Oh, Shoot!

The Cast: Erich (participant of juvenile delinquencies), Myself (very juvenile & occasionally delinquent), Richard (shot in the face).

Looking back on the activities of my youth, and applying the ideologies of my adulthood, I sometimes wonder how I survived it. Like when your younger self buys illegal fireworks.

During the celebration of the 4th of July—and in Utah, the 24th of July—buying fireworks and using them was the thing every kid did. We—the children, mostly teenage boys—roamed about the city park like packs of starving wolves hunting for our next target. “Who’s blowing up what?” “Oooo. What’s that going to do?” “Wait… Where did you get that?” These are the questions asked. But it’s that last question that begins this story.

There was this pickup truck that would idle near the edge of the city park—the park where all the town’s residents would gather to celebrate America’s Independence Day—and sell, out of his window, whatever type of firework we wanted (legal or not). Oh, it was never anything too dangerous but we were always grateful for his willingness to support our explosive exuberance. Some of us would make purchases and make a stockpile for pranks to be played later on in the year, but most of us would use them up only moments after purchase. Always a pleasure to do business.

One late night (months after July) Erich, Richard and myself were just hanging out and walking about town and somehow we ended up at the high school tennis courts setting off a few illegal fireworks—thank you man in truck. If I recall, they were Richard’s.

Despite the inclination toward mild destructive behaviors we always strived to be thoughtful of others and their property. So when igniting small explosives and things that emit flames on our high school’s property we didn’t want to ruin anything. So we would use the poles that were designed to support the nets. Like for those flaming fireworks that spin in circles. We would mount them to the tops of the poles so the flames wouldn’t ruin the tennis court deck. Additionally, we would drop the occasional firecracker, black cat or mighty might down the pipe to watch and listen to the flash and retort. The explosion would be magnified and shoot out the top of the pipes. It was awesome. Once in a while we would drop a bottle rocket down the pipes, so that it would launch straight up—safety first—and explode out in the open night sky.

The now, not so defunct with a road and better lighting, Manti High School tennis courts.

We would do this sort of activity at the tennis courts for two reasons. The first, because there were no trees or power lines overhead. Second, and maybe more importantly, the tennis courts were out in the open and we could see any police officers approaching. Ya’ know… so we could run away.

“Alright, here goes another one.” As they were Richard’s bottle rockets he had the right to choose what to do with them and he was preparing to place another rocket down a pipe. Usually, one person would hold and another would light the fuse. Working in a team this way allowed less chance of messing up and hurting ourselves—we had learned this lesson long ago. If no one person has total control, everyone works together. I have taught my children this lesson: If you’re going to do something stupid, be safe about it.

Erich lit the fuse and Richard dropped the bottle rocket, I guarded the remaining fireworks and we all waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. And waited… A-and waited.

“Must be a dud.”

The secret to launching illegal fireworks in a small town and not getting caught is patience. Just sit back and enjoy the show. A part of that patience is safety. Rather than taking a risk to look down the pipe, or have the dud rocket get pulled, or pushed, out from another firework and hurt one of us, we moved to the far side of the court and another pipe to set off more fireworks. After a few hours, we were tired and had been pushing our luck at not getting caught. Time to pack up and head home.

As we prepared to go we wondered what to do about the dud rocket. Should we leave it? Try to get it out? Did it really matter at all?

Richard decided that he was going to have one last look-see down the pipe. What I saw next I will never forget. There are times that I will replay that memory in my mind just to laugh a little. I shall now endeavor to my best ability to aid you, dear reader, in visualizing what I beheld that summer night.

It needs to be understood that the dud rocket had been sitting for more than two hours. Possibly in water, debris, or other gunk, who knows? As I watched from the side, Richard leaned his face over the pipe, calmly and casually. Then his mouth opened up in a gasp of a nonverbal “OH S-H-O-O-O-T-T!!” while his eyelids peeled back and exposed the eyeballs that began to grow to twice the size of his head order to better see—and comprehend—what was about to occur: A rocket to the face. But wait… No… Richard has reflexes?!?

I was a witness to an event the likes of which have only ever been carefully choreographed on film with the aid of exceptional special effects artists, stuntmen, and trick photography. It was incredible. Just as the bottle rocket began to breach the mouth of the pipe and impact Richard’s face, Richard attempted to avoid losing an eye or part of his face and began to tilt his head backward in perfectly timed tandem as the rocket left the pipe. A sort of graceful ballet, starring Richard’s face and the rocket, entitled “Do you see what I see? Not for long.”

As Richard began to stumbled backwards onto his butt, the rocket continued upward, aligning—millimeters away—first with his forehead, then the bridge of his nose, then missing the tip of his nose by less than a quarter of an inch. Richard’s butt hit the ground, his mouth still agape, as the bottle rocket lifted up into the air and did what all boomy things are supposed to do: It went boom. About one foot above our heads.

As we began to walk home we pondered the close call—a very extreme understatement—of our friend Richard.

I always wondered if he wet himself. He never said, and it was too dark to see.

For those playing with fireworks this 4th of July, remember: If you’re going to do something stupid, be safe about it.

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