light fuse, put on ground, and get away

I'm in Portland, working on Leverage. There is so much Cha0s in this episode, I've worked very long hours, and haven't had the time or energy to write about production (that's a good thing), and my plan to recap the week yesterday was foiled by complete exhaustion and a Doctor Who marathon.

If you're interested in keeping up with what I'm doing in Portland and on the set, I suggest following me on Twitter, where I've been posting quick updates and sharing pictures.

Until I have the time and energy for a proper post, I thought I'd take a moment to share a timely repeat, since it's the Fourth of July and everything.

I've written hundreds of thousands of words over the years, but this remains one of my all-time favorites, so I like to revisit it every year. It was originally written and published on July 5, 2002, which usually feels like years and days ago all at once, but this year actually feels like a lifetime away.

Fireworks

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 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, three weeks before my fifteenth birthday.

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, wet swimsuits were traded for warm, dry clothes, and I bid my brother and sister farewell as I joined my fellow firework lighters near the corner of the house. I walked casually, like someone who had done this hundreds of times before.

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 Piccolo 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 five generations of family.

Dusk arrived, the family was seated, and the great display began. 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 toward the ignition point and rather than following the directions to “LIGHT FUSE, PUT ON GROUND AND GET AWAY,” I did something incredibly stupid: I casually tossed the now-flaming bundle of pyrotechnics on the ground. Casually, like someone who'd done this hundreds of times before.

The bundle of flowers rolled quickly across the patio, toward 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 z
ip 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 20s 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 pseudocelebrity 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 4th 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.

"Why?"

"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 afterward . . . 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 lawn chairs and force them to watch me light groundflowers.

25 thoughts on “light fuse, put on ground, and get away”

  1. Awesome re-run, Wil. I’ve always liked this story. All the parts, good and bad, are painted with an excellent word-brush.
    Hope you’re having an awesome time in Oregon. Happy Independence day, and happy Dr. Who marathon, apparently.
    My wife and I planned a family trip to Minnesota so that we could catch w00tstock in June. You (and many others) rocked the house; it was awesome! We had a flight the next morning, so we didn’t wade through the line, but I wish I’d had time to.

  2. That’s a really good story… relatable. I had one of those “families that need impressin’”, too. Usually went off about the same way when I tried to impress them, too. This gives me a warm fuzzy.

  3. Fascinating! This reminds me of the story from 1264, when the retiring emperor of China held a feast. His mother, the Empress Dowager Gong Sheng sat in a chair in a high position, and a ‘ground rat’ firework went astray and zoomed right at her. Startled, she stood up, gathered her skirts, and stopped the feast.
    Her son had the pyrotechnic officers held, to await the Empress Dowager’s judgment the next day. He apologized the next morning and took responsibility for the careless act.
    She laughed, and said that it frightened her badly, since it seemed to come directly at her. ‘But it was probably an unintentional mistake, so it can be forgiven.’
    So, your error was about as old as fireworks. :-)
    (Source: Gunpowder epic, Volume 5, Page 7
    By Joseph Needham)

  4. That’s a great story, all about the learning curve.
    I assume Mexican firecrackers in the US are bit like Czech or Polish firecrackers in Germany (produced without proper supervision, care or attention and having ten or even more times the oomph of legal ones)?

  5. I am currently being tortured by my family for 4th of July but I wouldn’t have it any other way. This did not stop me from making fun of them on my blog. Happy 4th!

  6. This is the very first blog post of yours I ever read Wil. And I think it’ll always be one of my favorites. :) I’m so glad you’re having a great time in Portland. I’m always so excited to hear what you’re doing and how much fun you’re having! Happy Independence Day to you and yours Wil!! Have a great holiday!!

  7. Humiliation sucks ass, especially when it’s caused by a complete mistake, and is compounded by someone like your father’s jerk cousin.

  8. That’s a great story Wil. You can really feel the emotion behind even the tiniest detail. But I guess I have an ulterior motive for writing this reply. I really just want to say how reading through some of the back log and the snippets of “Just a geek” and let you know how much a lot of that resonates with me, especially the “Voice of Self Doubt” and the “Prove to Everyone”. It’s nice to know that not only is there someone who shares interests, but struggled with a lot of the same things.. and I hope to someday make it to a place in life like where you are now.

  9. I can’t quite find words to describe how I felt reading this. It resonated with younger-me being removed from the waterslide-line at the local pool because I wasn’t really a strong enough swimmer to recover and get back to the wall 100% safely (they were right, and I knew I was pushing it at the time, but … ). It resonated with the struggles I watched my brothers and my male peers try to navigate as they grew up. And it resonated with how often the social world seems to not notice or not care when it cracks a piece of someone’s soul … and then blames them for being dysfunctional. And righteously “corrects” them : P.
    I am not nearly as dysfunctional as that all made me sound ;) … but the honesty of your writing was vibrant enough to spike an awareness of who and how I used to be.
    ‘Glad u r having a good time in my hometown :).

  10. Awesome! I wonder if you will ver meet up with USS Wesley Crushers… it is kinda inevitable even if the WW/TBBT part of the Venn is small.
    Good Luck C’p'n

  11. I alway enjoy this story, reminds me that there is nothing wrong with being human; a condition we always seem to survive. Kind makes all the suffering a bit more palatable and keeps hope alive. you’re really good at that. Thanks.

  12. Me too, ‘cept it was t he ridicule for wanting to go down the ladder from the diving board cause I froze once I got to the top. Rather than let me down I got shoved off the end and hit the cement pylon that I’d seen that freaked me out in the first place. Dysfunction and heights phobia +15. Without a d20 on each initiative there is no hope. And I’m supposed to go boating next week for the first time. Can I take Data with me?

  13. ooowwwwch :(
    I hope you have fun boating … I manifested my avoidance of the trauma (I later realized ;) ) by moving my swimming activities to primarily non-chlorinated, or at least outdoor, bodies of water (ocean, lakes, creeks, an occasional private pool), and quite had fun taking a week-long learn-to-sail camp in 8th grade, so perhaps it will be a freedom experience for you :).
    I had to work past my aversion to chlorine so I could be a decent example to my kids when it came time for swimming lessons (non-optional as far as I am concerned)–the things a parent will do for their kids!!!

  14. I just avoid diving boards indoor/outdoor. I think boating will be fun. And a learning experience. Great guy that gives me reason to trust again just may be the trick to getting past this fear. If not… well its a comfy boat and I am assured the bunk will accomodate someone in the fetal position if need be. ;)

  15. :).
    “Great guy that gives me reason to trust again just may be the trick to getting past this fear.”
    so true. congratulations on finding him :).

  16. Thank you for this story Wil. Loved the imagery and your rememberance of years gone by touched my own past and tickled it’s heartstrings.

  17. Wonderful story and triple the coincidence – I just finished listening to ‘Just a Geek’ on audio this Independence weekend but, I also live in PDX. Too funny.
    I’m really happy to hear that you’re reprising your Leverage role. Locally, we’re extremely happy to be hosting such an amazing cast and crew. It’s also a cheap thrill to see our bridges as backdrop. I hope when next you’re in town, you’ll be able to hold another signing @ Powell’s!

  18. Loved this story. It actually made me laugh, and then immediately feel bad for you.
    By the way, the title of this story made me remember something silly I wrote a couple years ago. I tracked it down in my old files and posted it on my blog. Here’s a link (assuming linking works here). Anyways, thanks for reminding me of it. It’s always an interesting experience to read something you wrote in the somewhat-distant past.

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