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. I’m a relatively new reader, but a long time fan. This story was interesting and I thank you for sharing.
    Imagine my glee and surprise to find out that you are going to be at Dragon*con this year…I was on GTALK with my best friend when I saw your name in red letters on the site. I was so excited I couldn’t speak. My friends are still picking on me because I haven’t squealed like that. Ever.
    Anyway, point is….I love your blog. I love seeing on my Reader that I have a new entry to read. It brightens my day. Seriously.

  2. First read for me. Very enjoyable story.
    Have been following your blog for just under a year now. Always look forward to reading your posts.

  3. I love that you repost this. I bought some sparklers for my daughters this year and we played with them last night. I lit a candle and had a can with water in it for the used sticks. I attempted to educate my kids about fire safety. Don’t touch the burning end. Don’t touch anyone’s skin or clothes with the lit end. Hold the dang thing away from your body. My eight year old repeatedly snuffed out the candle flame, almost stepped on the candle, swung the sparkler right at my midsection while I bent double and leapt backwards as if I was in a choreographed fight scene. My 6 year-old would hold a sparkler with my hand wrapped around hers, but then as it began sparking would scream, panic and run away. After we finished with the pyrotechnics we ran around trying to catch fireflies while listening to the braver people in our neighborhood set off bigger fireworks.

  4. Wow!! I’ve been following your blog for many years now and can honestly say I do not remember reading this tale before. Thank you for sharing it again with us, new and old folks alike. Hope you had a great 4th weekend.
    Speaking of, I just have to share with you that my husband and I went to the National Toy Hall of Fame and Museum of Play for the holiday and OMG! they have this whole exhibit about the evolution of video games, including a working 80’s style arcade featuring, amongst other jems: Tron, Asteroids and Gauntlet (yes the original “Elf you need food soon!” version). My first thought was “Wil Wheaton would TOTALLY love this!”… so if you’re ever in the wester NY area I highly recommend it.

  5. I’m new here, or at least new enough to not have read this story before. Thanks so much for sharing this and other stuff like it with we semi-anonymous weirdos here on Teh Intarweeb.

  6. I’ve been reading for a couple years, but somehow missed this story when its come up. Grew up in the Bay Area, and it reminded me of the tales of illegal fireworks my friends would spin. Good times.
    Happy independence day!

  7. This is the first time I’ve read this story, been following your blog (and other interweb communiques) for the last four months at least and I’m SO DELIGHTED! You are SO f-ing entertaining! You think all the cool stuff is cool… and you have a really genuine writing voice. Keep being awesome. And thanks for sharing.

  8. My first time reading this too, I didn’t know who you even were until last summer I started watching The Guild. Thought you were cool, went to your panel at PAX and, well, here I am! :)

  9. I only recently started following your blog, mostly out of curiosity for what Gordie LaChance is up to these days. So yes, I came because of your celebrity, but I’ve stayed because you’re an excellent writer.
    And I love this story.

  10. Reading this I just realized, I’ve been reading your blog for over a year now, and have yet to comment. This is one of the things I check when I get up in the morning, and I’m always excited when I see a new blog post. I love reading your stories, thank you for writing them.

  11. Wil- I have been reading for about a year and this is my first time I’ve commented on anything- I’ve got to say you definetly put your heart into your writing.
    `87 which feels like forever ago, seems a little like yesterday now. I guess it is the emotion that makes us feel it. And there is nothing like embarraseing oneself after being put on the spot to make it so hard to forget. Well that and reposting it every year.
    I can’t wait to read more and if you keep writing I’ll keep reading…well, unless you lose your mind and start posting about teapot collecting, but hey I might still read even then.

  12. Magnificent story Wil!
    As terrible as it may sound I really only got to know you through occasional run-ins at PAX. this is only my second or third time on the site. I absolutely love the stories every time I’ve had one shared with me or managed to catch your panel
    Thanks for putting this one up again.

  13. Thanks for reading, but thanks even more for commenting; it's the only way I know that the signal is making it out of the noise.

  14. Thanks for reposting that. Its become a traditional expectation. Been here since the early days- 2002 or so. My other favorite story is about poles, wax and the home center, probably that orange one.

  15. Very well told story, your honesty in it is very endearing, thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t know how long I’ve been reading your posts, maybe two years? So I guess I fall under ‘frequent reader, first time comment maker’
    Keep it up Mr Wheaton!

  16. Hey Wil!
    I’ve been regulary following your blog only since you started the Memories of the Futurecast posts, but is now firmly in its place in my google reader feeds list :)

  17. I like to think of myself as a long time reader, (I’m not sure, at least three or four;I’m getting old, the years keep speeding by)so I’ve read this story before. It’s still a great read, you do a good job of capturing that teenage angst and embarrassment that I think all of us felt at some point. You are one of my Mozilla tabs so I come here almost everyday; it’s great to see you are getting new users, too!

  18. I’m a recent follower as well (since the collating papers thing you did for the Bloggess) and have to say I’ve really been enjoying your posts. Even those about Cons that I’ve never attended usually end up making me grin or somehow relate. So, there’s that. Guess it just never dawned on me to check out if people I used to enjoy in TV shows had blogs where they posted as *gasp* themselves! Happy 4th (5th now but whatever, right?)

  19. I’ve followed you on Twitter forever, but only just starting reading your blog after reading Just A Geek. So I’ve read this story before, but am a relatively new blog reader :)

  20. Been reading since before typepad. I love the quick break at work.
    “Gamer-Thane” sometimes gets pushed to the back burner these days (we’re the same age) and your blog often helps keep me in touch with that part of my life…and when it doesn’t (as in this 4th of July story) it does a tremendous job of reminding me of the important things that happen outside of that part of my life.
    So, thanks Wil.

  21. Sorry I’m late to the party, but I wanted to make sure I got word in even if it is tardy.
    You mentioned how excited you were to know that there are so many new readers of your blog. I started following you on twitter strictly because of your explanation of who you are in your link to the blog. After I read that you went from some guy I use to watch on tv when I was a teenager to a real person that I had a lot in common with. Someone interesting and entertaining. Your down to earth despite your celebrity status.
    I really enjoy your writing. Your twitter posts are the only ones I consistently look forward to out of the twenty or so people I follow. Keep up the good work Wil. Thanks for brightening my days.

  22. Great story. My first time here — I saw Chris Hardwick on BBC America, figured out what that triangle thing was on the set, and listened to a few Nerdist podcasts, which led me to your website. I also saw the TNG episode with Ashley Judd this weekend. You’re ubiquitous.

  23. I’ve been reading since, roughly, the beginning of the year. This is one of my favorite stories of yours. So funny.
    Happy belated 4th Wil, and happy belated Canada Day to all of my fellow Canadians.

  24. Wil,
    This is the first time I have read this story, which means I’ve probably been following your blog for just under a year. I got started following your writing thanks to your election as the Secretary of Geek Affairs. I went from being curious about what you were doing now (in a VH1 “whatever happened to” kind of way) to being a fan of your writing and performances on Leverage, BBT, and Memories of the Futurecast. Along the way, I’ve gained a lot of respect for the way you treat your wife and sons, your fans, and your career. This story crystallizes why that is perfectly.
    It is very hard to be honest about how juvenile or intolerable we were when we were younger. Most people I know either really enjoyed their teen years and seek to recapture their glory or they hated this period of their life and blame other people for making them miserable. The way you write about your adolescence is really quite remarkable to me because you relate your immaturity at face value and in doing so make it easier for your readers to do the same. Part of why I think your writing resonates (and why so many of your readers relate to your stories) is that your vulnerability allows the reader to lower some internal defenses and face themselves as they were more nakedly than usual. It’s not often I can learn more about myself from reading an autobiography.
    You’re an inspiring guy, Wil, and I think you would be even if you’d never been Wesley or Gordie. Thanks for sharing.

  25. A pleasure to read as always. I’ve been reading for nearly a year, found your site through Scott and Missy Myers respective blogs. I always look forward to a new post here.

  26. First, I been listening to the various podcasts and have read blogs on and off for a few years, next –
    (Putting on my best comic guy voice)
    “This post is OK, HOWEVER it pales in comparison to having the author READ the story story to you in his own voice, which of course I own, thank you very much!”
    That’s right folks, Wil reads this story in the Just a Geek Audiobook, look for JustAGeek_32_chp10_part3. I can’t say enough good things about the audio book. Also, you will get fun extras added by Wil with the audiobook not found in the dead tree version!
    Also, for the record, Wil, I love the audio books, and look forward to more of them. Keep on writing and reading what you write!

  27. Never commented before, but you and your brother’s TypePad are two of my faves and continue to be the reason I get little done before 11am each day. Despite lighting elderly relatives on fire, you guys must’ve had fun times growing up. Jeremy’s post on the death of Nicole Eggert (http://jeremywheaton.typepad.com/my-blog/2011/05/rip-nicole-eggert-with-video-goodness.html) is golden. Hope it’s ok to shout out your brother on your site!
    Keep up the good work.
    —Fred

  28. I’m relatively new and wait impatiently for every post. I think there are a lot of us “nerds” hiding in the normal world and it’s nice to find a champion :-)
    Cheers!

  29. Hi Wil,
    I’ve been reading your blog pretty regularly for a couple years, and I have a Twitter list of everyone who’s been involved with W00tstock, which is the only group of people I try to keep up with on Twitter. I also got to meet you briefly at the autograph table after the Seattle W00tstock last year, when I mentioned that I too had an Atari 400 for my first computer.
    When I became a petulant teenager, the Fourth wasn’t the big thing I missed, because it was never really a big deal to start with in my family. I think most people end up looking back at their teenage years and thinking, “Did I really miss out on time with my family because I wanted to go to that stupid [fill in the blank]?” Unfortunately, it’s something that can only be perceived in hindsight and trying to explain it to a teenager only makes you look like more of a lame-o (that’s what the kids say these days, isn’t it?) in their eyes.

  30. I’ve only recently started following your blog, so this was a first time read for me and I can imagine how you felt through your teenage years. I’ve had a number of things that I’ve done or said wrong and wished I could take them back, but I eventually learned that you only get one chance at anything, including life. And that’s what I get out of most of your blog posts, actually. Carpe Diem!

  31. Well, I hadn’t planned on commenting, but jeez, if Wil is going to be all grateful, I’ll jump on board. I think I might have read this the first time it was reposted- although it is hard to say. It was definitely before the “in exile” years- back when I was a wide-eyed college kid. I’ll add a notification to my calendar for next year so I’m not late to the party. Happy 4th!

  32. Hi there, Wil. I’m a new(ish) reader and I’ve had a great time lately digging through your old archives. What a lovely writer you are! Such talent.
    This is my first time reading this story and like so many others, I can tell similar stories about youthful mistakes. Part of me thinks that there is not enough of anything in the world to make me relive my teenage years. But I think, no I *know*, that I wouldn’t be where I am and who I am without those experiences. And here is good. I just hope that someday I will be able to look back on a few of those most painful moments without cringing quite as hard as I still do.
    I hope you and your family had a wonderful 4th this year with nary a firework mishap. :)

  33. Thank you for sharing that story – I think it’s great that you’re making the telling of this story a tradition unto itself.
    I’m a relatively new reader and I don’t generally post comments for fear of embarrassing myself, but I enjoy your posts very much and I hope you never get tired or writing.

  34. I think I’ve read or listened to this story before. Did you read it on Radio Free Burrito maybe? Anyway, this is my first comment but I’ve been reading for probably about a year. I haven’t commented before because I figure you know how much we all love you, but I should have done before now. Thanks for everything you do. I really appreciate it.

  35. Great story! My hubby had a similar fireworks experience, except he was 33 when it happened. I think he learned his lesson about setting firworks off on a hill when your audience is downhill from you. This was before I met him – may have changed my mind about our future had I witnessed it myself.
    Happy belated 4th!

  36. Hi Wil. :) I’ve been reading your blog off and on for a long time and now have it on my feed so I won’t miss anything. I don’t know why I had the “off” times except to say that WoW and such were quite distracting for a while. ;) This is, however, my first time reading your 4th of July post.

  37. I recently found your blog (and tumblr thing). I try to keep up with the recent posts while catching up on the older stuff. I enjoy the blog so much that I bought some of your books for the Kindle. I really enjoy all of your writing, and have recommended you to friends.
    Also, just started watching Eureka, season 4.0. LOVE Dr. Parrish!

  38. First time reading this story, been roaming around the archives for awhile now. I love the way you tell a story and your obvious affection for your family.
    I can totally identify with the agonizingly embarrassing acts of adolescence and found this story quite touching after taking my son to see the fireworks for the first time yesterday. Now I’m psyched for him to get old enough to light up some groundflowers and see where it takes us:)

  39. This is my first time reading this story, although not the first time I’m reading your blog. I’m not on Twitter, but I do grab some Twitter feeds via my RSS, so I your blog posts when you tweet about them. Love your writing, Wil!

  40. This is my first time reading this story. I’ve been reading your blog, books, etc off and on for a couple of years now, but only since following you on twitter have I caught all of your blog posts. So thanks for linking to them whenever you post! And thanks for re-sharing this story.

  41. I’m a very new reader – primarily because I started re-watching ST:TNG the other day and following the tor.com re-watch, and thus remembering how much I loved it (I grew up watching it). And I was therefore talking to a friend about it who is a long-term follower of yours, and she mentioned your “Memories of the Future”, and so here I am… (I’ve also been trying to convince her to watch “Stand By Me”, which I saw for the first time, on TV, in primary school and everyone was talking about it the next day.)
    Anyway, great story! Reminds me of one Bonfire Night (5th Nov) when one of the fireworks went off sideways instead of up and hit the wall right between two of the audience at about shoulder height… Close call! I’m certainly glad they’re not illegal here, though. I love Guy Fawkes Night – fireworks for me will forever be associated with fallen leaves, the smell of damp earth in the dark, crisp cold air you can see your breath in, a huge crackling bonfire, and sparklers in gloved hands :). Quite different, I imagine, from the American associations with fireworks, which you have in the middle of the summer!
    Remember, remember, the 5th of November.

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