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. Wow! I’m absoulutely amazed. You participated in the 4th of July celebration this year?? That’s incredible considering the loathing you have for our Country. You’re support of a culture that apparently is so evil, corrupt and war-like to you suprises many of us who love the USA and the people who make up our Country. Perhaps there’s a republican inside you?

  2. Don’t worry Wil, u’re not the only one who has ruined firework displays. For bonfire night, when I was 15 I was asked to light them too, and I ended up scaring about 30 people. Come to think of it, it’s 5 years later and I still haven’t been asked to light them again.
    Oh yeah, u grown out of your ‘careless idiot’ stage, or u still there?

  3. Firstly, what are groundflowers??? It’s amazing how the worst can turn out to be the best, my brother and I sharre memries of our favourite fireworks when our mother banned them because we’d been fighting. We ended up sitting high up in a block of flats watching way better fireworks and spitting biscuit-gunge onto cars below. Maybe oneday you’ll light the groundflowers for your relatives and it will be great. Anyway.

  4. Wade,
    I’m about the most conservitive guy on the planet. I keep friends with people from all over the political spectrum. Wil’s liberal whining does annoy me sometimes but he loves this country. That is the wonderful thing about this country: WE ARE A MELTING POT. We vote and the majority wins… or at least that is how it is supposed to work. How can you take a simple story of someones childhood and turn it like that? You must be a very bitter and empty person. Let’s keep our discussions in the realm of ideas and not personal destruction. I support our troops and what G.W. is doing, that does not mean that Wil should shut up. If you want a one sided dogmatic society, please move to Iran.

  5. Hey Wil,
    Been waiting for you to get back!!!
    4th of July sounds cool…. and I know everyone is totally gonna beat me up cause I’m Canadaian…. but hey…. we have fireworks too!!!!
    I spent my Canada Day voleenteering in the hot sun for 5 1/2 hours… boring!!! And this is only me at 14! AHHHH!!!!!
    Well, talk to ya later! Gald you are back and feeling better!

  6. Will, I know a person who almost burned his eye out. You did not do so bad for a first light-up.

  7. wil,
    One word INCREDIBLE. Truly a story that touched my heart. I laughed and I got all teary eyed as I read it. Thanks for making a sick guy feel good if only for a few minutes. You see I come to your site daily hoping for an update that will make my day. Sometimes I think your site and old Next Generation reruns daily are all that keep me going. Don’t ever stop wil you are so talented and gifted you really should write a book. Glad your feeling better, can’t wait till your next post. I hope this site last 20 more years. going boldly till next time…….Matt.

  8. Great story wil, it had me gripped all the way through. Good to know that your whole family had a good time the other day

  9. Ah, Uncle willie is cheating.
    He has put his fund raising total up and not told us!
    Don’t worry wil, we will get you there

  10. Boooooo fourth of July sucks. American patriotism sucks. Ok now that I showed my own display of Canadian Angst…
    I have a deep seeded fear of fireworks.

  11. Growing up in the NYC/NJ area, July 4th was very special. When we lived in the northeast Bronx, block parties were all the rage. We would cook out, listen to free concerts by those who would later be called the creators of hip-hop, and watch the coolest fireworks display this side of Macy’s yearly fete. It helped to have neighbors who were friends of the Grucci’s. When we moved to Jersey City, we enjoyed the great concerts in Liberty Park, cooked out, and experienced up close the Macy’s display, the tall ships, and all from Lady Liberty’s back yard. In this year that our liberty is under fire from many directions, it’s very good to recall those innocent times when we didn’t have to worry about terrorists, or
    cryto-facsists, corrupt businesses, or aids.

  12. I’ve had bad experiences with fireworks too, and I’m 14 now. Not too long ago we were watching fireworks and this dumb kid is in front of us swinging a sparkler. Well, he throws the sparkler in my moms purse and then falls and knocks his sister? over and she drops a sparkler on me. I didn’t get burned but my mom wan’t to happy about it cause some of her papers got it. God, what’s wrong with kids these days. Glad you had a nice vacation Wil and a good fourth of July! Am happy you didn’t throw any fireworks on the ground and watch them roll under any of your aunts!!!! 😛

  13. C’mon,! Why don’t you list Uncle Willy’s book! I wanna pre-order it!
    Wadda ya mean he has to write it first?!?
    Stupid Jeff Bezos….

  14. That is such a good story. We all make mistakes as teens but at least you learned from yours. My sister still lights smoke bombs in her hand after she blistered her hand from doing that once. Maybe she is one of your 50,000 monkeys.

  15. God-
    Your mom called and you need to go home. Apologize to Mr. Buddha next door for kicking over his lotus flowers, take out the trash (make sure you grab all the little troll cultists from the fringe floor pot in the back of the garage), and then march up to your room and list your sins.
    She says to make sure your still remorseful for the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the current and past Bush Administrations daily among whatever nonsense you’ve managed to cause this afternoon and then come downstairs and tell her that you love her.
    Cause that’s all she needs babe.

  16. Damn, the wrath of god has made my leg itch.
    Spudnuts, if your dick got any longer, it might be too long… assuming there is such thing as “too long”.
    Which reminds me, you’ve provided *days* of entertainment for people I know. You are a demigod of sorts.
    … and hell, you don’t threaten posters with wrath, you threaten them with sexual athleticism on par with Caligula (only slightly less expensive).

  17. Feel it- how?
    I could flash my tits at your main rep on earth and the guy would be dining with St. Peter before dawn tommorow.
    You know what the Church needs.
    A man with Soul Power.
    No not of the Angel Investigations kind (too broody and plus he’s got that freakin’ wonder brat to look after and the ditz with the glasses).
    I mean like Samuel L. Jackson type.
    Then I might be up to quakin’, shiverin’, and doing the whole wowzer in awe to your wrath mojo.
    Ya dig?
    Now scurry off before your mother catches you!

  18. Wade: Please learn the difference between criticizing one’s country and hating it. I think Wil’s prior blog entries have made it transparent which side of that dichotomy he falls on. (It’s my own opinion that a true patriot, far from remaining silent, is obliged to speak up when he feels the government is mistaken, corrupt, or simply indifferent. It is a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” — not over the people.
    God: I stopped listening to you a long time ago. You aren’t relevant. Go away.

  19. Now hear this geeks, there will be fire floods and tornadoes to warn of the coming apocalypse or it might be if wilwheaton makes a comeback.

  20. I love fire floods – they are really pretty, and generally harmless.
    Besides, I remember being told that the Antichrist (who is involved with the Apocalypse) is a dark-haired Jewish male alive right now. Wil Wheaton isn’t Jewish, so far as I know.
    So HA.

  21. GREAT story! When will we have the chance to read one of your books Wil? :) It will be a bestseller, haha.
    Bye, Helene

  22. I just saw Flubber
    That’s all I’m going to say about that
    As regards your adventure, be glad you didn’t burn down a flowerbed…
    Trust me.

  23. wil,
    how have you made it this far without seeing any
    cute story, I whish I could remember events of my
    hope you are now all rested from the big trip.
    because you start training this weekend!
    October is just a few weeks away, so get to it!
    I want news coverage on this!
    did you hear about Corey Feldman and his new CD
    album? I can’t wait (not!) it’s to be released
    sometime this week! I wait for your review before I spend any of my hardly earned money…

  24. With all the stress I have today, this entry made me laugh… a lot. You MUST write a book Wil. You have a gift for writing that should be shared with the larger masses.
    Thank you.

  25. Someone should have helped you. It wasn’t your fault. Robert Frost has a poem about a little horse left alone in an open field, frightened of his first snowstorm. Someone should take him in.

  26. I read the whole thing twice (Once to myself and once to my sister) and still only one thing popped out at me, “with my wife and her boys”. WIL! They’re your boys too now, your better to them then their dad is and love them even more, I’m sure. I don’t know why you don’t just say “my boys”, or “our boys”. Ok…well…bye.
    P.s. Once I lit one of those spinner fireworks and it caught my dad’s boot on fire…those were good times…

  27. It was on last night on CC and I have the DVD- 2 disk that I watched with a friend the night before.
    sigh.. I’m gonna miss you all.
    Specially Wil after that great story- I’m joining the chant Wil- 123 GO Book!
    On Wensday I am fleeing the land of Cows and Hi Os to visit the land of somewhat smoggy Angels and Vincent Kartheiser.
    This tomboy even bought a frilly pretty dress.
    Oh the humanity…

  28. Wil —
    OK. This isn’t directly related to your anecdote, but I wouldn’t have thought of this if I hadn’t read it.
    You should write more than just for yourself and us — try to get something in print. Reach a bigger audience. Acting is fun, but it sounds like you’re brimming with stories. I know, who wants to read about your everyday life, right? What I mean is that you should (and could) write fiction, or do something like Seinfeld did and pen one of those Books of Witty Observations on Life.
    Or do something activism-related. Y’know, like spend a year in the Third World helping out, then recount the experience in a book — try to expose people through the words to a world they haven’t really considered. Something along those lines. Hell, I dunno. But you’ve got some style here — your anecdotes always come through as real, not polished or cynical.
    Just something to think about.

  29. HEY GOD?!
    When your trembling hands stike the earth to unleash fire,floods,and tornadoes,make sure you follow the directions “Place on Earth and get away”,lest you look like an idiot and have them
    end up beneath the chair of Wil’s great-great-great aunt.

  30. yeah, I had the whole back of my truck go off at *explicative* once. It was full of fireworks and a UFO landed right in the middle of it. Man, what a FARKING show!
    Took a while to get the black smut off.

  31. wil that was a great beautiful story. maybe you should think of getting that one published too.

  32. wil that was a great beautiful story. maybe you should think of getting that one published too.

  33. Quick Wil! Get that story published. It has to be one of the best (if not the best) story you’ve ever done. From one writer to another, I think you are a really great writer. You need to do a book. I know alot of people who would buy it, and I’m sure there are many more out there. I know you might not have that much free time on you’re hand’s, but at least try.

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