This is one of the first pieces of narrative nonfiction I ever wrote. It was originally written and published on July 5, 2002.
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.
“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.