Don’t eat that melon!
Names in this story have been changed to protect the innocent.
Growing up in the 80s was fun — we didn’t have car seats or organic foods or any other silly “best practices” for our parents to follow. For them, alcohol wasn’t used for sanitizing our hands and the cigarette lighter in your car would burn you a nice tattoo instead of charging your phone.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we were all of bunch of little pyromaniacs when the 4th of July rolled around. Every year our parents would come home with a small collection of sparklers and a few extras for us to play around with. And of course, there was always that dumb kid (me) who would eventually burn themselves holding a burnt out sparkler in the wrong place. All in all, we managed to keep things pretty safe in our younger years as we spent time lighting up our harmless ground snakes and ground bloom flowers. But as the years went on, we started hearing about Whistling Petes and the Komodo 3000, and the arms race was on.
So when my friend D got the call that we were going to light up some real fireworks, it was a no-brainer — I was in. It turns out that the city of Lynwood was going had hired D’s brother’s friend’s company to run their high school fireworks extravaganza, and they needed some help with the show.
Now there were several very good reasons why this was a horrible idea.
First of all, Lynwood isn’t exactly the safest place — it’s next door to Compton and in the 80s was in the heart of the bloods vs cripps gang war zone (https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=zrJ5EHKfGxSM.kOk44sStuFp0&hl=en)
Second, I’m not exactly sure how old I was — I didn’t have my license, so I must have been younger than 16. I think D drove, but I can’t remember. He’s two years older than me — so I’ll say I was 14. 14 year olds with giant pyrotechnics — probably not a good idea.
Third, there were at least four of us — D, J, H, and myself. One is fine — one can’t really come up with a dumb idea quickly. However, idiotic idea generation is an exponential phenomena — with four kids, it basically models out to 2^(n-1), where n is 4 in this case. So bad ideas come out 8 times as fast.
But hey, it was the 80s — we were living in the era of breakdancing, lawn darts, and vacuum cleaners that would eat their own cords and electrify their users (another story for another day). How dangerous could this really be?
I mean, when people lit up the sky on the 4th of July, they would unbox a giant rocket onto a launch pad, step back across the street, and press a button. After the electronics buzzed to life, a giant Acme rocket fuse would be lit and it would go roaring into the heavens where it would explode in a massive display of pyrotechnic glory.
Sounded completely safe to me!
Well it turns out that this wasn’t a big budget event — the fact that they hired us should have been the first give away.
When we got there, our job was to dig — so they handed us some shovels and pointed at the dirt — so we started digging. I wasn’t sure why we were digging — maybe we were building a bunker for us to put our launch equipment into. Or maybe we just wanted a bunker to keep us safe from any drive by shootings that might have occurred while we were there.
After we had dug a 2 foot by 10 foot trench that was three feet deep, we started asking some questions. It was perfectly designed to throw in a few bodies and it didn’t look like it had anything to do with fireworks. So I started walking over to the adults to see if I could figure out what was going on. Along the way there, I found myself staring what look looked like a bunch of melons. Nice giant juicy ones that looked to be between 8 to 12 inches across — all neatly wrapped up. I started picking up one of the melons and thought about dragging them over the main camp so I could cut one up. Lucky for me, one of legal age pointed out that I shouldn’t touch the melons and introduced me to the first rule of firework club.
The first rule of firework club — don’t eat the melons. That’s because they’re not melons. It turns out that they’re actually giant firecrackers. They go into giant metal tubes that were going sink into the trench we had been digging. Drop the melon into the tube, light the fuse, and boom. It shoots itself into the sky where it explodes.
Image borrowed from http://squirrelzone.tblog.com/archive/2008/07/
As we installed the final metal pipes, the crowds were milling in and the sun was beginning to set. The air was still hot and concrete jungle around us wasn’t going to give up the heat quickly. So imagine my surprise when they adults handed us a giant leather jacket and a motorcycle helmet to put on. This probably isn’t how the conversation went, but it’s pretty much captured the night.
“You’ll need this to keep you safe”
“Why wouldn’t I be safe — I’m just going to light the fuse and run away right?”
“No you’re going light the fuse with your back facing to the tube. Once you’ve lit it, you’re going to turn around and pray”
“Pray that it doesn’t explode right out of the tube — I been thrown 20 feet by some of the big 12 inch bombs exploding prematurely”
“Hold on, why don’t I just run out of the way after I light the fuse”
“Haha— the fuses that burn at over 30 feet a second. For those of you paying attention, it can burn across an entire football field in 10 seconds. Okay, here take this flare, it’s what you’ll be using to light up the sky”
So D went first, followed by J, and I would be last. H had decided to opt out. Watching D and J light those fireworks, it was pretty amazing — they did a great job moving the down the line and put up an awesome display. Between sets, we’d reload all of the tubes with new fireworks and lay the fuses out so we could light them safely from a distance.
When it got to me, J took of the jacket and handed it to me, hands trembling from excitement and adrenaline. I put on the jacket and it got hot and my hands got sweaty. I put on the helmet and the sounds of the crowd drop to a murmur. My vision went from good to almost nothing, barely able to notice the end of the flare that they had just thrust into my hand.
I started lighting the small 4 inch, and moved my way up the line. As I got to the bigger ones, I could hear the increased roar in the crowds and I would feel the explosion and then hear the oohs and awes from the crowds. It was a crazy exciting feeling, knowing that I was bringing so much happiness to the crowd doing something so incredibly dumb and dangerous. I could pause for effect — build up the tension in the stadium by holding off for a few more seconds. It was not the ideal lesson a 14 year old should learn about power and emotional manipulation — but I was probably more worried about not soiling my pants at that moment.
As I got to the my final tubes, I must have tangled up the fuses, because when I went to light one, they must have crossed over each other, because the last three all went up at the same time. I wasn’t the finale that night, but feeling of the crowds response rushed over me. The only thing I could compare it to is the silence that you hear in a football stadium seconds before the instant replay decision is announced regarding a game winning touchdown. One second you can hear a pin drop and then the crowd goes wild. It goes wild because they’re cheering — and they’re all cheering for you!
In the end we all survived that summer with all of our limbs still attached and our lives a bit more emboldened — another big fish story for our ever growing collection of silly adventures.
I barely remember anything else from that summer. I think there might have been an egg baby project that I botched and an hilarious exercise on budgeting (another story for another day). Unless that was the summer of our Lake Havosu trip…then that would have made it the ultimate summer.