Because it’s become a yearly tradition, here’s a story about fireworks

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.

If this is your first time reading this story, leave me a comment, if you don't mind. I'm curious to know if you're a longtime reader, or a relatively new one. Thanks!

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 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 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.

197 thoughts on “Because it’s become a yearly tradition, here’s a story about fireworks”

  1. First time reading this story.. I really like how you tell your anecdots, they feel really close as if one’s there living it.
    I know the feeling of doing things wrong and be sent back from the “important” things, also I know the feeling on how the prespective from others may not be different as years pass by but change us internally helping us to grow.
    Thanks for sharing!
    S.

  2. This is not my first time reading this. I read it for the first time in 2004 and it has been my favorite part of the 4th of July every year since then. I look forward to this story every year just as much as I looked forward to my Mom reading “The Night Before Christmas” to me on Christmas Eve when I was a kid :)

  3. Because you asked so nicely, I’ll respond. :) I’ve been following you on Twitter and reading your blog for about 6 months now, I think. Loved this story. Fireworks are one of my absolute favourite things about summer (heck, they’re one of my favourite things in LIFE!). I may be in my early 30’s, but I still ooh and ahh like an excited kid at every gorgeous explosion. I’ve seen one small show so far this summer, and hopefully will get a chance to see more. Thanks for sharing this story – it was beautifully written.

  4. Long-time fan, but relatively new reader, and this is the first time I’ve had the delight of reading this piece. I can really relate to FINALLY getting that chance at the rite of passage, only to have it slip through your fingers–mine was burning Grammie’s Thanksgiving rolls! Thank you for sharing these wonderful glimpses of your life with us, and I wish you many more such joyous occasions to come. :)

  5. This is my first time reading this story, so I guess I’ve been following your blog for a little less than a year now.
    Incidentally, I also just watched Stand By Me for the very first time just a few days ago because of the post you made about the 25th anniversary and River’s missing chair. The movie is INCREDIBLE–but you already know that.
    Thanks for posting–this story and others. I really enjoy following your blog. :)

  6. That was a lovely story. I haven’t seen this story before. I looked you up after listening to you in the DnD podcasts playing with Penny Arcade and PVP. Since I was born the year you experienced public humiliation, I hadn’t seen you in Stand By Me or on Star Trek. I have two sons, a three-year-old and a one-year-old, so reading about your moments with your boys is always heartwarming and sweet. My children are the best things in my life, and I look forward to every moment of theirs, good and bad. Which includes times like cuddling with them while they watch fireworks, or watching them accidentally light the elderly on fire. I can’t believe it, but I’m actually grateful for G4, where I saw X-Play, which introduced me to Penny Arcade (via a segment on Child’s Play Charity). Being a faithful reader of PA, I saw the podcasts described in Jerry/Tycho’s news post, which has led me to you. I think I might surprise my husband with a book or two for his birthday (though I might read them before I wrap them up and give them to him. He’ll never notice. Ha!)

  7. I am so sorry – when I first read this story in the book, I laughed out loud! I mean really laughed! One of my first memories of fireworks is of a trip to a lake house with family friends (I was about 4 or 5). The adults were shooting off Roman Candles and one of them backfired onto my sister’s leg (she was 3). It stuck. I mean really stuck well and good to her leg. I didn’t see it happen, just watched my father carry her by her arm, dangling, to the lake to try and wash it off to no avail. They finally had to pry it off. Well, that ended fireworks for us. Now we let the professionals do it!
    I enjoy reading your blogs. I’ve let my own fall by the wayside, but I am stockpiling plenty of things to write about. No, really. Honest I am. :-) Keep it up, dude.

  8. “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…” Priceless. You have an easy, natural style. First time here, but trying to appear casual. Like someone who has done this hundreds of times before.

  9. Interesting account. Thanx for sharing. I think it’s as worthy of a yearly telling as “Alice’s Restaurant”.
    To be clear, I look forward to a local radio station’s Thanksgiving tradition of playing “Alice’s Restaurant” at noon.

  10. That July 4th, 1987, my grandfather died after a long battle with cancer. I don’t remember it, I wasn’t quite 3 yet, but I think of him every year with the fireworks.
    I remember the sullen teenage years and the groaning and dragging of feet when asked to participate in family activities. Now I’m kicking myself, wondering why I didn’t just suck it up and go with it. If I had, maybe I wouldn’t regret the times I didn’t spend with family but instead was off somewhere with a book while everyone else enjoyed each other’s company. The one thing I’m glad my parents did, though, was forced family dinners. Every Saturday, we’d go to my grandmother’s house and watch whatever lame tv show was on before Star Trek: The Next Generation, then TNG, then have dinner and discuss it. I grew up watching you grow up and now, reading this blog (only for a few months or so) its almost like catching up with an old friend. I love reading about your family and the things that excite you. For years, I just thought of you as just Wesley, my first crush (I was 6, I didn’t think age was a big deal. IT TOTALLY WOULD HAVE WORKED.) and didn’t think about you as a person. So, thank you for sharing that with me. Makes me enjoy your shows and movies even more. My husband and I recently fell in love with Eureka, and we started watching because of you.
    Anyway…this is long. I just wanted to say I really enjoy reading your tweets and your blog and “catching up.”

  11. Hi Wil, first time reading this story. Was perfect to read aloud to my husband while waiting for our town’s huge fireworks display. Thanks for sharing again!

  12. This is the first time I’ve read this story. I’ve been a fan of yours for quite some time. It mainly started from the TNG years and I’ve always enjoyed seeing/hearing you in new roles. In fact, I watched the Secret of Nimh tonight and discovered that you voiced a role in it (if I’m mistaken, my bad!). I never knew that before! At any rate, it’s funny for a 30 year old to admit being a ‘fan’ of anyone. However, I definitely saw similarities in your various characters to my experiences. Your story about the fireworks reminded me of similar situations in my life. I have only recently discovered your writings and I look forward to reading more of them. Oh, I’m a recent follower on Twitter and I’m always glad to read the updates. Take care.

  13. My gosh, this story made me cry. You’re such a brilliant writer and I love your blog. I’m planning on buying all your books but part of me is afraid that they are going to be so beautiful I’m going to cry right through them all. I know it’s a weird thing to Thank you for but, Thank you for doing what you do, because sometimes, when my life just isn’t working out, your blog and tweets put some sunshine in my day.

  14. This is the first time I’ve read the story too. I follow your tweets regularly, your blog occasionally, and just today (before reading this) had pointed my brother, himself a musician and writer, to your blog so he could see a blog “done right.” Personal stories like this are the things we can all connect with, thanks for posting it.

  15. Follower of yours on Twitter and occasional reader of the blag.
    A story I had is how much better gatherings are now that I’m in college. No more pretending to belong with the adults and having no peers to talk to (my cousins are all younger [Mom's side] or much older [Dad's side]) because I’m actually one of them, not a poseur trying to fit in.
    The one thing that was insulting in the past couple years was when a neighbour once offered me a beer, then rescinded their offer when she remembered how old I was. I was in the UK in pubs all the time before that and my parents had already left the gathering for the night and I was in no danger of having to drive anywhere and we shot off all kinds of illegal fireworks earlier that evening, but I couldn’t have a beer. What a crazy world we live in.

  16. I don’t normally comment but since you asked, yes, this is my first time reading this one. ;) I felt bad for poor Young Wil (as I have oh so creatively named him) but it’s good that Less-Young Wil is living a good life and knows it, despite perhaps a few regrets. =)
    And the last line made me crack up. XD

  17. First time I read the story. I’ve only been following you for a few months. Loved the story, very real and raw. I think we all can relate to these kind of moments in some sort of way. Thanks for sharing your writings with us.

  18. 3rd time reader. I should say I’ve read a few before, but now more frequently. I find your writing captivating, and you plant us right in the situation without using an excess of $5 words that other writers may tend to rely on. Mahalo for the great writing

  19. I think one of the great signs of a writer is being able to transport the reader to a time and place and make it so vivid and so intimate that the person themselves feels they are there. You seem to do that with so much ease it’s amazing.
    Most if not all of your readers can relate to a similar experience, some time when they were asked to step up and ‘be a man’ or ‘become an adult’ or something as simple as being promoted from the kiddie table to the adult table at thanksgiving. And most of us have similar experiences where we did something that made us look like a kid again ( hopefully most of us didn’t put a matriarch in life or death jeopardy with fireworks ;) ) and that combined with your ability to literally transport us there is what makes this such a great story.

  20. Long-time reader, but this is the first time I have encountered this particular story. Oddly enough, it brings me to think of the ST:TAS episode “Yesteryear”. Great story, thanks.

  21. This is the first time I’ve read this story. Now I have to go through everything you have. There goes my project schedule! Thanks Wil!

  22. Wil – this story is one of my favorites! You’re not the only one who’s done something embarrassing when put in the spotlight. Still, this is a great memory.

  23. I only recently started following your blog. You’re a pleasure to read.
    Regarding fireworks, an American friend of mine wrote about how fireworks in general made her feel proud to be American, which I found to be a curious statement which fireworks aren’t limited to America at all…
    Personally it always reminds me of Guy Fawkes day. I’m American by passport, but grew up in Indonesia in a British school, so the only consistent time of year for fireworks besides New Years was to celebrate the failure to blow up parliament.
    Nice story, regardless. Happy 4th Wil!

  24. I can totally hear myself saying something similar to my children in a few years (Good grief…how can they be getting that old already? Oldest just turned 12 yesterday!)…..hope any teens reading your reply here will listen! ;)

  25. Read this story last year for sure. I am a regular reader but not a regular commenter. But nothing beats home fireworks.
    My Dad always lit them for us. He wasn’t with me this year, he’s with my sister recoverying from a broken hip, but I thought of him last night while a bunch of my friends lit them and one of my friends kids learned to light some for the first time. Thanks for sharing. ( and yes, we still get a little subversive pleasure when the bottle rockets shot out of the yard since fireworks are illegal in the St. Louis area too.)

  26. I’ve read this story several times (both on your blog and in your book), Wil, and loved it every time. It reminds me of many a fireworks event in neighbors’ backyards, on the street, or in the Berkeley hills. Nothing will beat the year the police came past the house in Connecticut where we were letting off fireworks on the 4th (illegally) and my parents joined all us teens in hiding in the bushes until the cruiser had passed!

  27. Newish reader. Toddler-esque maybe. But I am trained and have incredible reading skills. So advanced!
    This story hits home in many ways – that regression after trying to prove yourself to be an adult with disastrous results. I appreciate your writing – good self reflection and honesty without the confessional purging that feels messy and embarrassing.

  28. I’ve read this every year for the past 4 or 5 years (they kind of blend together so I can’t remember how long I’ve been reading your blog). I don’t comment very offen, but since you’ve asked here are my thoughts: This post is a great way to celebrate the 4th and it always reminds me that there are things in our past when we try to act all grown up and just end up screwing up. But the important part is the ending…the family moments that we make as adults when we survive our mistakes.
    ~~TARA~~

  29. Fairly new reader here, so my first time reading. And it’s making me look forward even less to my daughters’ teenage years, although I still can’t wait until we can all watch “Stand By Me” together, so it’s a wash.

  30. Not only am I a longtime reader who has read this post several times, I thought about you and this story yesterday as I watched my friends’ kids light their fireworks in the street, including the dreaded groundflowers. :)

  31. I’m a fairly new reader so this is my first visit to your 1987 July 4th. For me it stirred some emotional memories and regrets from my bitchy (sullen is for boys, girls just get bitchy) teenage years. Fortunately, 30 years even makes those memories more nostalgic than painful. Perfect story. Thanks.

  32. Hi there! I’ve been following you on twitter for probably about a year, but I didn’t really discover your blog until recently, and I was especially happy with your Memories of the Futurecast, I went ahead and bought the e-book too so I could get all the stuff that didn’t make it into the podcasts :) I grew up watching and loving TNG (I got into it in high school, I would watch it with my parents every week), and actually I always was really excited when Wesley’s character was featured, especially in the later seasons when it seemed like the writers took him a bit more seriously as a character.
    In any event, I’ve really enjoyed reading your experiences in your blog, and I especially liked this July 4th post. What a neat tradition to have, I kind of wish my family had had something similar! Anyway, this is hello from a new reader, keep up the awesome work! :) (p.s. my fiance loves you on Eureka! I need to get into that show)

  33. I’m a pretty new reader to your blog…about 3 months or so. I first discovered you in Big Bang then on The Guild, and I heard you were active on Twitter so I followed you (I totally sound like a stalker there, but i’m not). I love your posts, reminds me of my life. This one especially so…a good lesson being a teenager is hard even if you’re semi famous.

  34. This is the first time I’ve read this entry, but not the first time I’ve read your work. My wife introduced me to your twitter, and I came here through that. I enjoy your writing; it evokes feelings of nostalgia and family. Very well written, thanks for sharing it!

  35. Also reading this for the first time–I pop by every week or so and read everything I missed.
    My cousin used to be a pro, so would do a fireworks show for us at our family’s house on the chesapeake bay. good times.

  36. I’ve been reading for a few months, particularly after I started following you on Twitter, and speed across to here (obeying all traffic signals) to read your latest offering when you announce it. Always excellent!

  37. I’ve read off and on over the last few years, good story. Your dad’s cousin was right, but I have to admit growing up in Cali leads to different fireworks stories, e.g., in Oklahoma we used to have Roman Candle fights.

  38. I too am a recent follower of your blog, and I love it (my husband and I have always been and will always be lifelong Wesley Crusher fans)! And I love this story! It’s funny/wonderful how the most embarrassing and regrettable circumstances become the best stories. I look forward to reading your books as well!

  39. This is the first time I had the pleasure to read this story, and I’m impressed. I am not American (though our family likes to pretend we are) and this just makes me feel even more envious of anyone who gets to spend their childhood in the US.
    Warm greetings from Switzerland,
    Enrica.

  40. I’ve been an occasional reader over the years, and have even been getting your books over the years. Only recently have I actually dedicated some time to actually reading the books (and others I’ve gotten over the years) and I read this story in “Just a Geek” only a short time ago.
    With the convenience and low time requirement of Twitter and Facebook these days, I don’t spend much time reading blogs. But when I do, yours is one I read. I also appreciate all the acting work you’re getting. “The Guild” reminded me that I always liked you, and now I look forward to seeing your work in everything you act in. And the stories I’ve read in “Just a Geek” and “Dancing Barefoot” definitely evoked emotional reactions from me several times.
    So yes, keep up the good work! Even those who drift away sometimes just need a small reminder of your awesomeness to return. :)

  41. I started following your blog shortly after I found you on twitter a few months ago. I love your well written posts (even if math is hard) and it has led me back to my previously geekier lifestyle. It is totally your fault that I spent most of my weekend watching TNG on Netflix because you alerted me to its presence there, and let me tell you. It was a great weekend. :) Keep blogging and we will keep reading!

  42. I have been reading your blog for a couple of months now. I stumbled across it while trolling the internet, and I have been hooked ever since. I love your stories about acting, your family, and yes even the cat waking you up early. :)

  43. Being part of your younger fan-base (I would have been 11 when this was first published, and thus not had internet browsing freedom) and having just started following your blog after hearing you read at w00tstock, this is my first time reading this particular story.
    I adore everything you write. You make the reader feel as if they themselves are living the story.
    Keep it up, and please, never stop sharing your writings.

  44. It doesn’t matter how many times I have read this, it always makes me cry. I started reading, and “Oh, THAT story again”, but I was sucked in, read the whole thing, and I’m sitting here with tears rolling down my face, because you caught it all so clearly, how horrible we were as teeagers, and the looking back and wishing we could have enjoyed it and not been such assholes, then how our children change it all over again.
    Thank you for blogging THAT story again.

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