My father spent most of my childhood making poor decisions when it came to textbook parenting, but the worst of those decisions had to be the day he came home from work beaming from ear to ear, with a five-gallon drum of pure, black gunpowder in his mitts.
His plan, which seemed brilliant at the time, not only to him, but also his three young sons, was to save oodles of money every Fourth of July by making his very own homemade fireworks.
I guess the countless strings of 200-count firecrackers he'd light with the ever-present Pall Mall dangling from his mouth, and toss in the yard, the trashcan, or out the car window (or wherever he felt needed the snap, crackle and pop of an instant pyrotechnics display) wasn’t enough to satiate his destructive desire. Apparently, the only way to truly fulfill his lust for high explosives was to create his own.
He never really told me or my brothers where he got the gunpowder, or for that matter, the large coil of what must have been about 100-feet of fuse and a huge bag full of thick cardboard tubes about the size of toilet paper rolls. He only told us that if ever caught any of us messing with any of it, he would “break off every one of our Goddamned fingers!”
My brothers and I had heard that threat from our father about a million times before, and yet, there we stood in the doorway of the garage, all ten digits in tact – not a one of them broken or missing as we gazed with lustful eyes at the bucket of mayhem my father was trying to put up out of our reach.
Why my dad thought a 6-foot shelf above the toolbox was “safely out of reach” from three young, limber lads like his sons was anybody’s guess, so the very next morning, when he was safely away at work, the three of us ambled into the garage to begin exploring our good fortune.
“Go get the stepladder so I can get this stuff down.” I told my brother Lance.
Within minutes, we’d worked out a very intricate assembly line from the garage floor to the shelf of high explosives. First, I handed the bag of cardboard tubes and the coiled fuse to Lance, who then handed it to my youngest brother Duke, who began to systematically sort out the tubes by size on my dad’s work bench. The five-gallon drum of gunpowder presented a bit more of a problem because it was quite heavy.
“I can’t get this thing down Lance – what are we gonna do?”
My brother Lance, although three years younger, was far more brilliant than I was, especially when it pertained to anything horrifically stupid or potentially life threatening.
“I think we’re going to have to be patient.” He said. Which seemed like a pretty cool-headed thing for 10-year-old to say.
“We gotta let the old man make the first move.” He continued. “Dad knows were dying to get into that stuff, so we gotta trick him and make him think we don’t care. Sooner or later he’s gonna bring that drum of gunpowder down off that shelf, and he ain’t gonna want to put it back up there over and over again.”
Lance smiled. I smiled too.
He was right. We couldn’t do anything until our old man made the first move. He’d know for sure we were messing with his gunpowder if we dipped into it before he did. We had to let him have his fun first, maybe take the level of the gunpowder down an inch or two before we started screwing around with it.
As luck would have it, we didn’t have to wait long. That afternoon, the old man got home from work about two hours earlier than normal. His eagerness to start blowing up everything in site was so strong he’d skipped his usual routine of stopping at the bar after work until it was time for dinner.
This surprised all of us, but mostly my mother, who was none too pleased to see his rusty old Cadillac pulling in the driveway at 4 o’clock. She didn’t mind his forays at the bar after work because she didn’t mind anything that kept him out of the house. But she didn’t have to worry, at least not this day, because my old man headed straight for the garage when he got home. He didn’t even stop in the house to grab a beer or use the bathroom; he just parked his car in the driveway and raced into the garage with a focused gleam in his eye that can only be described as maniacal.
My brothers and I quietly followed. He didn’t seem to mind as long as we kept our mouths shut and stayed out of his way. Once inside the garage, he pulled off his necktie and threw it on the floor. Then he rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
I looked over at Lance and nodded. He looked back at me and winked. We both knew why we were there - it was a recon mission and nothing more. We needed to take mental notes as our old man toiled with the step-by-step process of making high explosives. My brother Duke took it one step further - he’d brought a note pad and a pencil in case our mental notes failed.
We knew from previous experience that our father wasn’t exactly the type to do anything by the book, so we had to be sharp and only focus on the steps that might actually produce a positive result.
The first thing we noted was it was probably in our old man’s best interest, and ours, that maybe he should think about taking the fully-lit Pall Mall out of his mouth before he started playing around with a 5-gallon drum of black gun powder. Since I was his oldest son, it was always my job to try and talk some common sense into him.
“Hey Dad, you think maybe you should put out your cigarette? … you know, just in case Mom walks out here or something.” (I wasn’t stupid. I knew he’d be pissed off at me if I pointed out something that obvious, so I used the threat of my mother laying into him as my safety net).
My dad glared at me, but didn’t say a word. Instead, he slowly took the Pall Mall from between his lips and flicked it on the garage floor before turning back to his task at hand. First, he pulled down the bag of coiled fuse and cardboard tubes and poured them all helter skelter on his workbench. The scattered tubes made my brother Duke cringe. All his hard sorting work had been laid to waste in a matter of a few careless seconds. The 5-gallon drum of gunpowder proved a bigger challenge. The old man grunted and groaned as he pulled it off the shelf, being careful not to spill any of it as he tried to get it down.
It was then that I looked down at his still smoldering Pall Mall on the floor of the garage and suddenly I pictured a cartoon scene where my old man would tip the drum and spill a trail of gunpowder all over the floor. His not-quite-dead cigarette would ignite the trail of gunpowder until it reached the 5-gallon drum still in his hands and then … KABOOM!! After the explosion we’d all be standing in the burned out frame of what used to be our garage, with our faces charred and black and our hair smoking.
Funny as it seemed in my head, I knew reality may not be as kind, so as my dad struggled with the drum of gunpowder, I casually walked over to his Pall Mall and smooshed it into the floor with my shoe, just to be safe.
Before long, he had wrestled his black bounty off the shelf and onto the picnic table in the middle of the garage. Now it was time to get down to business. Like magic, the old man produced a pair of wire snips seemingly out of nowhere. With incredible precision and seamless effort, the likes we’d never seen from him before, he quickly snipped off a three inch fuse for his first homemade explosive.
Next, he took a small awl from his toolbox and punched a neat, little hole in one of the cardboard tubes where he placed the fuse. He then took a block of wax and walked out of the garage away from the gunpowder. He pulled out his lighter and carefully melted a small bit of the wax onto the hole in the tube where he'd inserted the fuse. My brothers and I both noted that this step was very important, because if done out of sequence, or in the proximity of any stray gunpowder, the consequences might cost us a finger or two.
My old man then reached into the bucket of gunpowder and produced a scooper and a funnel. "How clever." I thought to myself as I watched him proceed to fill the open end of the cardboard tube (the tubes came with one closed end) with the gunpowder. He added a little at a time, making sure to pack it in nice and tight with his finger. This, we figured, was another very important step, one that guaranteed he could get as much gunpowder into the tube as possible to create a more dynamic explosion. When my old man seemed satisfied that he had crammed enough gunpowder into the tube, he placed a cardboard plug in the open end and smacked it into place with a rubber mallet.
Over the years we’d seen the old man blow up all kinds of firecrackers and even fireworks, but we’d never seen him look as proud as he did at that moment. I think his eyes even began to tear up as he gazed at his creation. He called it his "M1000" which I guess was about right since it was roughly 20 times the size of the M80’s he routinely brought home from work.
The only thing left to do now was try it out. He shoved his way past the three of us and walked into the back yard. Deep down we knew the reason our dad didn’t mind us watching him make the explosive in the garage was because he wanted an audience around when he was ready to blow something up, and we were always more than eager to watch our old man destroy things - intentional or not.
The old man scanned the back yard looking for the perfect place to detonate homemade explosive #0001, as he pulled a fresh Pall Mall out of the pack of smokes he kept in the breast pocket of his work shirt and lit it up.
As potential detonation sites went, our backyard didn’t offer much aside from our above-ground swimming pool, a swing set and a sand box. We knew, or at least we hoped, that these things were off limits, but you never knew with my dad. He went crazy one year at my grandpa’s house with a bag full of M80’s on the Fourth of July - pretty much made a 72-hole golf course out of Grandpa’s property that day. Nothing was off limits. He was throwing them everywhere - the fruit orchard, Grandpa's pond, even Grandpa's swimming pool. My grandpa got super pissed at my dad that day, but not as pissed as my mom would be if the old man blew up our swing set!
My brothers and I quietly trailed behind him as he looked for the perfect spot. We got a little nervous when he paused near the swing set, but he kept moving further out into the yard until he neared our property line.
We weren’t sure what the attraction was where he stopped because there was nothing there except a stand of old maple and pear trees. Slowly, he wheeled around to see where we were. The old man had a glint in his eye when he turned to find us - a madness really, the kind of look that let us know it was about to be "show time." He motioned for us to back up, which we did, but not much. Then he pulled the toilet paper-sized tube of homemade dynamite from his front pants pocket and placed it in the crotch of an old pear tree.
I looked at Lance, puzzled. He shrugged his shoulders, equally puzzled.
“What is he doing?” I asked him under my breath.
“I guess he’s going to try to blow up that tree.” Lance answered.
“That branch is a foot in diameter. " I said. "There’s no way in hell he'll be able to …”
Before I could finish my sentence, the old man lit the fuse on his cardboard bomb and hustled away from the tree in our direction. His run from a pending explosion was almost as enjoyable to watch as the explosion itself. It was truly his, and his alone. A strange gait that was half squat, half shuffle, always executed with his head sunk deep into his shoulders and a shit-eatin’ grin on his face. Sometimes he'd put his hands over his ears - sometimes he wouldn't.
Like a countdown to a rocket launch, we waited with equal parts excitement and anticipation. Within seconds, the fuse disappeared into the cardboard tube, and for one brief moment we thought it was a dud, but then a brilliant flash enveloped the back yard, followed a second later by the loudest sound I’d ever heard in my short life. In that moment of brevity my brothers and I were rendered blind, deaf and dumb. Soon, our sight would be restored by normal light levels. Our hearing also returned, albeit, accompanied by a permanent ringing ... but none of us could speak. We just stood there with our jaws hanging open until the silence was broken by the sound of my mother’s voice screaming from the kitchen.
“WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT???”
There was no hiding from this one. The smell of sulfur hung heavy in the air as we waited for the smoke to clear. My mother was now standing in the yard with us demanding answers from the old man, but he looked at her as if he was just as surprised as she was by the recent string of events in our back yard. Our father was the worst liar in the world, or at least in the family. My mom turned to her three sons looking for an explanation. That proved equally useless. We just stood there shrugging our shoulders as if we had no clue why we suddenly found ourselves partially deaf.
When the smoke in the back yard finally cleared, it was hard not to notice that a giant pear tree limb, oddly enough, about a foot in diameter, lay fatally wounded about 20-feet from its original location. My mother caught site of the dismembered tree, and smoke once again reappeared, only this time it was rolling out from underneath her collar.“Goddammit Tom, what the hell did you do you?”