Lessons by Fireworks

The most disturbing sentences always seem to start with either “In Dallas today …” or “Studies have shown …”

Unfortunately, although it’s my favorite holiday, studies have in fact shown that the Fourth of July is the most dangerous of the year. But as potentially hazardous as the Fourth may seem today, it doesn’t compare to some of the reckless behavior deemed fairly normal when I was a kid.
The Independence Day that comes to mind was when I was around 9 or 10 years old. We’d moved into the TCU area, and old Mr. Johnson was our next-door neighbor. He was always fairly pleasant, until my dad discovered that part of his porte cochere encroached on our property and made him tear it down.
For the next couple of years, Mr. Johnson didn’t acknowledge us. He’d just stand in his front yard every day, stare straight ahead and water. If my dog and I happened to wander across his property, he’d spray the back of my shirt with a jet of cold water. Yeah, I pretty much hated him.
This particular Fourth of July started out fairly typical. My mother was fixing sandwiches, and we were planning on heading to the Boat Club on Eagle Mountain Lake later that afternoon.
In the meantime, I decided to hook up with some friends. We knew that the hub of early activity would be near the old Worth Hills golf course along Alton Road. That’s where some of the cooler older guys lived, and they always had all the neat fireworks, including cherry bombs. They weren’t legal even back then, but there was a little fireworks stand near Cleburne that sold them. Story was that the guy would sell to anyone with exact money. That’s because he had difficulty making change, being that he had already blown off all but two of his fingers.
But there was something even better than a cherry bomb on the market that year. It was the pinnacle, the zenith, the apogee of all fireworks — the M-80. This was no ordinary firecracker. It was originally made in the early 20th century by the military and contained anywhere from 3 to 5 grams of explosives.
I’ll try to put that into perspective. A regular Black Cat would blow a small Minute Maid orange juice can about 25 feet into the air. An M-80 could put a Folgers Coffee can in low earth orbit. Plus, they were waterproof. I guarantee you, within a minute of some kid discovering that, a toilet blew up somewhere. That idea was not lost on me, and I had the perfect toilet in mind — in the empty garage apartment on the back of Mr. Johnson’s property. Yep. It was payback time.
So I grabbed me one of those little red game changers and talked my good friend Rob Stow into helping me. It was pretty dark as we crept toward the bathroom. I lit the fuse, Rob popped the M-80 under the lid and we ran. After 20 seconds, nothing. We waited. Still nothing. So we trotted back in. To this day, I have never heard an explosion that loud. It’s a miracle that not one shard of porcelain touched us. But the contents of toilet covered us from head to toe. We should have flushed it first. But truth is, we deserved exactly what we got.
I can’t tell you how ridiculous Rob and I looked standing outside in front of half the neighborhood. And although I’d never seen my dad that upset, I could have sworn that old Mr. Johnson was doing his best to keep from laughing. We didn’t go to the Boat Club that night. But I did finally get to come out of my room some time in early August.
And when I got a little older, Mr. Johnson threw his arm around my shoulder and finally admitted that he often laughed himself to sleep thinking about Rob and me. He was really a good man. I think about him every Fourth of July. As for me, I learned a couple of valuable lessons that day.
1.) Just how dangerous explosives can be; and
2.) Exactly what it’s like when a certain substance hits the fan.