn't seem to be anything else burning. We figured we had gotten lucky and that maybe we weren't going to end up owing anyone a new paint job.
Unbelievably, we were still the only people on the street. We quickly gathered up all the bits of plastic, un-jammed the wooden stick from under the tire and nonchalantly walked away, as if it had been someone else entirely who had almost blown up the neighbor's car and lit the entire subdivision on fire.
When we got back to his house, we stole a couple more beers, drank them in the basement and then headed out back to watch his dad's show. It was great, as usual. We clapped and hooted at every one he set off, even the ones we thought were lame. Looking back on it now, it was great to be there surrounded by family and friends, with nothing but good times ahead of us.
The potential of those days was staggering.
Happy 4th of July, mate. I miss you.
Happy 4th of July, mate. I miss you.