I was not, I hasten to point out, a latchkey kid. Those hadn’t been invented yet. I was one of the precursors of that exalted being: I was a kid who stayed at home while the grown-up worked. Not at all the same thing.
It was, you see, a simpler time. The concept of “childproofing” also was unknown. You let the kid grow up in the world and take his chances. If he’s stupid, he won’t live long enough to reproduce. They didn’t even hide the matches they used to light the gas stoves.
As it was, my grandma and I lived in a real small-town neighborhood, where everybody knew whose kids belonged to who; on a given summer day you could find eight or ten of us tearing up and down the line of backyards along Cooper Street, with no regard for age, rank, or property lines.
Except when it rained. Then, while Grandma put in her time at the Eagle’s Dime Store, I would, like as not, be trapped in the house for several hours. Alone. A nine-year-old boy.
There was a particular rainy afternoon not long after the Fourth of July (That was, by the way, one word: ForthaJuhly.) when it had been raining for days, and I was, being that nine-year-old boy, bored speechless.
I had exhausted the possibilities of rocking the big old cushion rocking chair till it fell over on its back so I could either roll out in a ball or lie there being an astronaut waiting for blast-off. Captain Ashby Ward on WBTW had shown all the cartoons he was going to show for the day. Even the cat didn’t want to play any more.
So I got out my GI Joes (the blond American one and the dark-haired, pinched-faced German; by a strange coincidence they both had the exact same scar on the exact same spot on their cheeks) and set about killing the enemy a few times.
A recap: I was a bored kid, alone in a house, in a time when matches were easily accessible by any kid who wandered by. And I add the following information: This was a state where the regulations involving fireworks sales pretty much reached, “You got to be eighteen ‘fore you can buy cherry bombs,” and then couldn’t figure out where to go from there.
Now, I don’t know where I got the idea to put a leftover ForthaJuhly firecracker together with a GI Joe, though I have to assume it was basic scientific curiosity. But, slowly, inexorably, the notion took hold and flourished in my fertile brain.
Of course, I didn’t rush ahead and tie a bunch of firecrackers around him and set them off in the living room floor. That could come later. First I had to prove the concept, which required a bit of pondering.
My initial vision (such as it was) was to see if I could blow Joe’s shirt off like I’d read about in World War II books. So I decided I should put the firecracker inside the shirt. But which shirt? The German GI Joe (Wehrmacht Josef?) was a limited edition, and I wasn’t sure I could get another, whereas the blond American was about as common as mosquitoes in the Low Country between DDT-spraying days. And that settled that. Joe American would willingly sacrifice himself in the interest of science. I opened his olive drab shirt, tucked in the firecracker, and closed it back up again, with the fuse sticking up out of his collar.
Believe it or not, I had a healthy respect (fear) of the explosive powers of a dime store firecracker. After all, my cousins who had taught me about the wonders of gunpowder had emphasized safety, saying, “Don’t hold it in your hand and light it, or you’ll blow your hand off!” as they tossed their lit cherry bombs away at the last minute. So I knew I didn’t want to get too close, what with the possibility of Real American Hero Shrapnel pegging me in the eye, even if all my fingers were intact.
Luckily, we had a metal student’s desk, the kind with a drop-leaf writing surface and, for storage space, a file cabinet above (with a raised lid) and a storage cabinet below, with an interior shelf and a handle in the door you had to turn just right to get it to latch shut.
But I wanted to put Joe in the cabinet, arranged in a suitably tragic pose, light the fuse, and close the door securely in time to back away to safety. And the fuse was way too short for that. The only recourse: lengthen the fuse. Obviously.
Grandma had a sewing machine, but the threads were obviously too fine to hold enough fire to set off the fuse. (Don’t ask me how I determined this. I just knew.) But there were some old rags that might just do the trick. I tore off some thin strips and set to work.
I tied one end of the best strip to the fuse on the firework, the fuse that lay right up against Joe’s face. I arranged Joe in a suitably tragic pose and stretched the cloth out to where it dangled over the interior shelf. I paused with match poised to strike fire to the great adventure.
Even now I like best the moment of anticipation just before the resolution, the moment Caesar murmured “The die is cast,” the moment just before the pitcher releases the fastball, that instant just as you’re dropping off to sleep. I find a stillness there, a tension between energies, a fulcrum whereon is balanced potentialities….
I lit the match, put it to the strip of cloth, let it catch fire, then closed and latched the cabinet door shut. I knew roughly (again, don’t ask me how I knew) how long it would take to burn to the fuse, so I scooted out of the blast radius and waited.
And waited long past when I thought I should have heard a desk-shattering ka-boom.
My young nose caught a whiff of some weird kind of smoky smell.
I calmly but quickly, in a blind panic, opened the cabinet door, and waved away the small cloud of foul smoke that sorta kinda billowed out in a puff.
A long line of greasy ash had formed on the cabinet shelf where the cloth had been, snaking right up Joe’s pants leg and across his shirt. Which had ignited. Without igniting the firecracker. There was a small but definite tongue of flame burning merrily along Joe’s collar, over and around the fuse, which – and I can’t stress this enough – still didn’t ignite.
I ran to the kitchen and filled a glass with water. I drank it. Then I filled it again and ran back to the bedroom, where I was able to douse the fire and rescue GI Joe from the eternal flames of hell.
His shirt had burned pretty much away, at least in the front, but the torso beneath had only suffered a little scorching. The burned shirt was bad, but not devastating. I could dispose of it without Grandma knowing anything was amiss.
But the face.
GI Joe had suffered second and third degree burns across the left side of his face. Since he was plastic, that meant brown blisters and peeled paint. And the smell: that acrid, nasty smell of burnt plastic. Which, on a rainy, humid day, was trapped in the house with a nine-year-old completely devoid of explanations.
The punishments would have been more severe and longer-lasting if I hadn’t ‘fessed up before Grandma had a chance to ask what the smell was. One of those punishments was that I had to keep my burned GI Joe so I could see what I’d done to him and think about the consequences of my actions. I was suitably mortified.
Until the other kids in the neighborhood decided the coolest GI Joe on the block was the one with the most battle scars. That’s right: the only best thing ever I had in my childhood was something I almost destroyed, more-or-less deliberately.
They just don’t make childhoods like that anymore.
Bill Mullis plays with metaphorical fire in the Upstate region of South Carolina, where it's still legal to buy fireworks year round, though now you have to be, chronologically, an adult. You can see what he's up to on the Captain's Log section at www.mindovermullis.com.
Image credit: blocksand3dpuzzlesblog.com