I don't know where my fascination with fire & explosions came from. Very early in my memory, I can still vividly picture Christmas after the presents were all unwrapped, and we lay on the floor with our loot, bloated with fine foods. The brightly colored foils, bows, and papers piled high around us, we hoarded our toys in front of us, making sure that we could absorb every detail, every pleasure we could from the longed for trinkets at last in our grasp. My Dad would start to gather up all the wrapping paper, and, after pulling the fireplace screen open and spreading out the embers flat, would start to feed the debris into the front. The papers would flare with terrifying intensity, the odd metallic dyes and inks making the flames blue & green. Hissing, pulsing clouds of colored smoke plumed out of wrinkles and folds, until, with a pop and a flash, the smoke itself would ignite and the flames rush back into the labyrinth of crumpled papers, illuminating them like an xray. As the last was tossed in, the blackened leaves of ash would glow red on the edges as they slowly lost weight and drifted up the chimney like escaping Yuletide fairies. Maybe the combination of Family Holiday Gratification and the wonder of the unusual (colored flames, so much reduced so quickly to nothing, and of coarse, the sudden heat during the dead of icy winter) imbedded itself. I just knew that fire, although usually utilitarian for heat and camping, could be modified into something else, something magical, if the conditions were right.
My Dad always had some nifty stuff on Fourth of July, too. Aside from the illegal bottle rockets and lady fingers (just 'toy- fireworks), he would always have a bag of stuff that he would walk off alone to set off. M-80s, Cherry Bombs (the real ones, made of cork & black powder), Sky Rockets that really blew up large. By the time we were 6 & 8 years old, he would give my brother and I a pack of lady fingers and a couple of punks to light them with, then turn us loose on the beach. We would find little insect excavations, rocks with holes through them, seaweed bulbs, shells. When it got dark, my Dad would set up a bottle point towards the ocean, and we would take turns setting off bottle rockets while we ate chocolate and watched the stars appear.
In the back yard, we had what we called the 'burning barrel-, a 55 gallon drum with a quarter inch mesh top to catch embers and the like. We would separate the burnable trash (paper, cardboard, Kleenex, etc.) from the wet stuff (what the dogs wouldn't eat usually went to the chickens), and the things that actually be thrown away. It didn't take long to figure out that an empty can of hair spray (Aqua Net) would blow up pretty good. Stuffed toys would expand and melt as their foam stuffings burnt. Plastic made a horrible, croup producing smoke, but melted with an eerie disfiguring style.
Eventually, we started in on the model airplanes and toy plastic soldiers. We would have mock battles in the sand and do terrible things to them with a large magnifying glass and burning model airplane glue. We'd stuff lady fingers into the meeppits and lay trails of glue from cluster to cluster of soldiers. We'd start slow, with magnifying glass melting random soldiers and lit pieces of polystyrene dripping flaming drops of molten plastic from the sky like napalm. As the fire spread from small spots to walls of burning glue and plastic, the fire crackers would start to explode, throwing flaming globs of molten plastic. Tiny holes appeared in our pant legs and shirts, and red welts rose on our arms like ant bites. Our parents always kept our hairs in a butch cut, so flame outs on top weren't a danger. Eventually we would kick out the flames, marvel at the destruction, and sort out the toys that survived enough for another battle from those that just weren't salvageable.
Along with the discovery and evolution of flammable came the natural curiosity about explosives. We learned that if you dip a roll of paper caps in gasoline and hit it with a hammer on concrete, it goes off like a cherry bomb, throwing a circle of bright orange flame out a good foot and a half around. My Father taught us how to make a 'match gun- out of a wooden clothespin that would light and shoot a wooden match about ten feet. I credit that device for the retention of my hands and eyesight. There are too many time to count where if I had lit something up close I would have been severely injured, if not killed. I learned to mix common laundry items with auto fluids or caustics to make the most wonderful, sparkling, James Bond type goodies, stuffing toilet paper roll tubes and film containers with pastes and wires and fuses and taping them tightly. I never wanted to hurt anyone or anything, I just liked the pop and crackling lights.
The older we got, the more dangerous our play became. We moved to the far reached of the backyard, behind the pump house and garage to set up our war scenes. With the advent of the pellet gun, we now were able to set up far more spectacular wars. Homemade devices that smoked or burned like giant 'snakes- were peppered in amongst tanks, airplanes, and toy soldiers. Fire crackers were nestled in drivers seats and meeppits. Dixie cups of gasoline were set up in mounds of dirt in strategic places. Trails of flammable glue led from hill to hill. Under one Tonka Truck was a full sized BOOM type fire cracker (don't remember if it was a cherry bomb or an M-80) and a squadron of plastic soldiers guarding a dixie cup 'Fuel Tank- of gasoline. We figured that this was the Grand Finally. When that went off, we would have to put out the fire and pretend that we were being good, because something that loud might bring my Mother out of the house.
We started by firing wooden matches from our match guns. The object was to try and light the glue, which would slowly burn and bubble its way across the dirt to where the dixie cups of gas sat. Once everything was good and flaming, the homemade explosives and smaller fire crackers and effects (crushed sparklers, road flare innards, snakes, etc), then hit the dixie cups of gasoline with the pellet gun, which made a nice fireball. It all worked pretty good, with a couple of trails of glue lit and only one of the dixie cups lit. In spite of them being paper, they won't burn down below the level of liquid, and work quite well. When a pellet hits the cup, the gasoline is blown into a fine mist that ignites with impressive heat, light, and sound. My brother pumped up the pellet gun as a cache of sparkler powder ignited. Road flare dust caught and blazed surreal red in the open daylight of summer. Smoke bombs blew clouds of yellow and blue as pops blew soldiers from the front of a jeep. The first pellet hit the burning cup.
Whoosh! A fireball boiled up through the branches of the walnut tree. A thousand little fires bloomed all over. The other two cups of gasoline were ablaze. We kicked a little dirt over some of the bigger, wayward fires. Clouds of blackened smoke roiled through the yard. More pops, more flares and smoke bombs. We realized it was getting big. He shot the second cup of gas. Fwoosh! Flames everywhere. The tree started catch on the tips of its branches and a dozen gasoline patches burned brightly on the trunk.
We scurried about stamping out stray blazes as more small explosions spread the flames. It was about then that the M-80 went off under the last cup of gasoline in the back of the Tonka Truck. Through sheer blind luck the dump bed of the truck acted as shield in the direction we were standing, instead tilting towards the trunk of the walnut tree and belching forth a dragon sized ball of flame that stuck to the tree. One of us ran for the hose while the other stamped at the flames that were now everywhere and growing. The hose doused the tree in less than a minute, the bark blackened in spots and the branch tips smoldering and curled. A half dozen melted piles of plastic marked the encampments of our men, now deceased, and black globs of soot drifted slowly about our heads like mosquitoes, occasionally landing on our skin and turning instantly into oil streaks that wouldn't wash easily.
Hearing a sound in the passage between the garage and the pump house, we looked up to see our Mother.
'You're on Fire!- she shrieked. Indeed, the frayed bottoms of my pant leg had a smoldering flame creeping up the back. My brother stomped it out.
'Where's your eyebrows?-
In our excitement, neither of us had noticed that the heat from the fireball had burnt all the hair off of the front of our faces. Our eyelashes were white, curled ash that stuck together when we blinked and crumbled to dust when we touched them. Our eyebrows were grey patches in a face of sunburned red and sweaty streaks. Still, we hadn't been hurt and hadn't burned down the tree, garage, or pump house.
'You wait until your father gets home. Go in and clean up.-.We talked her into letting us spray down the area again with water to stop the smoldering spots, then went in. She had taken the magnifying glass. She hid the pellet gun in the back reaches of her closet. The fireworks all went in a drawer.
When my Dad got home, we stayed hidden in our room. He was the one who gave out spankings and the ilk. When we were called down for dinner, we thought for sure we were in for it. We sat down at the table and didn't say a word.
My Father was in a good mood. He spoke of happy things, told a story about one of his co-workers, passed on a bad joke. Suddenly, in the middle of a bite, he looked right at us and asked 'Where are your eyebrows?-
We had assumed that Mom had told him the whole story. Instead, she knew there would be no way for us to hide it, so she got him drunk before dinner and waited to watch the show. Instead, he started with a long reverie of explosion stories from his child hood. He told us about putting dynamite in a row of mailboxes, writing burning letters on walls with stick wax phosphorus, making trays full of potassium tri-iodide so they could paint drawer slides and entry ways with the wet paste, then watch it pop and crackle after it dries and people step on it or open the drawers, etc. At the end of it he told us that we had better be more careful so we didn't get hurt. We got our stuff back, except for the lens, which my Mother hid so well she never found it.
Our eyebrows grew back. We became more careful. That's not to say there weren't other fireworks adventures.
Those are another story.