130. Water Was Running, Children Were Running

Chapter 130

That summer I went home to Boiling Springs, and Lee G. and I took jobs at Mr. T’s Fireworks -N- Peaches.  That previous sentence is uniquely Southern and probably benefits from a little background.

Spartanburg County, South Carolina in the mid-eighties produced more peaches annually than did all of Georgia, The Peach State.  Each summer kids flocked to the peach sheds for seasonal work picking and packing.  The county fair always featured an attempt to make the World’s largest peach something — cobbler, pie, sundae, meatloaf, something.  During the summer almost every interstate ramp in the Upstate sported a makeshift peach stand.  Freestones and clingstones — buy them by the bushel and get back on the road.

The other great interstate ramp industry in Spartanburg county was the fireworks stand.  South Carolinians held tightly to their God-given right to blow shit up, none more so than I.  My first savings account wasn’t for college but rather bottle rockets, demonstrating an early flair for finance that explains why you drive an Audi and I’m puttering around in a three-fendered Ford Pinto with a garbage bag for a passenger window.  There was no point in my childhood when I didn’t love fireworks.

I was well-versed in the classics: blowing up model airplanes; packing a Band-Aid can for extra percussion; bottle rocket fights.  But I was always on the hunt for new and improved ways to blow shit up.  I learned that Black Cat bottle rockets could be fired into the pond near my house, where they exploded underwater with a cartoony bloop.  At night I could see their underwater flash, too.  I was the asshole taping firecrackers to Frisbees and trying to light dozens of bottle rockets in a single pass.

Peaches and fireworks: Mr. T hit on the perfect Upstate exit ramp twofer.  His wife managed The Pantry, Boiling Springs’s only convenience store, and I think that it was through her that Lee G. lined up the jobs for us.  All I remember was that I had a job sitting all day in a trailer packed with explosives, and I could eat as many peaches as I wanted.  We could take 50 percent off fireworks, too.

Every week Mr. T, a tall, white, country boy with gray hair and thick glasses dropped by the trailer to drop off my paycheck, which he signed with a series of loops that looked like a child’s blueprint for a roller coaster.  “Fine, fine,” he’d say with his thick accent: fahn, fahn.  In all the weeks I worked for Mr. T this is the most he said to me.  Detailed discussions were handled by Mrs. T over to The Pantry.  Fahn, fahn.

Maybe the market was saturated, or maybe Mr. T’s sign wasn’t big enough or was on the wrong exit ramp, I don’t know.  Hours passed without a single customer opening the trailer door.  I started the gig intent on making every hour productive: straightening the merchandise, putting fresh peaches on top of the bags and bushels, running the carpet sweeper over the trailer’s dingy indoor/outdoor carpeting. There’s only so much busywork a guy can create, though.

I started bringing in my black book, writing and doodling while I listened to the radio Lee G. left behind the counter.  When I got bored with that I locked up the trailer and walked over to the nearby gas station for skin magazines.  Back behind Mr. T’s Fireworks -N- Peaches’ counter I’d treat my body like an empty salt shaker that must have a little left in it, safe in the knowledge that if anyone drifted into the trailer my roman candle was out of sight.

None of it mattered.  No matter how much I fucked off, each week Mr. T came in with his loopy-doo signature and his “fine fine” and paid me.

Siouxsie and the Banshees came to Charlotte that summer.  Unheard of — one of the Bromley Contingent just seventy miles up the highway.  There was no way Lee G. and I were going to miss that.  That evening after we hauled the peaches into the trailer and locked it up we jumped into his Toyota and hit the road.

He fumbled around in the carrying cases covering the back seat until he found the cassette he wanted.  “Have you heard this yet?” he asked, and he loaded the tape.  Bill Carter’s infectious opening riff to “Wild Blue Yonder” rattled the windows and the matter was settled: This was going to be a Screaming Blue Messiahs Gun Shy road trip.

That album was hot.  It went into my power rotation and stayed there until 1988’s “I Wanna be a Flintstone” cooled my Screaming Blue Messiahs flame.  I’ve thrown it on the turntable a few times in the last couple of years, but it hasn’t aged very well.

Anyway, we got to the venue and scored the prized chunk of general admission real estate: front row center.  Openers The Raunch Hands were touring behind their future cult classic Learn to Whap-A-Dang.  Their raw, punkabilly set counted among its highlights the legendary freakout “Thunderbird,” and that’s pretty much all I remember.  When they wrapped it up,  the roadies cleared away their 85 dollars worth of gear and set up for Siouxsie.  Her microphone waited directly in front of me, its head stained with red lipstick.

She came out in a sparkly pink jumpsuit like some kind of post-punk Julie Newmar, hair and makeup classic Siouxsie.  They opened with “Cities in the Dust,” and we danced and sweat and pogoed while Siouxsie and Budgie did their work, slinking around the stage looking sexy and mysterious, like blossoms plucked from a Hong Kong garden.  Between songs cries of “Fuck me, Siouxsie!” erupted from the crowd, and each time I looked around to make sure that they weren’t coming from me.

After the show we drove around Charlotte looking for a diner, and then we headed back to Boiling Springs.  It was 3 a.m. when we finally got back home, and Lee G. had to be at Mr. T’s Fireworks -N- Peaches at 7 a.m.  I slept the day away, dreaming of Siouxsie’s lipstick-smeared microphone.

I stepped into the trailer later that afternoon for my shift.  Lee G.’s head popped up from the counter and he took a moment to clear his cobwebs.  “What time is it?” he asked.

“Three,” I said.  He pulled a pillow from underneath the counter and stood up to leave.  “If you had a pillow why were you sleeping with your head just on the table?” I asked.

“I was, but Mr. T came in and he didn’t think that was fine, fine.”

I  laughed.

“And that’s not even the worst of it,” Lee G. said.  “Before that happened I was sleeping over there on the floor and I woke up surrounded by a family staring at me.  They looked about ready to poke me with a stick to see if I was dead.”

It rained that afternoon, so absolutely no one opened the trailer door.  I scribbled away in my black book and listened to the radio.  Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” came on and lightning struck nearby.  I wondered whether the wet trailer would explode like a Band-Aid can.  All of those brightly colored fireworks lining the shelves and tables; all of those years of bottle rocket fights and blowing shit up.  This might be my last summer in South Carolina, my last chance to do something big and gloriously stupid with Lee G.

On my way home I stopped at The Pantry for Coke and peanuts.  Southerners do some weird shit, but perhaps nothing stranger than dumping their peanuts into their Coke bottles.  Aside from ice, olives, unnaturally red cherries, and pearl onions we aren’t very accepting of solids floating around in our beverages.  I guess cereal belongs on that list, too, but there we flip the equation: cereal is a solid garnished with milk, no matter the ratio.  In that scenario we treat other liquids with the same disdain that we reserve for a potato chip floating around in the punch bowl: milk on cereal good, grape juice on cereal disgusting; olive in our cocktail, classy; peanuts in our Coke, white trash.  But it’s delicious, trust me, and if you decide to go for it be sure to pick up a glass bottle.

This has taken a left turn into Down Home Cocktails with Paula Deen, so I need to get back on topic.  Mrs. T was working the register, so while she rang up my peanuts and Coke I said, “Hey, we get a discount on fireworks at the stand, don’t we?”

“I don’t mind giving you a discount, but that friend of yours is already getting paid to sleep.”

“He’s been sick the last couple of days.  I should’ve covered for him,” I said.  It seemed more diplomatic and less career-shortening than, “Well, you’ve been paying me to stain your indoor/outdoor carpet.”

“You’re a good worker and we enjoy having you, but I don’t know about that Lee.  We might have to let him go,” Mrs. T said.  “Make sure you write down all the firecrackers you buy on your discount.”

“It was just one time.  He wasn’t feeling good.”

“We have to let one of you go at the end of the week anyway, darlin’.  There won’t be much business after the Fourth. ”  I had no interest in working at Mr. T’s Fireworks -N- Peaches without my buddy.  If he went, I went.

The planetary alignment of Independence Day, the end of our jobs, and one last glorious night of blowing shit up was too much to pass up.  We rounded up as many friends as we could think of who might have a couple of bucks and pooled all of our cash.  After our shifts in the trailer, we stashed bags of fireworks in my parents’ basement and got to work building a raft.  By Friday night the raft was done and 600 dollars worth of Roman candles, rockets, mortars, fountains, smoke bombs, pinwheels and firecrackers had amassed in the basement.

We loaded it all into the Quincymobile and drove over to the pond.  Lee G.’s father and two brothers were already sitting on the dock waiting for us.  We dropped the raft into the water carefully, ensuring that its deck remained dry.  While we waited for our fellow investors to arrive and for the sun to disappear, we piled the fireworks in the center of the raft.  We didn’t arrange them or even unwrap them, just built a colorful funeral pyre on our floating platform.

The end result looked like something that the Coyote assembled in hopes of destroying The Road Runner.  I never quite understood Wile E. Coyote’s WMD-style plans.  He was a super genius, after all.  Didn’t it ever cross his mind that by blowing up his adversary he would never achieve his end goal of roasted Road Runner served on a roulette wheel with poinsettia sauce?  Better to stick to the rocket skates and trompe l’oeil tunnels, my canine friend.

Before I go any further with this story I need to draw your attention to a couple of details:

  1. No alcohol or drugs were consumed during the planning or execution of this event.  What you’re reading is 100% organic stupidity.
  2. We soaked the fireworks and the deck of the raft in gasoline.

We set the raft adrift and goofed around with our friends while dusk settled into night.  The raft was in the middle of the pond now.  Lee G. and I cracked open a gross of bottle rockets and fired them one by one at the raft.  A bottle rocket is an imperfect ordnance, designed only to go in the general direction of “up” with nearly 90 degrees of variance in any other direction.  Minutes passed with neither of us scoring a bulls-eye, so the assembled ten or so guests picked up some rockets and started firing at the raft, too.

No luck.  The raft was safer from incoming fire than the good guy in an action movie.  We broke out the heavy artillery, the Roman candles, and though their fireballs traveled with much greater precision the raft now was beyond their range.

“We’re going to have to swim out there and light it,” I said.  Lee G. and I stripped down to our underwear and jumped off the dock.  We swam within five feet or so of the gas-soaked raft, each of us holding a book of matches over our heads while we side-stroked.  One by one we flicked the matches toward the raft, but they went out mid-air or fell short, hissing quickly to death in the darkened water.

And then one of us scored a hit. With the two of us flicking matches the math is similar to that of a firing squad with only one live rifle:  We’re either both guilty or both innocent, depending on one’s perspective.

The gasoline went up with a whoosh, shooting flames twenty feet into the air.  Within seconds the raft fired the first retaliatory bottle rockets straight at us.  “Dive!” I screamed, and immediately took my own advice.  Beneath the water’s surface the little rockets whizzed past like tracers, exploding loudly somewhere beneath me.  I swam deeper, trying to get out of range, the surface chaos a dull roar of screams, whistles, and explosions.  All the while bottle rockets sizzled past on all sides.

I turned my eyes toward the surface.  Above the water it was daylight now, but a multicolored, flashing daylight.  From my vantage point beneath the lake the whole thing was a muted light show, watery blobs of color pulsing and colliding.

I surfaced in a war zone.  The bangs and squeals were deafening. Fireballs and missiles flew in every direction.  On shore Lee G.’s father danced in the tall brush, silhouetted against the flames he was stomping out.  Bricks of firecrackers exploded, pitching bright, sparkling fountains off of the raft like disembodied limbs.  On shore people screamed, but from the middle of the pond I couldn’t differentiate between joy and terror.  Maybe they screamed both.

The whole thing may have taken five minutes.  When the last of the fireworks fizzled out and all that remained was the quietly burning raft I realized that I’d lost track of my buddy somewhere in the lake.  “Lee!” I screamed.

“What?” he said calmly, not three feet from me.

We looked at each other and laughed, both of us high on adrenaline and a little stunned by what we unleashed.  On Monday we’d both be unemployed, but right now we were nearly nude in the pond where we spent our summers swimming and fishing since we were middle schoolers.  We swam back to the dock together, through the drifting rockets and wads of burned paper, the detritus of a shared childhood that burned brightly but now lay spent everywhere but in our memories.  And that was fine, fine.

13 replies »

  1. Having felt slightly uneasy waving a sparkler around, I have to admire your ultra cool firework fandom. The display you created sounds amazing and terrifying.
    I’m not afraid of peaches though. I’d stop for some of those. Also…Siouxsie!


  2. I’m sure for at least a split second during the climax of this story you thought of the phrase, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” It was certainly one hell of a way to say goodbye to the summer job. And I must reiterate, that’s fine, fine.


  3. Growing up poor, pyromaniac, and male, this hits home for me. Scavenging unexploded fireworks from the streets on July 5th was a beloved tradition. Careful surgery of paper bindings yielded gunpowder and chemicals added for color. Firework packaging wrappers made excellent casing for our Frankenstein-ed ordinance.

    Our, “raft mission” was a scavenger hunt: matchbooks. Matchbooks were given freely by just about every store that sold cigarettes… even to juvenile delinquents. As July 4th approached, we had amassed a huge supply of matchbooks, and set to work: cutting off the tips, and depositing into a great mason jar.


    SPOILER ALERT: Not going to try for yourself? What would happen when lighting such a collection? Exploded vessel? Cratered ground? Three-alarm fire? We had to know.

    Would you have guessed a two-story pillar of fire?


    • I did not guess two-story pillar of fire! And yes, the July 5 walk was always essential. I’m surprised I never blew off a finger trying to light some of those short fuses.


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