Tuesday, September 27, 2011

COLUMN: Fireworks


Part of the fun of having a regular newspaper column is that, for a few fleeting moments each week, I get to feel like a bonafide influential member of the counter-culture. If the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword, then so shall I wield it as a sounding board for America, having a laugh at The Man whilst righting the wrongs of societal oppression.

But Hunter S. Thompson I am not. I'm not a sounding board for the counter-culture. I'm just a pudgy 40-year-old guy who likes to write about laundry and cats. Truth is, I don't really have a rebellious bone in my body. I've never been in real trouble with Johnny Law and I've never stuck it to The Man.

In fact, my entire criminal record (other than a speeding ticket or two) can be summed up on two fingers:

(1) Galesburg, 1987. Me and my friend Will were cruising the strip in my car on a Saturday night when we spotted a friend of ours pass us in the other direction. We decided to turn around to catch up, so I hooked a right into the nearest driveway. That driveway just happened to be Galesburg's largest downtown cemetery. The little paved drive was too narrow for a quick turnaround, so as I struggled to find a route out, I didn't even notice the three police cruisers that quickly peeled up to block our exit. It turned out the cemetery gate we turned into was supposed to be closed at night, so the police were rather concerned to find it open, let alone us toodling about inside. Unbeknownst to us, the cemetery had recently been hit with a plague of vandalism, so the cops naturally assumed we were up to no good. Thankfully, my friend Will set them straight:

Cop: What are you boys doing in here?
Friend Will: Umm... looking for a friend.
Cop: And is your friend dead?

Eventually, we got out of there with a warning, but if any graves were discovered vandalized come morning, they'd be paying us a visit. When I told my dad what had happened, we had to restrain him from jumping into the car and keeping armed watch over the broken cemetery gate for the rest of the night. Luckily, everything must have been A-OK, because we never heard back.

(2) In college, I was in a fraternity. A part of me would like to think this was because I was a fun and hedonistic party animal. Truth be told, I'm pretty sure I only got in because I was THE only skilled DJ on campus and they needed free labor. While my buddies would do what you'd expect them to do at frat parties, I'd be the sober dude in the kitchen, playing records on a ramshackle sound system hooked up to the real party happening two rooms away. It was a glamorous job.

Well, flash forward a few years after graduation, and I got an urgent call from the then-president of my frat. They had a party scheduled that night and their DJ had just called in sick. Even though I was an alumni, they knew I still lived in town and convinced me to come lend a hand. As I walked into the house, a couple kids were walking out. They told me they were from out-of-town visiting friends on campus and asked me how to get to Taco Bell. Despite balancing a couple crates of records and nearly throwing my back out, I stood there and gave them directions.

It turns out they weren't from out of town. They were undercover police. Ten minutes after I started playing music, the house was full-on raided by a dozen or so uniformed officers. Worse yet, old alumni Shane turned out to be the only one of legal drinking age in the whole house. It was NOT my best moment. Happily, a VERY lenient judge threw out most of the charges and to this day, the only real blight on my record is a $50 fine paid for "Frequenting An Unlicensed Liquor Establishment." Moral of the story: When a house full of drunken college kids asks you to DJ? Don't.

So that's it. Those are my only times running afoul of authority. Not exactly the kind of savory rap sheet that one wants from one's underground folk hero. I suppose I could play it off like those were the only times I've been CAUGHT, but truth be told, I'm a relatively boring, law-abiding citizen. But come every 4th of July, I can't help but think about one instance when I operated a tad bit outside the rules.

I speak, of course, about the hypothetical time a decade or so ago that me and hypothetical Friend Jason might have hypothetically purchased some hypothetical fireworks in Wisconsin and brought them back across the border. In the grand pantheon of criminal masterplans, this was NOT a genius move.

For starters, when one makes the conscious decision to brazenly break the law, one should probably pick a law that doesn't involve launching illuminated signal flares into the night sky. You can't exactly shoot off fireworks stealthily. It's pretty much a homing beacon that says, "Attention law enforcement! We are doing something naughty. For your ease in arresting us, we provide a convenient trail of light and smoke."

For another, we hadn't exactly thought the plan through. At that point in our lives, both of us lived in apartments. How, exactly, would we find a locale suitable for sending explosives into the night sky?

Which is why, on that hypothetical night, we ended up on an isolated gravel road some ten miles south of town in an area so pitch-black you could barely see the fuses to light them. In the event that we DID end up blowing off a finger, we had NO CLUE where the nearest hospital was, let alone the nearest town.

And we darn near ended up needing one. Amongst our hypothetical contraband was a small disc with a fuse. Like I said, it was way too dark to see any instructions, so like the nimrods that we were, we just set it down and lit the fuse to see what would happen. Answer: the disc shot up about five feet in the air like a bounding mine, hovered, and then began violently shooting out wicked projectiles in all compass directions while we dove for our lives. Why would anyone invent such a nightmare and why did I buy it? Either (a) we set it up wrong, or (b) there's a Chinese plot afoot to kill and/or maim as many Westerners as possible.

Clearly, we were hypothetical IDIOTS, and had we not run from that death contraption like ninnies, we'd be missing eyes to this day. Don't follow in our footsteps. We could have hurt ourselves, or worse yet, set some poor farmer's fields ablaze. There are people out there kooky enough to become licensed at handling fireworks, so let them run the risk of losing a finger or two. Of course, I offer this warning several days AFTER your 4th of July celebrations, so it's probably too late. But that's just the kind of rebel I am, I guess.

1 comment:

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