Red, White, and Blew

It is inadvisable to stick a firecracker in your mouth. Sure they look cool and taste great and once ignited can remove some of those annoying teeth that get in the way of cramming hot dogs and burgers down your throat at the neighborhood Fourth of July cookout. But when the top of your head comes off and your cheeks melt and your tongue burns like a viking funeral, you’ll wish you had exercised some caution.

According to the national anthem the bombs are supposed to be “bursting in air.” They are not supposed to be bursting under your foot, in your hand, on your head, up your ass, or any of the other creative ways people celebrate the birth of the nation. The ancient Chinese invented gunpowder accidentally while trying to develop an elixir for immortality as the story goes and, in a way, they succeeded brilliantly. There is no easier way to become eternal.

Americans know how to party because of one cherished rule, and that is the crazier the better. This code of debauchery is taken seriously. Much admired are the people who have the nerve to try and cheat death and when the grim reaper snags one in his bony claw, we understand that these are the stakes of the game.

Most Americans don’t receive formal pyrotechnics training. In fact, our experience with the use of explosives comes mostly from watching old roadrunner cartoons. From the great Wile E. Coyote we learn that there is no danger too great that can’t be eliminated by a trampoline. Horizontal or vertical, whether falling thousands of feet or rollerskating with a jet pack strapped to the shoulders, a trampoline can save you from almost anything.

Almost.

I was alarmed by the more spectacular stories of the weekend’s fireworks casualties. I could sympathize. I had been in those same situations before. At a party. The bonfire is raging. The burgers are almost cooked to perfection on the grill. The beer supply runs out. Natural to want to strap an Acme rocket to your back in order to get up to the gas station as quickly as possible to pick up a few cases. Much faster than a car, more fun, and you avoid having to round people up to shuffle their vehicles in the driveway because you got there early and parked too close to the house and now you’re all blocked in. Rockets, though, are notoriously hard to control. The angle of trajectory is difficult to calculate and landing is a bitch. It is easy to get impatient, but when even a cartoon coyote noted for his temerity is standing over you shaking his head, it has all gone way too far.

Call me primitive, but my reptilian brain stem tries to avoid explosions. They are generally detrimental to the cohesive properties of the human body. Sure everybody has something they wish they could change about themselves–more prominent nose, better muscle tone, less flab, stronger hairline–but fireworks tend to be indiscriminate.

“I wish there was some way I could be everywhere at once,” a woman said to me on an airplane recently, lamenting her hectic lifestyle. I told her what can’t be accomplished with some sensible scheduling is easily achieved with a pack of M-80s, a book of matches and a case of beer for anesthesia. Totally the wrong thing to say on a jumbo jet, as I found out. The woman switched seats, called the flight attendant over and had a hushed exchange. The flight crew kept a narrow surveillance on me for the rest of the trip.

We as a species seem to still have a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder from the Big Bang birth of the universe. I read a quote recently that said that people have a natural, temporal nostalgia for the decade they were born in. Quite right, I thought, but maybe it goes back much farther, and explosives, in some way, are meager attempts to enter from the nothingness in the beginning to the glorious cosmos that shattered into being directly after the magic alchemy.

I didn’t watch any fireworks this year. I was still somewhat haunted by a strange conversation I had with some random geek at a bar a few weeks ago. I don’t know how I got roped into it. It was obvious the guy was champing at the bit to bleed off some of his insanity. Somewhere in his mid to late sixties, he began by listing his putative accolades–a series of improbable achievements. Chief Operating Officer, Inventor, Naval Officer, Professor Emeritus, Explorer, Five-Star Chef, Criminal Profiler, titles that had no specifics to them whatsoever. He also went to Harvard.

“For lunch once?” I said.

“I’ve got the shirt to prove it.”

He went on to explain to me that there was this huge historical conspiracy theory that atom bombs were bad for people. Not so, said he. To support his theory he cited as evidence the fact that he had been to both Nagasaki and Hiroshima recently and was quite impressed at how magnificent the two cities are. Beautiful buildings, well-behaved children and some of the best water he had ever tasted. As far as he knew, no residual radiation.

“Do you suggest dropping one on say, Detroit?” I offered. “They could use a helping hand.”

“You see what I’m saying?”

“Greece’s rising debt could use a good atom bomb,” I said.

“Possibilities are endless.”

“I won’t even get into the mess in my attic. Good solid mushroom cloud would give me a nice open floor plan.”

“I have a unique way of looking at things,” he said.

“Yes. And people who eat their own shit have unique dietary needs,” I said. “Doesn’t mean I’d like to adopt them.”

“Don’t believe what they tell you.”

“Who are they?”

We are so dumb we believe anything.”

“What we?”

“People are too gullible.”

“I agree. In fact I haven’t believed a word you said this whole time.”

“Shall I again list my achievements?”

“No need.”

I wasn’t giving him the respect he craved. He chalked me up to a lost cause. I was one of the lotus-eaters, a mote in the mass of people duped by big media and public relations campaigns. As I let the air out of his tires in the parking lot, (too dangerous to drive, I thought) I imagined him riding the big bomb down like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, yelling like a rube, and instead of annihilation he just emerges from the radiation cloud, dusting himself off and bragging that he has cured himself of his gout and dyspepsia.

Best of luck to him.

More Alembics to come.

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