Pyrotechnic


I know that lighting fires these days is flagged as a metaphor for control issues, anger, or perhaps even penis envy (okay, I'm making the last one up - but just you wait for next year's crop of analyses)... but allow me to stick a proverbial finger in the bursting dike for a moment anyway.

Fires are cool. They are the embodiment of nature in the raw: unpredictable and dangerous. There's a reason people chase storms, you know. Moreover, fire's logical extensions - explosions, are even cooler. Wham-o! A slice of magic they are - no wonder magicians employ them.

So there - I've said it. I like fire. Sue me. So do you. I just feel the need to state this most obvious of facts in the plainest of terms. Particularly so in our lamentable age of ever-diminishing lucid moments stemming from the armchair science for the purported cause of "safety" (read FEAR) that inexorably legislates fun away from our existence. Take...a...deep...breath. Okay, then.

Let me repeat: torching things is fun and exciting; anyone can at least secretly admit that to themself - I won't tell! (Being secret, I can't do so in the first place.) It's like unprotected sex with many different partners - that's what everyone wants, if it just weren't for pesky things like AIDS, the clap, relationship boundaries (and, I guess, reputations).

But back to fires (since sex dominates the rest of our culture without my help, anyway): lighting fires is primal, innate to recorded human experience. This is another way of saying that it'll always figure as attractive on some level. Beyond heat and light - pretty basic needs, I'm sure you'll agree - fire's neat just to look at. It's constantly changing. Not that I won't pose the obvious caveat: people and (others') property aren't proper objects for our roasting pleasure, that's all. Now permit me to expound via my personal history with shiny combustibles. (Finally - Something interesting! - Stories!)

As stories go, mine begin early enough. It was during the age of primary school when I played my first and very own fire game. Access is the key word to this tale, and that unsurprisingly is a key ingredient to all mischief. I had access.

Living on the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea, had the nice benefit of being next to open green spaces, low hills of scrub. Kindling. Already thinking, aren't you? Having only recently figured out the magical intricacies of matches at the august age of eight or so, I was open to consider just such a possibility - kindling indeed.

It all happened so fast, only requiring two brief lessons to properly instruct me the people/property side of the fire equation eloquently referenced above. It would also be a lesson I'd learn well (to give away the ending, I suppose). Fortunately I wouldn't go to jail for my educational...endeavors, either.

I took to those hills in boredom at first, having exhausted my usual bike riding through construction sites in search of booty or a bigger ramp to catch more air. Having matches will travel, I soon found a new occupation: idling away time burning dry grass. The stuff was just so...there.

A wee fire would become a full-on weenie roast (minus the franks), and then it was time to snuff it out. Little fire, bigger fire, whoa!, smoke, ashes. Whew. Yeah, yeah, control issues - whatever. Eventually, and inevitably of course, I accidentally graduated with distinction to almost roasting whole cows (pushing the franks metaphor too far, I know) when one fire got away from me. Whoa didn't quite cover that one.

I had crisped a few square meters over the course of my folly - oops. Fortunately, my older brother Joe - in a rare show of sibling solidarity in those days - and a farmer were in the area to help me stomp it out. While I was panting and relieved at disaster averted, they took the opportunity to let loose a tirade of invectives in Korean and big-brother English best summarized by "You Fucking Idiot!" Maybe it was "Oh - silly you!" I forget...

This lesson apparently needed some sticking, however. The battle had been successfully fought, after all. In the meantime there remained a surplus of summer days to go - more time to kill, in other words. What oh what to do... with these matches?

Thus it was that on another day I again was watching a little cozy crackling blaze grow up in its customary way. Nothing like watching a child grow to adulthood, no? Sigh - they grow up so fast! This time no one was nearby to save my foolish ass, however.

Soon the hillside was ablaze in full glory and the (formerly) peaceful village below, a cluster of huts outnumbered by kimchi pots, sounded the alarm. A horde of panicked farmers flew outdoors in a daze, then all of them flooded up to their terraced crop fields to do what I couldn't. I slinked away in an unceremonious bolt. Whoops! Sorry!

Still, this proved not a fruitless exercise. Lesson #1 was cemented: no more open fires. And I sinned such no more. Amen.

My playful pyro ways weren't fully extinguished yet, though. Junior High, upon returning to the U.S. in a couple years, would open new doors of pyrotechnic experimentation possibilities I was wholly unaware of in S. Korea. When the two red-headed twins at school, heretofore only known for Dungeon & Dragon playing (a new-fangled thing then), held out cans of butane, my curiosity was piqued. Later, behind the school at lunchtime, they squirted cigarette lighter fluid into their mouths to momentarily breathe fire moments afterward. Wha-ah!

I was stunned. Never before had I seen something so awe-inspiring. It wasn't much later that I, too, owned a loaded butane canister. Content to merely spectate actual fire-breathing, instead I took to effecting a blowtorch to scorch the (hidden part of the) backyard's air.

Again my brother Joe would figure into my lesson plan, though, this time more obliquely. Perhaps it mere sibling rivalry, but it wasn't long at all before he upped the ante upon spying my wondrous blowtorch magic feat. He took to putting me in my respective underling's place by pouring gasoline onto our family's BBQ grill. What the...? An epic inferno erupted moments later. Who'lda thought? As a black funnel quickly soared into the sky, we soon moved past our slack-jawed astonishment and wisely feared an onslaught of fire trucks and police cars that didn't arrive. Dousing the inferno efficiently within moments, I meekly walked away. My butane habit went straightaway into the (neighbor's!) dustbin, a sacrifice in relief that the authorities didn't nab us.

They would soon enough, though, shortly after we transitioned to the more acceptable milieu of fireworks. That was all that effectively remained in our flaming bag of tricks. Handily enough, Independence Day was soon upon us. July 4th, after all, is less a cry for independence to a boy than it is an invitation to master the intricate art of igniting any product known to have a fuse attached. Such joy - and legally sanctioned, too! Well, generally.

You can have your sizzling sparklers, revel in the colorful glow of your colored and fizzing smoke bombs (which sometimes daringly found themselves in our school hallways), cackle at the not-so-dainty riot of ladyfingers, and beam at the fiery projections better known as roman candles. But bottle rockets were where it was at. Put an explosive on a stick and jam it into improvised silo, then light the thing and watch it launch into the sky and KER-BLAM! You could sorta aim them, too. But... in retrospect... our cross-streets neighbor's german shepherd had an honest beef.

We had settled in for an afternoon session of "sky rockets in flight" (minus the music) in front of our garage only to find our jig would all too soon be up. Rex (Woofy? Fido?), that poor menacing mutt every other day of the year, cowered for the umpteenth time following another salvo of "fire in the hole!"

It couldn't have been any surprise when we saw the police car coming a few blocks away. Good criminals that we were, however, this offered us plenty of time to stuff our pockets with our semi-contraband fireworks before he arrived. Our genius of caché somehow didn't extend to the scorchmarks on the driveway, nor did it take into account the cloudy soda bottles just...kinda... sitting there. Not to mention the array of sticks protruding from our bulging pockets in significant number. But, honestly - we tried!

"You boys know anything about some fireworks around here?"

"No, sir!" we replied, practically jack-booting a salute.

"All-righty, well, we've been getting complaints from a neighbor about their dog being driven crazy. I'm guessing you don't know anything about that. You boys let us know if you see anybody lighting off any bottlerockets, okay?"

"Yes, sir!" we helpfully chirped.

To this day my favorite good cop story, by the way. Not that us numbnuts realized it at the time. We thought that we had put the T in tricky. What a dummy! The point, though, is that we did take a break in the festivities. Poor mutt. Onward!

It's a last tale of mayhem which finally allowed me (and perhaps a few cohorts) to leave the fire game to an up-and-coming generation, though. My family had moved yet again (another 5 years, another continent seemed the plan), this time from Michigan to West Germany. While some might've basked in the glow of castles, Beethoven, masterworks of art and whatnot, for boys in their late teens it mostly meant legal (or close enough) drinking in a land with good beer.

Oh - and more powerful fireworks! Absolutely legal, even. The hitch was that the time was only ripe around New Year's, so there'd be none of the every-six-months situation us typically spoiled Americans were used to. Sigh - how one suffers! Besides, in Germany regulations are made to be o-BEYED, and dates and seasons are all strictly observed. So we waited, patience being such an renowned American trait and all.

Sure enough, New Year's Eve approached after winter's onset. and fireworks stalls were bountifully provided about town. Right on schedule, like a German train (or anything German for that matter). Perhaps not coincidentally, Gluhwein (a warmed wine) and Bier (beer) stalls were in the offing in similar locations. Now there's a mix, similar to how Germans build the meanest leanest automobiles and have the Autobahn readily available to race them on. Coincidence is not a German word.

Feeling dutifully bound to experience the cultural exchange proferred, we did what we must. Libations aside, this meant the liberal purchase of A's, D's, bricks and other sanctioned fireworks not seen or even dreamed of on the other side of the Atlantic. The Germans were serious about this stuff as with anything, unsurprisingly - "Hooray!" we inwardly shouted. "And these guys lost the war?" we mused, all the while arming ourselves for Armageddon or New Year's - whatever the case was, we didn't exactly care.

A 'D' was 1/8th a stick of dynamite, we had heard. Was that for real? What exactly could that blow up? And what was the deal with the ceramic-looking "brick" firework - could that actually upend a truck? Looked like it. We were driven to distraction with the array of choices, if only for the science of the whole affair.

Enhancing the prospective glow of our newfound artillery, we had figured out how to time delay fuses by removing the gunpowder from them and re-rolling the fuse far more tightly. A few seconds of running-away time were now more like a few minutes, and the previously worrisome telltale fizzle was now reduced to a teeny orange glow with the least of smoke. You'd have thought we were joining the Special Forces the way we eagerly played with such detonations.

I'd like - at this admittedly in-too-deep point - to offer drinking as an excuse, but the truth be told we didn't need a drop to get started with such shenanigans. Explosions, I'm telling you - blow Shit UP! Woo hoo! It's a wonder the human race advances at all. Then again, I have no children. Hmmm.

We didn't lose any fingers, that should be stated up front. A miracle that. We started leaving firecrackers in ambushes soon enough, but even scaring the bejeezus out of unsuspecting passers-by in our housing development somehow got old. These chosen victims were primarily the like offspring of the various bigshot military brass that inhabited the area. In sum they (we) formed an enclave in a neighborhood abutting the downtown area of Kaiserslautern. On a related note, we had to be careful timingwise, too: because of a remnant terrorist activity from the Baader-Meinhof Gang, a pesky military policeman was almost always making the rounds about our two elongated blocks of which this particular "economy military housing" comprised.

Yeah, yeah, whatever - no time for such details! The centerpoint of this residential set-up was the AYA (the Y was for youth, and while the other two A's should have been for Alcoholics Anonymous, they actually were something more akin to American and Association if memory serves me) neighborhood center, complete with tennis and basketball courts up front for us privileged punks. (Neighboring German kids longed to use them as well, being free and all, but couldn't. "Nyah nyah nyah" some of us (not me, thank you very much) American kids would taunt at testy moments of infrequent confrontation.)

Ahem - the important point is that there was a big grill near the AYA's door, a 55-gallon drum turned on its side and sliced long ways. A huge cooking surface stretched across its interior mid-section; its hinged cover was thus half of the entire thing. On blissful summer days of community gathering, it served to cook a whole heap of hamburgers. That's not relevant to what was to follow, however.

On one end, formerly the top, was an original fill hole. This was for when the barrel used to hold innocuous liquids like napalm and jet fuel. Okay, probably not - but that would certainly up the ante of this little narrative, wouldn't it? Anyway, we rather hastily noted amidst our top secret deliberations that precisely one 'D' would fit rather nicely into that rather well-sized hole, or more could be placed deeper inside... and what then? We were VERY curious. Finally, a stroke of genius! We had to try it.

We set to "work" after dark, placing a few 'D' sticks inside the barrel and time delaying the fuses together. The tip of the fuse would be lit through the hole. Would it blow the lid open? Our motley team of scientists needed to know... so we lit the thing and ran down to a neighboring building to watch the fun... from a safe, deniable distance.

It was around the time that we had taken our places that a military policeman rounded the AYA's corner slowly, approaching the drum. He didn't seem to notice the tiny orange ember and had nearly passed it by when FER-WHUMP! There was a flash of orange as the lid blew fully open and the MP hit the deck. His M-16 rifle was out and it was perhaps a miracle that he didn't pump out a dozen rounds of ammo.

"Holy shit!" I muttered hoarsely. "Holy fucking shit!" "Shit fuckity shit!" "Shitty shit shit!" and other such refined intellectual utterances were quickly whispered in unison. We were almost as creative in our hushed-stupor vocabulary as we were in our choice of experiment, obviously. Quickly going silent, we waited as the MP ultimately righted himself and called someone on his walkie-talkie.

The White House? The Kremlin? Were keys simultaneously turning in hidden silo bunkers around the world on our account? Rather more plausibly, a cluster of MPs were already probably converging on the AYA. Not that we'd ever know.

That's because we had efficiently and casually slipped out of the other door of the building, slinking out from its unseen side to the mayhem we had created. Home never looked so welcoming as the doors shut behind us in a number of apartment buildings away from all of the action. Firework season ended a bit abruptly that year; unused stockpiles inexplicably would be left to go dud - for those who didn't know. And I had a final lesson.

These stories still make me smile, albeit sheepishly and of a grimacing nature, as I jot them down. And although I've long set down the box of matches, the thrill of fire hasn't left me in the least. I'm still always happy to watch a good show of fireworks; I'll willingly detour to observe the odd forest fire from the distance. But, really, enough's enough. A skilled graduate like me no longer feels the need to retake a class I've already taught.

(2009)

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