For a few years during my teens, I was very serious about fencing Epee. To create some team-building, my family invited two other brothers, Adam and Aaron (Aaron fenced saber, but was still fun.), over for a videogame filled sleepover. Our Russian coaches were more interested in wins than fun. Coach yelling “one more time” through his thick accent then slamming his fist into his palm while saying “we will crush them” would have made us laugh if we could have breathed. As a break from practice, we spent a lot of time playing Halo, and we had two cheap pads for Dance Dance Revolution (DDR).
You’ve probably seen the corner of a Chuck E. Cheese or your local arcade occupied by a looming machine surrounded by greasy hair teenagers who are just young enough that they shouldn’t be kicked out. Having tried this game, I will not lie that it is truly challenging. Some video gamers, I suspect, believe it is physical activity, a way out, perhaps, of the FPS, MMORPG, Larping life. A way to prove their physicality as athletes, and the most difficult songs do take athletic skill. Yet, having penetrated the darkest depths of those arcades as a teenager, I can say only that I wish them luck in their great endeavor to prove that DDR is cool. If Chris Hemsworth decided to do it, DDR would become cool. But it needs some major re-branding.
We grew tired of DDR around the same time that we remembered the large box of fireworks shelved upstairs. Fireworks were illegal where we lived, so excitement ran high. As an adult it might be hard to imagine the feelings of four teenagers who realized they had access to a very large box of illegal explosives and land to blow them up in, on, and around.
Let me help you. Imagine you get up and hate going to work. When you get there you learn that your least favorite coworker was fired, you got a raise, an asteroid just missed earth, and you won the lottery. That’s the feeling four boys have when they uncover a box of explosives,
The fireworks were the real deal. Every year or two my family would road trip down to Florida for a vacation (pre-Covid 19). My brother and I would save money all year. On the drive back was a fireworks store with a stripped Vietnam era chopper and a bunch of fireworks that were legal in Tennessee. It was a ritual part of the trip to stop and play in the chopper, feel like bad-asses, and then buy as many exploding objects as possible: bottle rockets of different kinds, M-80s, an off-brand sets of M-80s, Black-Cat Firecrackers, Jupiter Rockets (a bank of little rockets that fired in succession), and our pride, a string of Black Cat Firecrackers one hundred crackers long.
Finger Lickin’ Good
We started our adventure off small and stupid. We would just hold the fire crackers and throw them into the air. Adam and Aaron were a little more willing to risk their fingers than I was. The reason was simple.
When I was nine, my parents were having our house painted. Never ones to miss an opportunity to scare me into good behavior, they introduced me to one of the painters. Smelling of tar, with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, he lifted his four fingered right hand and said “don’t mess around with fireworks.” As a compromise to his terrifying lesson, and my desire to have fun, I would lite and immediately throw the explosives. So you could say the lesson kind of worked.
We then began to range about the land in an effort to find more fulfilling explosive experiences. We discovered that some brands of M-80 will stay lit and explode underwater. At least an hour was passed watching our little depth charges (don’t worry PETA, we didn’t kill any fish). After that we aimed for some gopher holes across the creek. Though this proved difficult and less satisfying as you would not see the explosion even if you got the firework in the hole. And everyone knows the explosion is the main point.
War is Joined
We won the pot when we found the ant stump. We had a fire ring a hundred and fifty yards from the house. My father had had carved a fallen oak to make seats around it. These ants had invaded one of our seats. We started by shoving an M-80 in a crack. This agitated them but did no real damage. The Black Cats, on the other hand, were visually spectacular as they leapt into the air, exploding around the stump. But again, they had no real effect on the stump. Try as we might, we could do nothing but agitate the ants. The stump was mobbed by a horde of ants searching for their attacker even as the sun began to sink.
That’s when our adventure became large and senseless. We decided on an all out assault (you may see a pattern here). Careful not to get bitten by the enraged ants, we put the one hundred long string of Black Cat Fireworks as the base with its fuse hanging just over the log. We hopped that it would light whatever we heaped up on it. Mounded on top were dozens of M-80s, multiple smaller strings of Black Cats, and the Jupiter Rocket bank upside down. We decided not to add the bottle rockets because their flight paths would be too unpredictable. They might hit us, the house, or knock over our remaining pile of gunpowder.
I didn’t know it, but my friends proved to be cowards–or people with a better sense of self-preservation. After an abortive session of the time honored way of deciding disputes, rock-paper-scissors, the prevailing argument turned to “they’re your fireworks; you light them” With my trusty Zippo, I approached the ant-log explosives pile. I found the fuse of the one hundred Black Cats. I struck the lighter. I ignited the fuse. I completely panicked.
Turning to run from this mass of fireworks, my leg smashed against another stump in the circle. I fell only feet from the ant stump missing nearly four inches of skin on my left leg, I was incapacitated by shock. All I could do was cover my head as fireworks exploded around and above me. It felt like a war. Not glorious and righteous, painful and helpless.
After the last of the fireworks had popped themselves out, and I thanked my pants for staying dry, my friends lifted me up. Unlike other wars, there was no lasting damage. The log’s inhabitants, the clear victors, continued to do whatever they damn well pleased. In this case, eat a stump. Meanwhile, my oozing leg wound had skin shorn off in a ragged strip.
A New Truth Is Born
That’s when I realized that I had fencing camp the next day. The real story of my injury made me look rather reckless and idiotic. In fact, when I arrived at camp the next day, I was immediately beset with questions about the large bandage and bruises on my leg.
So I told them the truth as I felt it in my heart: “As I was driving to fencing camp,” I said, “I saw a car pulled over on the side of the road with a mom and her two kids in the back seat.” This should have been a give away because my mom always drove us to camp, but I wanted to see how far my craft could take me. “So I pulled over to ask if they needed any help. And wouldn’t you know it, their car burst into flames.” This is where about 20% of the audience would have doubts.
“I pulled the mother and her two children out of the car.” Incredulous belief from the audience as if to ask “who would make this up?” “That’s when,” I paused, “I heard the little mewing and realized there was still a kitten in the back seat, so I . . .” This is where I lost all credibility, but was given some credit for the entertaining story.
As athletes trickled into the gym for practice, it became a new sport for people who had already heard the “kitten story” to gather around the newcomers. They would pretend to listen for the first time, then tease the people I could captivate the longest until my bluff was called.
We had played this game about a half dozen times when a younger teen girl came up and asked what we were talking about. Conversation stopped; I began my tale. As time went on the audience members had trouble holding in their laughter, but she was enraptured. I described the final scene in which “Returned to the car, I grabbed the kitten, and twisted my body to shield the it from exploding car debris.” Though one piece of the exploding car hit me “and that’s why I have this big bandage.”
This girl’s heart must have been pure. She looked right at me and in a voice full of admiration said,“so, you’re a real hero!” She didn’t understand when people started to laugh, and definitely not when one of them fell to the floor in spasms. I immediately felt guilty for deceiving the equivalent of a baby bunny. As gently as I could while feeling like a great big ass, I explained that the story wasn’t true. I never knew her name. She wandered off almost immediately. I still feel a little guilty looking back, but it was a pretty good story.