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. Her name was Aunt Anna, she was Uncle Dick’s aunt and she was about 100 years old when you almost set her on fire. I was there, but never knew the rest of the story til now. Your re-telling was so wonderful, really took us back.
    Love, Mom

  2. How lovely that your mom posted! I would buy your book. Email me if and when you decide to publish! Your site is one of the ones I check daily and I enjoy the good AND bad times in your life that you choose to share with us. Nolan and Ryan have a great stepdad. Oh, and my oldest is named Anna in memory of her grandmom (my mom)!

  3. My level of respect for the Wheaton family keeps growing with every passing day… I can’t believe your mom posted here.
    That is about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. My mom has NEVER posted on my site. (But considering all the bitching I do about her, that’s probably a good thing.)
    Anyway, I just had to say it… Cool, man… And classy…
    To the Uber-mom, come back any time. I think I love you!
    (Now, how long til Anne posts?)

  4. To Wil’s mom,
    You have a great son and deserve to be proud of who you brought up. Through his site he brings a lot insight from the boy he was to the man he is.
    Uncle Willie ROCKS!!!!!

  5. I’ve just read it again. I wish I could write that well. *green with envy*
    Hi, Wil’s mom. Well done for helping the kid star grow up into a normal guy. Not many do :)

  6. Once again, the world is right again..
    The planets continue they’re dance, birds and bees are bumpin’ uglies, and Wil is back from holiday.
    Glad you made it home safely Sir, you were indeed missed :>)

  7. ‘Petulant teenage years': “Journey’s end” was on TV just now, and I watched it specially to see Uncle Willie. Glad you’ve always had a healthy disdain for rules and regulations in real life too…

  8. Aww. It’s okay. You’ll get to put on a grand display for your boys next year. I’d probably burn my hand off trying to light those things.
    The most important thing is that you were able to spend it with family.

  9. Dude, your mom reads the site and you’ve got porn links. Balls, baby. Big, giant cajones.

  10. Did you ever stop to think that maybe that ground flower ended up under your great aunt’s chair for a reason? Maybe God was trying to send her one last warning before she was cast into eternal hellfire for her failure to repent upon bended knee before the might and mercy of the vengeful and also loving but also abusive and cruel Jesus H. Christ.
    Who is to say that even now your great aunt doesn’t look down from her chrome-plated mansion in Level One Heaven upon young TVsWW and thank the good Lord for that taste of hellfire and perdition which licked up her bony legs that one fateful day when out behind the toolshed and just thirteen feet from the tainted potato salad that would send her on to eternity some three days later, she bent down amongst the assorted jarts and popsicle sticks to accept the tender embrace of Christ.
    You saved that woman, TVsWW.
    As you save us all.
    Each and every day of your precious, precious life.

  11. ????????????????
    Whats with all the God referances? Whats going on?
    Why are we here? Whats the meaning of Life? (42)
    No really, whats with the God conversation?
    And just what IS the question to life the universe and everything?

  12. fluffy:
    A troll claiming to be Mr. Almighty was being an ass above.
    I heard Robert Picardo saved someone’s aunt.
    So when’s the threeway?

  13. Sorry to say it, Wil, but I’m growing a little tired of YOUR well-versed versions of your escapades. Bring on the MOM!!! I want all the details of Wil’s childhood. From the day he came home crying that he wasn’t castin the role of a young Klingon boy named Worf, to the time you caught him in the bathroom “reading” his copy of Tiger Beat with creases on the pages highlighting Debbie Gibson and Alyssa Milano.
    I want all the dirt.
    WE want all the dirt.
    Wil, the best thing you could do would be to host the special guest writings of Ma Wheaton. Or hell, get her a website of her own. The fans demand it.
    UNITE! And welcome the dawning of the age of Ma Wheaton!
    UNITE! And salute the woman who gave Wil life!
    UNITE! And give this woman her own voice!

  14. wil, do you really read these messages??
    are you really out there?
    this is an interesting gig
    you’ve got going here —
    let me know if you ever get this :)

  15. Lovely. You have a great site, Wil, and it does you great credit. Greetings from Topeka; sorry I never got the opportunity to meet you while you were here. I always wondered what you thought of your time here.

  16. Sigh. Please note that the comment from “wil” directly above is actually from “[email protected],” and not from Unca Willy himself. Kaye, you’re welcome here; don’t let some loser chase you off.

  17. sigh.
    sorry about the trolls, folks. I’m hoping that a newer release of MT allows the reserving of names, so jackasses like this “[email protected]” don’t have a chance to show us all how small their peckers are.

  18. Ummm, does that mean that if we’ve already posted here, or on your bulletin board, we won’t have to re-register? I’m still a newbie at this, or, as another board which I read would describe me, a “luser”.

  19. Wil, Wil, Wil… when am I going to see your book on a big glossy display at the local bookshop? With writing like this, you need to be in print… you know, the dead-trees-bound-in-dead-cowhide kind of print.
    I’d reserve my copy now, title and content unseen…

  20. *sigh*
    That was just beautiful. I watched my youngest brother this 4th playing with fireworks that was more than illegal here in New York State and I thought to myself “This is more than worth it, even if I do get a summons or two.”
    There is nothing like spending time with your family.

  21. Excellent writing Wil!! Reminds me a bit of the John Steinbeck school of writing. You should really check out “Travels with Charley” by him.
    Though, by the way you write you probably already have. Excellent narrative.

  22. Great story “monkeyboy”. I’ve never had any sort of interest in fireworks, but your story was quite captivating and had me the whole time.
    sunshine to you!

  23. Hey, Wil. Reminds me of the other night. July 1st. Yeh, Canada-der Eh! We had a nice fireworks display in our town. It was over the lake and from all the rumbling and bangs my daughter was woken up by it. She is three. We could see the display from our window, and it was pretty neat. She was so thrilled to be held by daddy and able to look out the widow at all the explosions and lights. I felt really good about sharing the experience with my little one. It was her first fireworks dislplay. Man, you can’t put times like that into words. There is just something so primal about explosions and lights in the sky, or under lawn chairs.
    And Wil, still the best site around!

  24. wil: great story!…you made me feel like i was there…it’s so familiar…it feels like deja-vu…adults can be so cruel!…d.burr

  25. Yeah, I caught a witch-whistler in the ribs in the eighth grade. It was one of those 24 packs of witch-whistlers that looked like it should have been mounted on the side of a helicopter in a Rambo movie. Anyway, the advantage of the multi-pack was that instead of one completely random flying piece of flaming bullet-shaped plastic emitting a banshee’s scream, there are 24 of them. The odds were not in my favor. Goddamn thing burned me through my shirt.
    In college a bottle rocket slid right under my sitting ass during some indoor fireworks experiments involving a long hall and a video camera borrowed from the Behavior Science lab. Long story, but we had some cool footage when all was said and done. Anyway, I managed to defy physics and launch myself into the air using only my buttcheeks before it popped.
    By the way, I’ve spend the better part of my life beating myself up for stupid shit I’ve said and done in the past. I wish I could turn that off. Especially when I’m trying to go to sleep.

  26. Hi Wil,
    Came across this post on lighting the Fireworks via your slashdot Q&A and I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed it. And I’m glad to hear that you’re planning to inflict pyrotechnics-related trauma on your step kids :)

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