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 wasn´t sure, if I should comment. After all, there are so many comments already, but I´m following your blog for a few month now and I think it´s time to tell you, how much I enjoy your writing. That´s why I begged my friends to give me your books as a birthday present. Can´t wait to know which ones I get ;)
    Your way of telling a story, written, spoken or acted is awesome. It´s easy to just fall into your words and forget, that I´m reading or listening and just “see” what you´re telling, if you know what I mean.
    To the story:
    At first I sat here, thinking: yay, he is allowed to do that and it means so much for him. So I was happy for 14 yrs. old Wil.
    And than I thought: oh no, how embarrassing and how aweful and oh no, that can´t be happening.
    It´s easy to empathise, not just because I´m sure everyone has similar experiences, but also because your stories are lively and vivid (<= I´m not exactly sure, which meaning is the right one). So instead of not commenting… I wrote a hymn about your writing ^^

  2. Another long-time admirer (from a long, long shy distance) and new reader, one who didn’t have time yesterday to read or even see the request to comment. Sorry . . . I’ll go be shy some more now.

  3. Hi Will.
    Is it a universal constant, obsessing over stuff we did when we were kids? Reminding myself I’m (the Star Trek age) 47 years old now fer chrissake just mostly reminds me how long I’m still holding on to things. How sometimes you still feel the same as when you were a kid.
    But I liked the story that took me in so many different emotional directions in such a short space. See, as ugly as that felt at the time it HAD to happen exactly that way so you could grow up and share it with the rest of us who could be – I don’t want to say “entertained”, so let me say – charmed by it. And more importantly to have that moment with your stepson on the roof.
    I’m writing this comment because you asked. I’ve reluctantly allowed TypePad to link to my Facebook account and maybe do all kinds of nasty stuff, just so I could post this. It’s a privilege Typepad! Don’t fuck it up!
    I’m only new to reading your blog and your Tumblr posts. It’s been a few weeks and I’m still here because I enjoy them.

  4. I’ve been reading for a while, but couldn’t comment as requested in a timely manner due to spotty access over the holiday.
    Terrific story, and as others have commented, it is great reading your posts. Thank you very much.

  5. I’ve also just started reading your blog this year, so this is a first for me to read this story as well.
    Reading your blog, it’s been a great treat to see the real person behind the kid I’d had a crush on when I was a kid – yes, ever since Stand By Me. I think I like you even better now.
    and, while I’m here, just have to say, that episode of Criminal Minds – I had to watch it twice because I didn’t recognize you at all the first time. Good thing it was a great episode, eh?
    [ETA] BTW, thanks to your brother, I now want to raise chickens just so I too can have an “Attila the Hen” – love that name!

  6. Kind of long time follower (similar in age, watched my share of TNG, read one of your books…in paper!, etc.) but had lost touch with your blog until recently when I came across something online & dropped you into my google reader. Good stuff as always, keep it up!

  7. This is my first time to have read this story, but only because I haven’t gotten to 2002 reading WWdN’s archives (yes I’ve been periodically reading through those as well). I think we all have our own stories of a failed attempt at coming of age, thank you for sharing yours!
    I thoroughly enjoy what you write, keep up the good work!

  8. Jumping on the lemming wagon – I am also a fairly new reader. Over the last month I have been happily catching up on blog bits and pod casts and thoroughly enjoying the familiar universe of,”just this guy, you know?” Thank you for helping pass the monotony of the IT day and I am quite looking forward to reading the books when they are delivered ;)
    one question…. when are you going to get back to RFB? My lobes are due another knockin’. wait… that sounded different in my head.

  9. That was a great story, and I’ve read it a few times, but it never gets old. I’ve been following your blog for so many years I’ve lost count. I love it when something new is posted, because it either moves my soul, or teaches me something new, or just makes me laugh! Thanks Wil!

  10. I started reading your blog about a month ago. Honestly, I came across it after reading Time magazine’s article of 140 people to follow on Twitter. I’m a Facebooker, not a Twitterer, so I was looking to beef up my FB with fresh and interesting people. Now I keep your blog up as one of my always open browser tabs so I can check everyday for new postings. We’re similar in age (I’ve got about 5 yrs on you) and I delight in your point of view on life. Thanks for sharing your world with us!
    I particularly love “The Value of a Quarter”. You took me straight back to high school with that.

  11. I am a fan of Star Trek and had wondered what happened to you – so it’s cool to read your blog and check out some of the stuff you’re doing. :) I am a new-ish reader. I have never read this story – and it was a really good one. It reminded me that we all have embarrassing moments in our past that we wish hadn’t happened or we could rewind and do them again differently. And, as a parent of 3 small kids, I particularly loved the last line of the story!

  12. I’m a fairly new reader. I started reading your blog to keep up my geek cred in my household. I stayed to read more because you’re an awesome writer.

  13. Great story Wil and excellently told.
    This is my first time reading your blog. I have been meaning to check it out for quite some time having heard many good things about your writing/tweeting/general outlook on life. I have only made it as far as this post and the excellent anecdotes about your relationship with Jonathan Frakes so far but I have enjoyed what I’ve read.
    I will certainly be making my way through the archives to help pass the time before TNG becomes available on Netflix Canada!

  14. Sorry I am late to the party about this post. I just started reading your blog last year after seeing you in the Guild and BBT. Being we are both from Pasadena and about the same age I was glad to see you are doing well after all these years. Keep up the good work!

  15. Great story, Wil. The last time I participated in an illegal neighborhood fireworks show, I spent so much time lighting the damn things, I missed the show. Never again.
    I’m neither a long-time nor recent reader; I fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, but this will be my first post as you ASKED us to leave a comment. As a fan of STTNG, when I read your blog, I can absolutely hear your voice speaking the words. Lovely, just lovely… even when you cuss up a blue streak (like in the purr of the jaguar post), I just get a kick out of hearing you speak inside my head.
    Six fucking o fucking clock in the fucking morning. (It’s just not the same in my voice, and “fuck” is one of my favorite words; ah, well.)

  16. Hey Wil! I’m one of the new readers. I stumbled upon your blog 2 weeks ago and I’m really happy about it. I love the way you tell your stories. Dude, you’re an amazing writer and I couldn’t have imagined that i like Wil Wheaton, the Writer, more than Wil Wheaton, the Actor, when I was little and had a crush on you.
    Greetings from Austria

  17. I recently started following you, after finding you on Twitter, oh, and The Bloggess. :)
    I love this post for all the reasons others have already stated. It’s about that in-between-ness of the teen years, the reflection of adulthood/parenthood. It’s just beautiful, Wil.
    Thanks for sharing, and making me feel less like a weirdo because I think about these things, too. (Even more so now that I’m a parent.)

  18. Actually, how I came to follow your blog is kind of a funny story.
    First, I should mention I’m a big geek, and have been familiar with your work since I was a kid. As an avid D&D player I knew you were involved in the nerd community to one degree or another, and my gaming group from Portland, Ore told me how great you were at Wootstock, then PAX, etc. Although I had never seen you perform.
    I then moved to Southern California, took a hiatus from gaming and any thoughts of Wootstock or gaming became parts of my past. Until I got a new job, and met some fellow nerds in need of a DM.
    As I have learned, it is better to get to know the people you are going to game with prior to starting a new game, so my girlfriend and I decided to meet with the husband and wife whom I would be gaming with at the Pasadena Wine Festival last year. Ever since moving to LA I had wanted to hit the Grilled Cheese Truck, so my coworker’s husband and I started the hour or so wait to get a grilled cheese.
    While in line, I could not stop looking at this guy a couple people ahead of me who was speaking to his significant other, occasionally looking back at me. I didn’t want to be rude, so I turned to my friend and said, “Hey, that guy looks just like Wil Wheaton.” To which my friend laughed and replied, “Jeff, That is Wil Wheaton.”
    At the time I was much more of a casual fan, and I had resolved not to freak out around stars when I moved to LA, so I decided not to say anything at the time. However, I did start reading your blog religiously the very next day.
    The four of us that met that day at the Pasadena Wine Festival later went to the Wil Wheaton vs. Paul & Storm in LA, and we still game together. I still get a hard time for not accurately identifying you, but it is one of my favorite experiences and stories I have had since moving to Los Angeles.
    The next time I see you in line at the Grilled Cheese Truck I will introduce myself, thank you for all you’ve done for geekery, and then apologize for breaking my Fanboy rule.

  19. This was my second Whil Wheaton read. The first was, of course, the one about cat poop. :-) However, I really enjoyed the Fireworks story. Very nicely written.

  20. I’ve more recently, say, in the past year, started reading your blog. I also started listening to Radio Free Burrito in this time as well. This story was pretty awesome, and it’s the first time I’ve seen it!!!
    I really enjoy your writing/ranting, as they often sound like things I think, so thanks for putting voices to your thoughts. :D

  21. I did stuff like this growing up. I would get excited about something then manage to somehow mess it up, and make a complete ass out of myself.
    Those experiences tend to never leave your brain, and come up way to often. Like your brain thinks you constantly need to be reminded of the lesson, “Hey don’t try to set old people on fire”, or “Don’t use the parallel bars because you damn well know your not coordinated enough to pull off a spin, and you’ll fall on your head in front of everyone so they can snicker at you again.”
    Gee thanks brain…
    I am a semi-new reader, but a permanent one for sure. Funny you mentioned Foundation, Im starting to read the series. Although I am 28 now and super disappointed no one showed me Asimov when I was younger.

  22. Actually, how I came to follow your blog is kind of a funny story.
    First, I should mention I’m a big geek, and have been familiar with your work since I was a kid. As an avid D&D player I knew you were involved in the nerd community to one degree or another, and my gaming group from Portland, Ore told me how great you were at Wootstock, then PAX, etc. Although I had never seen you perform.
    I then moved to Southern California, took a hiatus from gaming and any thoughts of Wootstock or gaming became parts of my past. Until I got a new job, and met some fellow nerds in need of a DM.
    As I have learned, it is better to get to know the people you are going to game with prior to starting a new game, so my girlfriend and I decided to meet with the husband and wife whom I would be gaming with at the Pasadena Wine Festival last year. Ever since moving to LA I had wanted to hit the Grilled Cheese Truck, so my coworker’s husband and I started the hour or so wait to get a grilled cheese.
    While in line, I could not stop looking at this guy a couple people ahead of me who was speaking to his significant other, occasionally looking back at me. I didn’t want to be rude, so I turned to my friend and said, Hey, that guy looks just like Wil Wheaton. To which my friend laughed and said, Jeff. That is Wil Wheaton.
    At the time I was much more of a casual fan, and I had resolved not to freak out around stars when I moved to LA, so I decided not to say anything at the time. However, I did start reading your blog religiously the very next day.
    The four of us that met that day at the Pasadena Wine Festival later went to the Wil Wheaton vs. Paul & Storm in LA, and we still game together. I still get a hard time for not accurately identifying you, but it is one of my favorite experiences and stories I have had since moving to Los Angeles.
    The next time I see you in line at the Grilled Cheese Truck I will introduce myself, thank you for all you’ve done for geekery, and then apologize for breaking my Fanboy rule.

  23. I am so slow to the party sometimes.
    This isn’t my first time reading this story, but it’s still a good one. I really enjoyed it when you read it for RFB, since hearing you tell your stories puts so much more emotion into it. Reminds me of the year I first got to help light the fireworks, only in my case I ended up nearly lighting my thumb on fire and getting a nasty under the nail burn.
    I’ve been reading for a few years, but I’m the sort of person who always feels embarrassed when I post a comment, but still wanted to let you know I enjoy your writing.

  24. What a timeless story. My co-workers now think I have taken drugs and I can barely see I laughed so hard. I am brand new to your blog and am already a dedicated reader.

  25. Wil, per your request, this is the frist time I am reading this story, well at least hear. I have read it in “Just a Geeek” I believe.
    Great Story, which I’m sure a lot of people can relate to in some fashion or another, being so excited to do something, and in the height of the moment being so excited that you mess it up.

  26. I’m a sporadic reader but always enjoy coming here. After reading this post I remembered I had recorded Stand By Me off Danish television a while ago and spent a nice afternoon watching it again. Thanks Wil.
    -Stine.

  27. This is actually the second time I have read this story. I was to shy to post last year when it was the first time I was reading it. I have to say that it is a poignant the second time around as it was the first. Thank you so very much for allowing us to peek into your life.

  28. It’s been 9 years since it was originally published? I’ve been reading your blog in its various form since around then (former Soapbox member, I am), so I’ve read the story many times. I never remember it from year-to-year so it always feels like I’m reading it for the first time. I probably imagine it differently with each read. It’s a beautiful story. So vivid, so descriptive without adjective overkill, so full of emotion. I feel the story.
    In that 9 years your boys have become men and 15 years has become 24. Next Independence Day will mark 25 years since that fireworks display. Will you commemorate it?

  29. I am a long time reader. I have read this one before, but it was fun to read again. I like it as your July 4th tradition.

  30. This is my first time reading this story – relatively new reader (last six months). I totally get your attraction to fireworks, and the angsty reaction to being put down. I’d have so done the same thing. Even as an adult, I can recall myself reacting in similar fashions at that age … How much fun did we all miss because of our moodiness through those years?!
    Great story – it connected big time.

  31. By posting this bit of nostalgia first back in 2002, you helped in creating some of my own…to be realized 9 years later.
    This makes me all kinds of happy.
    I’m glad to be reading again. Although, it isn’t very practical of me to do it when I’m trying to beat insomnia at 2am.

  32. What strikes me most re-reading this now is that at the end you then said “my wife and her kids” while now you would only call them “my kids” (or more likely “my sons” as they aren’t kids anymore).
    Only if you’re at liberty to say, have they done something similarly stupid when they were that age? I don’t think there is anyone who hasn’t.

  33. I doubt you’re still paying attention to this, but nonetheless, since I liked the story so much I’ll respond to your request.
    First time reading this story. I can’t promise this is my first time reading your blog, but it’s definitely the first time I’ve read more than one entry.
    And thank you for posting it. I’m sure next year will be my 2nd time reading it.

  34. A little late, but this is the first time I’ve read this story. I’ve read the odd blog post of yours here and there since maybe about six months ago, and now I catch up with your blog on Google Reader – so I read it all, but spasmodically.

  35. Because you asked, I wanted to let you know that I am also a new reader. I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time, but only joined twitter within the last week, began following you, and thus discovered your blog and podcasts. I know I’m a little tardy to the party, but I’m delighted by your obvious talent and will definitely continue to work my way through the archives while waiting for a new post.
    This story was beyond cringe-worthy, btw, and now has me flashing back to several similarly painful incidents in my teen years. Thanks for that. :P

  36. Though I’m late, I thought I would add myself to the list of first-timers who thoroughly enjoyed thjis well-crafted story of a painful but poignant time in your life. I have subscribed and am excited to read more, having been a Twitter-follower for a couple of years. :)

  37. New reader. Loved the story. It’s the type of day you always hope to relive and come back the hero. You retold it so I could feel the pain of the day and the contentment found in later life.

  38. New reader here too! I have not written here before because my smartphone has taken a dislike to commenting on blogs. Ah well. My husband is a longstanding member of the geek departement, and spoke about you now and then. I, on the other hand, noticed you as EVIL Wheaton and had to start follow you to learn that you was not evil. B-)

  39. This is my first time. Meh, ok that sounds wrong, but it’s pretty much true.
    I dont generally read blogs, they’re usually either too voyeuristic, too much fluff or too specific topic oriented for my taste, but yours and Neil Gaiman’s I’ve found fascinating. There’s something pleasantly candid here that feels just insider enough to make me feel, I dunno, connected? without feeling like I’m in some stranger’s living room where I dont belong.
    Anyways, I appreciate it, thank you. I’m not sure how you managed to go from the kid on Star Trek, that I watched when I was a kid, to the strong voice you are in the geek culture today, but I’ve gotta say I’m impressed, and I’m glad that a chance encounter with Felicia Day at Gen Con (she asked me for my picture in my steampunk wheelchair, which was amazingly surreal and I’m certain I came across like an absolute dork) ended up with me tracking down your blog.

  40. I know I’m a month late in commenting. My only excuse is that I have a 4 yr old girl who has to have Avengers or Superfriends on the computer on the computer several hours a day. One thing I’ve learned upon becoming a parent is that to try to relive my childhood with her is no where near as fun and creating new experiences and traditions with her. I’m definitely not the same person now as I was then and my child is not me. I may introduce her to things (Superfriends) that I loved and if they take it’s good. We discover things together (Avengers) and it’s fantastic! I think you have created a wonderful new family tradition.

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