I did not see Katy Perry on the shelves at the fireworks store, and I was understandably disappointed.
Alexander pulled up outside my house in Portland an hour before he’d said he would and bounded up to the doorstep with Brent and his sister Olivia in tow. Once I’d let him in and we’d dispensed with the bro grabs, he stuck his hands in his pockets and said, “So, we’re gonna hit Voodoo Doughnuts and then head to Vancouver and buy some illegal fireworks. You in?”
As I mentioned, Alexander had arrived an hour early – but I should’ve been ready for this. Having known Alexander for ten years now I’ve become accustomed to his scattershot approach to punctuality: He may be there an hour early because he was bored, or three hours late because he forgot what day it was.
But I wasn’t ready, meaning I hadn’t had a chance to shower or change out of yesterday’s clothes. And normally I’m pretty stringent about being clean and shaven with my hair freshly gelled before I leave the house to go about any errands, but I figured that given the clientele at Voodoo Doughnuts and Washington parking lot fireworks markets I could probably go with a dead skunk tied around my neck and still be one of the classier people they’d seen that day.
Oregon law prohibits any firework that travels more than six feet along the ground or twelve inches into the air; these fireworks are commonly known as, “The Only Good Ones.” Thanks to this law, there are massive tents in supermarket parking lots in the early summer that only sell snakes, party poppers, and fifteen different varieties of sparklers. Those are inadequate supplies to celebrate the birthday of the country that invented injectable butter.
Fortunately, as far as fireworks are concerned, Washington is about as lawless and deregulated as Somalia or Wall Street, so any Oregonians looking to celebrate the Fourth the right way need only drive up to Vancouver and reap the harvest of lax pyrotechnic legislation.
We arrived at a fireworks tent literally within view of the Interstate Bridge and immediately deferred to Alexander to figure out which fireworks to buy. Alexander is in the Army; moreover, he’s a mortarman in the Army, so if anybody was going to be dictating the explosives with which we endangered our lives, it ought to be him.
Alexander strode through the tent with cold, ruthless efficiency, grabbing boxes of fireworks off the shelves and tossing them to me or Brent to carry while he sought out new purchases. I was struggling under an armload of buy one, get one free roman candles when Alexander came to a stop in front of a tall, flashy package with a cellophane window in the front showing off a twelve inch tall mortar tube.
‘THE DESTROYER’ was emblazoned across the front of the black package in the sort of big, macho letters that you could imagine smoking cigarettes in the bathroom during letter middle school and fucking other letters’ girlfriends when they were bored.
“Oh, yeah.” A passing salesman said when he saw Alexander standing, entranced, before the Destroyers. “That’s probably the best thing we’re selling. Loud as hell.”
Immediately, Alexander reached out and grabbed one of the boxes – which, I should add, were clearly labeled as costing $80 apiece – tucked it under his arm, and then grabbed a second Destroyer, presumably to keep the first company, before heading for the cashier.
“Wait, Alexander!” Brent caught up to him, looking incredulous. “Why the hell do you need two of those things? You realize you’re spending $160, right?”
Alexander shoved the Destroyers off to his sister and took Brent by the shoulders.
“Brent,” he said, emphatically. “The time for bullshit is over. I’m buying these.”
That night we were back in Oregon, way out in the boonies of Marion County where Alexander lived, with nearly $200 worth of very high profile contraband. As Alexander set up the mortar tube, I was worried.
Part of this is because I tend to get a little worried when anybody - especially Alexander – lights something filled with gunpowder on fire. I am convinced that if not for the Fourth of July and its penchant for putting high explosives in the hands of unlicensed and unsober people on a yearly basis, there would be probably twice as many Americans as there are today. The celebration of our country’s independence is also its primary method of population control.
And then there were the legal concerns. It’s illegal to smoke marijuana or drink before you’re 21, but the benefit of those illegal activities is that you can be discreet about them in order to avoid getting your shit arrested. Fireworks, by their very nature, are meant to be loud and draw attention – you can’t pull all the blinds and set off fireworks in the privacy of your own home; if you do, I imagine you’ll very quickly have bigger problems than police attention.
Alexander lit the fuse on the first charge and bounded away, throwing himself to the ground in an Army roll once he got to the minimum safe distance. I got behind Brent, crouched, and covered my ears.
The charge blasted out of the mortar with a thumping PHWOOMPH noise and sailed up into the sky, leaving a coiling trail of twinkling yellow sparks. Watching the small red orb sail upwards, I thought, Hey. This isn’t so bad. It doesn’t seem very dangerous, and I don’t think anybody’s going to call the poli-
And then the orb exploded into a thousand smaller ones, exactly like the professional grade fireworks you see on TV, with a blast so loud that it honestly felt like we were getting punched in the head by sound itself. The echoes of the explosion rumbled up and down the valley like thunderclaps until long after the sparks from the firework had died out.
Holy Christ. I thought. Somehow, we got a hold of the shit they set off at Disneyland. Every cop for 30 miles probably heard that. There’s no way we can set off another-
Alexander went barreling back to the mortar tube, hooting and laughing, and dropped in another charge. “Again! Again! FIRE IN THE HOLE!”
He lit the charge and we all took cover, knowing now just how insanely overpowered this firework was. Ears covered, eyes locked on the mortar, we watched as the flame burned its way up the fuse and into the tube.
And for four very long seconds, nothing happened.
Alexander stood up. “I think that one was a dud.”
And then, the firework exploded in the mortar tube.
You know what fireworks look like when they blow up? It was like this:
…only it was at ground level, 20 feet away from me.
Amid the shower of colorful sparks, I could just see Alexander diving face first onto the ground, head covered, before I did the same. Green streamers cut corkscrew patterns through the air mere feet above our heads. Fireballs landed on the green, mostly inflammable grass and smoldered out, contributing to a haze that filled the backyard.
I’ll be the first to admit it: I get pretty tired of fireworks shows pretty quick. Whenever we watch the Fourth of July display that they set off at Oaks Park, I usually get bored and want to go home about a minute into the 20 minute show.
The problem is that you’re dealing in an art form which consists of shooting shit into the sky and having it blow up into massive, colorful shrapnel. It’s very difficult to top that, short of having it happen again in a different color, and as a result it gets repetitive quick.
The excitement of buying one’s own fireworks, in my eyes, comes not from watching your purchase blow up in the sky, but rather the more ominous questions surrounding what you’re doing. Did those sparks just land on the neighbor’s roof? Did I just hear a siren? Is this going to be the last night of my life?
When I walk away from an evening of shooting off illegal fireworks, I’m just exhilarated to be alive, not in jail, and not rapidly trying to think up an excuse for why everything around me is on fire. Fireworks are like Tyler Durden in a cheap Chinese package – they’ll make you appreciate your life (and all ten of your fingers) damn quick.
After the charge exploded in the tube, we all got to our feet, miraculously unscathed, and went to examine the mortar. It was half burned to hell and we had to empty the old charge out of it, but it’d retained its shape just fine and still pointed straight upwards. This was evidently enough for Alexander.
“Again! Again!” He shouted, diving back into the box for a new charge. “FIRE IN THE HOLE!”
Truman Capps shouldn’t shit talk Alexander’s punctuality when he keeps updating late like this.