Being that it is now July, and Independence Day is right around the corner, I thought I would jot down a particular memory I have from when I was in elementary school.
I don’t know how old I was at the time, maybe nine or ten. Every Fourth of July we would go down town to see the fireworks display at the city park. This is a tradition that every American can relate to, I’m sure. I remember being fascinated by the grandiose explosions of color and light, as all children are. I remember laying out on a blanket in a crowded baseball field, watching the dancing fire cascade down almost directly overhead. There were hundreds of people gathered around, celebrating in unison our day of freedom and independence, collectively ooh-ing and ahh-ing with each spectacular release of energy.
It was fun for me at the time, but looking back I can’t say that I ever really understood the point. It was just something special that happened every year and I was content with simply taking in the moment without any regard for the millions of lives lost in order to make such a moment possible. (Although, I’m sure we humans would find any reason to shoot fireworks simply because they are pretty cool.)
One thing I remember being truly fascinated by was the whole mechanism by which the fireworks were hoisted into the air. Most kids, I think, could’t care less about the mystery behind the mysterious explosions in the sky. But I remember noticing the tiny projectiles soaring high into the sky well before they popped. That was cool. I asked my mom what the little things were, and where they came from. She was always good about trying to at least give her best guess as to the process of things, and she told me that they were rockets being launched from someplace far away by men who were paid to design and produce fireworks displays. Neat.
So the real story begins here, sometime after having gone to the fireworks show one July Fourth, in my childhood neighborhood. When I was about five years old my family moved from the mobile home outside of Chapel Hill into a small subdivision in Saxapahaw, NC. Some (few) might recognize Saxapahaw as a sort of local haven for hyper-liberal, folksy types from Chapel Hill to gather on weekends to listen to live music and eat organic food. When we moved into the area, it was little more than a tiny hole-in-the wall, former mill-town with little more than a postoffice and a polluted river running through it.
My neighborhood was very small, at the time probably no more than six houses along a gravel road with a col-de-sac at the end. It was very quiet. Oddly enough, there were several families with children approximately my age living there, so it was a great place for me to grow up. One family lived in the only two story house in the development at the top of the hill at the end of the road. My house was next to theirs. They had a son who was one year older than me and we became friends almost instantly. In fact I cannot recall the day we met, so it must have been when I was very young.
On the day this story takes place, Houston, the neighbors’ son, and I were looking to get into mischief, as most kids do, and we happened to find one of my father’s toolboxes. My father has always been a handy man, working as a carpenter at the time, and constantly building and tinkering with things in the shed out back. The toolbox was filled with heavy craftsmen wrenches of all sizes. Somehow, Houston and I had the idea that if we through the wrenches across the yard, the sunlight shimmered across them in such a way that reminded us of fireworks. Naturally, we decided to act like fireworks technicians and launch every wrench into the yard from my front porch. I cannot get into my head to determine what on earth I was thinking, but it must have felt like a good idea at the time.
I was something of a leader as a child, always getting my peers to play along with my little games and being “in-charge” of our pursuits into the land of pretend. Houston sat on the concrete stoop in front of the front door, the red toolbox by his side, and I stood next to him delegating when to launch the next wrench into the sky. All was well at first as I would call the orders “REady. Aim. Fire!” and Houston would hurl the wrenches, but things going according to plan wouldn’t make a very good story.
I can’t tell you what went wrong, how it happened, whether it was my fault or his, but suddenly, after I called “Fire!” Houston reared back to throw a particularly large wrench, and as he swung his arm forward the end of the wrench caught me just above my eye with a heavy thwap, and I went down to the ground and began to scream from the intense pain. I must have turned my head or been to close to his throwing arm. It still eludes me how the wrench managed to find my head given my position next to my friend, seemingly outside of harms way. But it did, and it hurt, and I cried, and my dad found us out on the porch and hell hath no fury to match my father’s rage that day.
He immediately began to scream and shout, demanding to know what happened, coming to his own conclusions before either of us could explain our game. He must have thought Houston had intentionally hit me with the wrench, and I remember him chasing my friend around the yard, cursing and spitting and appearing absolutely terrifying. Houston ran home scared out of his skin of my father, leaving me to endure his fiery fury.
My father can be prone to flipping completely off the handle at the tip of an ill-behaved hat. What I was less aware of at the time was my father’s heavy drinking habit, and the propensity for alcohol to induce such bouts of rage. I don’t remember the details of my punishment, or what my father did to me or said. What I remember is some days after the incident I met up with Houston, and I apologized for my father’s behavior, that it must have been frightening. And he said something to me. He said it’s okay. He understands. He said he could smell the alcohol on his breath, and that he wasn’t in his normal state of mind.
This struck me as somewhat offensive. I didn’t really understand what he meant by that. How could he smell the alcohol? how did he know he was drunk? After all, I was used to my father’s heavy mood swings. I was used to the anger that he could display.
So the memory ends, and it was certainly a dazzling display of fireworks if I ever saw one. And I lived with my father’s condition as much as he did. Needless to say, fireworks were never quite so interesting to me, not after living with them my whole life.