When I was growing up, we always spent Fourth of July with my father’s Aunt and Uncle, at their fabulous house in Toluca Lake.
It was always a grand affair, and I looked forward to spending each Independence Day listening to Sousa marches, swimming in their enormous pool, and watching a fireworks show on the back patio.
This fireworks display was always exciting because we were in the middle of LA County, where even the most banal of fireworks –the glow worms– are highly illegal, and carried severe fines and the threat of imprisonment, should we be discovered by LA’s finest. The excitement of watching the beautiful cascade of sparks and color pouring out of a Happy Flower With Report was always enhanced by the knowledge that we were doing something forbidden and subversive.
Yes, even as a child I was already on my way to being a dangerous subversive. Feel free to talk to any of my middle school teachers if you doubt me.
Each year, the older children, usually teenagers and college-aged, would be chosen to light the fireworks, and create the display for the rest of the family.
I was Chosen in 1987, when I was 14.
The younger cousins, with whom I’d sat for so many years, would now watch me the way we’d watched Tommy, Bobby, Richard, and Crazy Cousin Bruce, who always brought highly-illegal firecrackers up from Mexico.
I was going to be a man in the eyes of my family.
This particular 4th of July was also memorable because it was the first 4th that was celebrated post-Stand By Me, and at the time I had become something of a mini-celebrity around the family. Uncles who had never talked to me before were asking me to sign autographs for people at work, older cousins who had bullied me for years were proclaiming me “cool,” and I was the recipient of a lot of unexpected attention.
I was initially excited to get all this newfound attention, because I’d always wanted to impress my dad’s family, and make my dad proud, but deep down I felt like it was all a sham. I was the same awkward kid I’d always been, and they were treating me differently because of celebrity, which I had already realized was fleeting and bullshit.
Looking back on it now, I think the invitation to light fireworks may have had less to do with my age than it had to do with my growing fame…but I didn’t care. Fame is fleeting…but it can get a guy some cool stuff from time to time, you know? I allowed myself to believe that it was just a coincidence.
The day passed as it always did. There were sack races, basket ball games, and water balloon tosses, all of which I participated in, but with a certain impatience. These yearly events were always fun, to be sure, but they were standing directly between me and the glorious excitement of pyrotechnic bliss.
Finally, the sun began to set. Lawn chairs were arranged around the patio, clothes were changed, and I bid my brother and sister farewell as I joined my fellow firework lighters near the corner of the house.
As the sun sank lower and lower, sparklers were passed out to everyone, even the younger children. I politely declined, my mind absolutely focused on the coming display. I wanted to make a big impression on the family. I was going to start out with something amazing, which would really grab their attention. I’d start with some groundflowers, then a Picolo Pete, and a sparkling cone. From then on, I’d just improvise with the older cousins, following their lead as we worked together to weave a spectacular tapestry of burning phosphor and gunpowder for 5 generations of family.
The sun finally set, the family was finally seated, and the great display was to begin. Some of the veteran fireworks lighters went first, setting off some cascading fountains and a pinwheel. The assembled audience cheered and gasped its collective approval, and it was my turn.
I steeled myself, and walked to the center of the large patio, casually kicking aside the still-hot remains of just-fired fountains. Casually, like someone who had done this hundreds of times before.
My hands trembled slightly, as I picked up three ground flowers that I’d wound together. My thumb struck flint and released flaming butane. I lit the fuse and became a man. The sparkling fire raced towards the ignition point, and rather than following the directions to “LIGHT FUSE, PUT ON GROUND AND GET AWAY,” I did something incredibly stupid: I tossed it on the ground.
The bundle of flowers rolled quickly across the patio, towards my captive and appreciative audience.
Two of the flowers ignited, and began their magical dance of colorful fire on the cement, while the third continued to roll, coming to rest in the grass beneath the chair of a particularly old and close-to-death great-great-great aunt.
The colored flame which was creating such a beautiful and harmless display on the patio was spraying directly at this particular matriarch, the jet of flame licking obscenely at the bottom of the chair.
The world was instantly reduced to a few sounds: My own heartbeat in my ears, the screams of the children seated near my great-great-great aunt, and the unmistakable zip of the now-dying flowers on the patio.
I don’t know what happened, but somehow my great-great-great aunt, who’d managed to survive every war of the 20th century, managed to also survive this great mistake of mine. She was helped to her feet, and she laughed.
Unfortunately, she was the only one who was laughing. One of my dad’s cousins, who was well into his twenties and never attended family gatherings accompanied by the same date, sternly ripped the lighter from my hand, and ordered me back to the lawn, to sit with the other children. Maybe I could try again next year, when I was “more responsible and not such a careless idiot.”
I was crushed. My moment in the family spotlight was over before it had even begun, and not even the glow of pseudo-celebrity could save me.
I carefully avoided eye contact, as I walked slowly, humiliated and embarrassed, back to the lawn, where I tried not to cry. I know the rest of the show unfolded before me, but I don’t remember it. All I could see was a mental replay of the bundle of ground flowers rolling across the patio. If that one rogue firework hadn’t split off from its brothers, I thought, I would still be up there for the finale, which always featured numerous pinwheels and a Chinese lantern.
When the show was over, I was too embarrassed to apologize, and I raced away before the patio lights could come on. I spent the rest of the evening in the front yard, waiting to go home.
The following year I was firmly within the grip of sullen teenage angst and spent most of the festivities with my face planted firmly in a book –Foundation, or something, most likely– and I watched the fireworks show with the calculated disinterest of a 15 year old.
That teenage angst held me in its grasp for the next few years, and I even skipped a year or two, opting to attend some parties where there were girls who I looked at, but never had the courage to talk to.
By the time I had achieved escape velocity from my petulant teenage years, Aunt Betty and Uncle Dick had sold the house, and 4th of July would never happen with them again.
The irony is not lost on me, that I wanted so badly to show them all how grown up I was, only to behave more childishly than ever the following years.
This Fourth of July, I sat on the roof of my friend Darin’s house with Anne and the boys, and watched fireworks from the high school. Nolan held my hand, and Ryan leaned against me as we watched the Chamber of Commerce create magic in the sky over La Crescenta.
I thought back to that day, 15 years ago, and once again I saw the groundflower roll under that chair and try to ignite great-great-great aunt whatever her name was.
Then I looked down at Nolan’s smiling face, illuminated in flashes of color.
“This is so cool, Wil!” He declared, “thanks for bringing us to watch this.”
“Just be glad you’re on a roof and not in a lawn chair,” I told him.
“Well…” I began to tell him the story, but we were distracted by a particularly spectacular aerial flower of light and sparks.
In that moment, I realized that no matter how hard I try, I will never get back that day in 1987, nor will I get to relive the sullen years afterwards…but I do get to sit on the roof with my wife and her boys now, and enjoy 4th of July as a step-dad…at least until the kids hit the sullen years themselves.
Then I’m going to sit them in lawnchairs and force them to watch me light groundflowers.

136 thoughts on “Fireworks”

  1. Could be worse. The last time I did the fireworks as a kid, a bottle rocket went straight up the tailpipe of the jackass teenager who lived across the street. The vehicle didn’t explode, which I now find disappointing, as that means I spent the rest of the night fleeing the neighbourhood for nothing.

  2. I suppose I should have noted I meant that to be the tailpipe of the CAR of the jackass teenager.
    On second thought, as it came out is MUCH funnier.

  3. Wil, this has been said before by many others, but I have to reiterate it now: you have real talent as a writer. You capture the emotion and memory of childhood incredibly well, so that it helps me to remember how I felt when I was younger. Between this story and the landspeeder trade story, you’ve totally made some of my forgotten childhood stories resurface. I usually just remember the event, but your stories help me remember how I was feeling and what I was thinking at the time as well. So thanks for that. :)
    Now, for the important question: what the fark are groundflowers?

  4. Cool … i wish we had 4th July celebrations over here … i luv fireworks. But alas, none for poor Chris :( i am reduced to looking at photos of them. And even when its like new Years Eve … all my friends are with their families, my parents go to the golf club for drinks and to party.. so i am stuck home with my sister, watching crud TV with no Firework in site. But i cant say i have almost killed a member of the fimily with one before :S . Maybe a plantpot tho 😉
    =– Chris –=
    p.s Hope you enjoyed it.

  5. I love fireworks, but had a similar experience with a groundflower, but was on the receiving end. Even as an adult, I prefer to watch fireworks from a comfortable distance. I know, I know, I am a wuss.

  6. lol, wil. master storyteller as always.
    see? them damn fireworks is dangee-roos!

  7. Welcome back Wil! You were missed.
    Thanks for treating us to that story. It reminded me of a time when some friends and I lit some fireworks and a strobe flew into a neighbor’s holly bush which went up like the tree in Christmas Vacation, only slower and more dramatically.
    I love your stories. They really do cover me with a warmth of nostalgia. Write a book young man!
    Best on and on,

  8. What a great time! I managed to tolerate the oppressive heat and humidity long enough to hike with the neighbors and their friends and their friends’ kids on over to the stadium, where we laid out on a blanket on the grass on the side of the road to watch the show. We were surrounded by people setting off mini displays (which are legal here in the Hoosier state, apparently,) and children alternately waving sparklers and chasing lightning bugs.
    I hope that I have kids around some day to share that kind of experience!

  9. I agree with Brock. You’re storie’s are really great. They cheer me up when I’m let down by the world. Maybee you can write a book with storie’s from you’re weblog, and about the community that’s grown around this lame little site. LOL I don’t think it’s lame though. :)

  10. Good story, Wil… and I agree with Brock and the others as well. You should write a story, if not a ST:TNG memoir. *runs for it* Seeing “Commander Riker” is a film maker now (I think… so I’ve heard anyway) maybe you two should team up :)

  11. Wow Wil, thats a great story. I went to a mini illegal display in Orange County this 4th and was somewhat amazed at how potentially dangerous those little things are and the fact that adults don’t mind the kiddies running around them, or running around poking sparklers at people, sparklers that burn at 1000 deg F at their tips and that could take out an eye or cause some nice minor burning.
    I guess there is a reason they’re illegal. But hey, the big shows are so much cooler anyway.
    Do us all a favor and don’t light your kid’s Foundation book on fire in your quest to prove your adult coolness. :-)

  12. Okay.
    I see the sequel to “A Christmas Story.” It’s “A Fourth-Of-July Story.” Yeah! Starring Wil Wheaton as the voice of the adult … um … Wil Wheaton. Or…something.
    Anyway…. okay, I don’t know why, but this entry just totally reminded me of “A Christmas Story.” Can’t you picture the scene all laid out with the kids and the groundflowers and Great-great-great-great-Aunt Matilda with this entry as the narration?
    Once you have the script, you should take it to … oh, I don’t know … someone you know from Hollywood that directs now and go “Hey! I have 1 4 U! U R my friend.”
    (Had to get that last line in there. It’s obligatory. Sorry.)

  13. Hey, welcome back, Wil. My family, including my step-daughter, also had a great 4th. We parked in a Kroger’s parking lot right off of Houstons’ I-45, eating McDonald’s ice cream cones and watching the display going off over Splashtown. My two little girls screamed excitedly at each and every firework, no matter how near or how far. My step-daughter, who is not usually affectionate towards me, did put her arm around me and let me hold her awhile while we watched fireworks together.
    Off topic…I wrote when you first announced that you are walking for Avon’s Walk-a-thon and told you that I was in the process of being tested to donate a kidney to my aunt ( who raised me ). Well, is it turns out, I am unable to be tested due to some asthmatic condition that I had like 100 years ago. My aunt recently had the shunt placed in her arm and will begin dialysis shortly.
    I want to thank everyone who wrote and supported me during this time. There are times of sheer beauty in life and times where you hold on to your faith ( or whatever you believe in ) with all your might. This is one of those times for me and for my family.
    God bless ya’ll. Wil and Anne, keep up the good work !!

  14. That was worth waiting 2 weeks for.
    You must WRITE A BOOK, WIL! (Has anyone told you that before…?)
    It’d be sure to make you famous. 😉

  15. “Fame is fleeting..”
    C’mon Uncle MANY other “stars” from that
    same period have the FAN base and LOYALTY that
    you STILL do?!
    Not counting the 50,000 MONKEYS.
    Okay so we count.
    I hate fireworks..yep its true…waste of money
    and time.
    But I liked your story as usual.
    You can really write.( adds THAT comment for the
    zillionth time!)
    And how did you like your walk-a-thon total?

  16. i laughed, i cried, i remembered all the times i made a total fool out of myself up til now. (why does it seem that everyone else around you “gets it” and have found a way to be “cool” when you’re still tripping over your own two feet and acting like an idiot?) anyway great recount Wil you ARE really talented as a writer. i’m glad you had a good time this 4th.
    don’t be too hard on the kids when they’d rather read a book; at least they’re reading.

  17. Wil,
    If you like fireworks, why dont you bring Anne and the kids to Britain for our Guy Fawkes Night celebrations.
    I love the whole run-up to GFN. You know when Halloween aproaches that you only have 5 days to ensure your bonfire is the biggest and best in the neighbourhood!
    Mam is busy preparing the baked potatoes and bangers.
    Dad makes sure no hedgehogs have nested in the bowels of the bonfire,
    Auntie spikes the fruit punch to give it “that extra kick”, and the kids are head to foot in woolly scarves, hats, mittens and their best thick winter coat, (did I mention GFN is November 5th?!?)
    The dog does its Houdini impression and can be found cowering under the bed as Dad lines the fireworks up like little soldiers. (aaaaahhhhh, memories)
    But do you know what’s the best part of the whole Guy Fawkes Night experience?…

  18. My friend Geoff and I were driving back from The Who concert at Shoreline when, as we were plugging along 24 through Oakland, there’s this burst of yellow flame, followed by some pink flame.
    Someone was setting off fireworks. It was most cool. I’m not talking some dinky little sparklers or anything; I’m talking fireworks on the scale of city-approved celebrations.
    We passed by the house that presumably set them off, and it was all bright and smoky.
    So, go illegal fireworks, so long as they don’t start any fires. Then, you’re just an idiot.

  19. Wil, this is the best entry I’ve ever read on here. It was so heartfelt and real. I can only hope to a fraction of the writer you are. And you’re an amazing person, too. Lots of love!

  20. You know Wil, it’s probably not escaped the notice of a good many of the readers here, but aren’t you perhaps in the wrong profession? It’s about time you put these writing talents to good use and wrote a book!! If William F Shatner can do it (albeit with the help of ghost writers) I’m damn sure you can!!

  21. One of the little neighbourhood kids burned a hole through my PJs with a sparkler on Victoria Day. I’ve had mixed feelings on fireworks ever since.
    Whenever it is July 4, I remember Patrick Stewart being on Letterman, and Dave asked him if they celebrate July 4 in England. Patrick said how, like “we never really wanted that colony anyway”?

  22. “Two of the flowers ignited, and began their magical dance of colorful fire on the cement, while the third continued to roll, coming to rest in the grass beneath the chair of a particularly old and close-to-death great-great-great aunt.”
    I was truly in horror, Wil. I thought for a moment that we might get some deep, dark story with ritualistic burials in the back yard or the makings of a good Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell film. I spent many a summer vacation in my youth in Toluca Lake. That would explain a lot…
    But really, Wil – who hasn’t almost killed the aunt or uncle who can already see the light if they stare hard enough?
    I’m in the same boat, my friend. Until this year, fireworks were illegal in Minnesota too (I guess people were afraid the snow would catch on fire.) It was always a deviant treat when pappy let me flail the sparklers around or let the jumping jacks go on the driveway.
    Funny, but they never let young Wesley Crusher play with the fireworks either…
    You da man, Wil!

  23. Don’t worry Wil, even adults make mistakes with fireworks. When I was little, my dad accidentally burned me with a Sparkler when he handed it to me. The bad thing now is that I’m 19 and absolutely terrified of Sparklers. Do you know what kind of a wimp I look like when 8 yr olds are running around with them, and I’m like “No! Get away from me with that thing!” Yep, good ol Dad. What would I do without him?

  24. Hey! I was reading your story and I just thought it was kind of cool that you were watching fireworks over La Crescenta ’cause I live in the city right next to it, La Canada (I don’t know if you know where that is). Anyway, I just wanted to say Welcome Back and I hope you had a fun trip.

  25. hey Wil,
    Cool story dude. I haven’t thought about Chinese lanterns in a long time. I use to love those things. Thanks

  26. Of course it’s those memories that last a lifetime. The ones we never forget and forever cherish. I think the best part of those memories is looking back years later as you’re creating new memories… just as you did. What an awesome feeling.

  27. Can you hear the chant Wil? huh? it’s out there. . .
    book, book, book, book, book, book Booooooook!

  28. You know, those damn groundflower are the bane of my existence. I grew up in North Texas, where by July 4th every thing is a nice, crispy brown and fireworks and incendiary devices of ANY description were illegal. Imagine my sheltered, city kid joy when a friend of mine showed up at a college graduation get together with an assortment of flaming things, groundflowers included.
    I burned a hole in the lawn (note: when throwing, do not throw in grass) and the police came.
    “No officer, sir, I don’t know anything about any fireworks. I was, uh, asleep. I didn’t hear any loud bangs…”

    Welcome home wheaton clan!
    I tust all is well? 😉
    Nice entry today Mr.Wil.
    If I had been drinking coke,Im sure it would have come out my nose from laughing so hard.
    That’s laughing with not @.heh heh heh.
    Hey, you might want to update your wish list,there is no more “Talk Soup” or “Politicaly Incorrect”. Bummer Huh?
    Take care,and post the trip pics quick.

  30. Dude, that’s so cool, I had a good Fourth this year too. Welcome Back Sir!!!!
    BTW- di you get to my e-mail about the donation of Body Bust for E-bay?? Lemmie know. :)

  31. Does being 14 suck or what? Eighties teen angst movies come to mind…Molly Ringwald in 16 candles. I’d love to see that character revisited in her late 20’s/early 30’s.
    Back in my own youth I remember beautiful fountains of light in front of our house and the occasional deafening sound of an M80 sending you running into the house for cover.
    I lived for those safe & sane fireworks and stroked them like potential sex partners for a week before we got to fire them off.
    Fourth of July laser light shows? Battling crowds to watch 20 minute city sponsored firework events? I’ll take almost igniting an ancient Aunt over those any day.

  32. Ah, groundflowers were my favorite. See, I’d grip it in my hand and stroke it with my thumb. You have to do that to make it perform the best. Then you light it, and hold on until the fuse burns in. Shortly before you get third degree hand burns you throw it in a high overhand arc, and watch it ride a spike of multicolored flame like a little rocket.
    We usually did this near water so we could get a few underwater ignitions.
    This year it was all about rockets, and occasionally having one misfire on my foot when it refused to take off. There’s something about being above a pyrotechnic explosion of green and red that’s kinda cool.

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