Off Comes the Skin

Kids and Firecrackers

My best friend as a kid lived down the block from our house.  When I say “best friend,” I sincerely mean it, as oppposed to the sorts of best friends that kids have for a day or two before shifting loyalties.  Greggy was my best friend for a good four years.  He was two years younger than I was and a grade behind me in school, but even so, we spent as many of the waking non-school hours together as we could.

We did sleepovers, played family games and cards, ate at each other’s house for dinner, teased each other about girls, played hide-and-seek and kick-the-can and backyard baseball.  We fed off of each other’s imaginations, and when Greggy came up with a new idea for a fantasy or a game, he started his explanation with the phrase “One if…”

“One if we were soldiers caught behind Nazi lines?”  “One if our airplane was shot down over the ocean and we were trapped on a desert island?” “One if we made some guitars out of cardboard and rubber bands?”  “One if we snuck over behind Tranbergs’ house and climbed their tree?”  “One if we stole one of my sister’s Barbies and hung her from a noose?”

We got into a lot of trouble, but it was always kids’ stuff and never caused any real damage.  We apologized quite often and learned our lessons.

Greggy’s family wasn’t rich.  His dad was a highway patrolman and his mom was a nurse.  With five kids, they often had to make do with what money they could spare, and Greggy didn’t have spending money very often.  I was okay with sharing with him from my allowance whenever we went to the store to buy candy, because he was a good friend.  So it was a surprise to me one summer afternoon when he told me that his mom had given him $20 to cut the grass.  The most I had ever earned from cutting the grass was $5, and our backyard was much larger.

He wanted to buy something special for me at the dime store with his money.  I questioned for moment whether or not I should take him up on it, then realized that he was repaying my past generosity.  I said, “Sure!”  We went to the Ben Franklin Store, and in the toy section, I looked at some of the $1 or $2 puzzles and games.  I considered a yo-yo.  He said, “No!  I want to buy you something really cool!”

The present he had in mind for me was a set of toy golf clubs, including a polystyrene “bag,” a driver, an “iron” and a putter.  It also included a pair of balls.  The set was $7.99, which was two weeks allowance for me, and I never had saved that much money for a toy.  It was a real thrill for him to buy this for me, and he still had money left over to buy one for himself.  On the way home from uptown Hallock, we stopped at the schoolyard to play with our new clubs until the 6 o’clock siren signaled it was time for us to get home for supper.

I walked through the door, and Mom was waiting for me.  She looked at me and then at the clubs and asked where I had gotten them, and so I explained that Greggy had bought them for me to repay me for all of the times I had bought candy for him.  I thought it was a good deal, myself, and a nice present from a friend.  Mom, well, not so much.  She was suspicious that Greggy all of a sudden had $20 and thought that perhaps he might have taken the money from his mother.

I ended up having to give the golf clubs back, and Greggy was in a heap of trouble from his mom for stealing.  I got a long lecture about using common sense if someone I knew who was poor all of a sudden had a lot of money to spend.  It was a hard concept for an eight-year-old to grasp, but it is something I still remember, and it colors my sense of trust when people want to give me something out of proportion to what I think they can afford or should do.

I mentioned that his dad was a highway patrolman and, because of this, was someone in whom I placed a lot of trust, especially when it came to safety.  For me, cops of any kind were always about teaching and practicing safety in all areas of life.  (I was eight years old; remember?)  When he suggested that we light and play with firecrackers, I felt assured that this would be a safe thing to do under adult supervision.

Greggy’s dad had picked up a pack of Black Cats in North Dakota, because they were and still are illegal in Minnesota.  Lighting explosive fireworks, or firecrackers, is something that only licensed people can do.  While I never heard of anyone getting arrested for lighting firecrackers,  I was always careful never to let an adult know or catch me with firecrackers in case they would report me to the police and send me to jail.  I was too young for jail, you know?

But if a cop was supervising, it had to be okay.  And so, rather than calling my mom to ask if it would be okay, as I should have done, I said, “Yeah, let’s!”   So we went outside to Greggy’s porch with his dad.  His dad lit a cigarette to use as a “punk” and gave us each about five firecrackers.

Instead of having us set down the firecrackers on the ground and lighting the fuses, we held them in our hands while we lit them.  The plan was that as soon as the fuse was lit, we were supposed to throw the firecrackers and watch them blow up.  “Boom!” and then light another one, until they were gone.  It worked great for the first few firecrackers. It all went the way it was supposed to, and we were having fun doing something that we normally shouldn’t do (but being supervised by a cop, it was okay.)

Then things went awry.  I had a Black Cat in my hand, and his dad lit the fuse.  It sparkled, and I lost track of the purpose of what we were doing.  I was mesmerized by the fuse and the way that the powder was burning ever closer to the body of the firecracker.  I wasn’t thinking.  I was watching and my mind was blank, until it was too late.  I could vaguely hear Greggy and his dad yelling at me to drop it, but for some reason the command wasn’ t registering for me.

The firecracker blew up in my hand and the sudden pain shook me out of the brain lapse that had taken hold of me.  I screamed and saw both the burn on my hand and the pieces of skin that had peeled away.  His dad rushed me inside and put my hand under cold running water, asking me over and over why I hadn’t dropped the firecracker.  I was crying and I couldn’t explain it to him.  He wrapped my hand in ice with a towel and sent me home.

Mom was more angry with Greggy’s dad than she was with me, and she had a long phone conversation with him.  She didn’t yell, but she dressed him down, because as a cop he should know better than to let kids play with firecrackers that way.

The damage to my hand healed quickly and I learned a couple of things from the incident:

  1. Don’t automatically trust someone just because he is a cop.
  2. Never hold onto a firecracker when lighting it.  Always set it down first.

Last night, there were firecrackers being set off in our neighborhood.  People like explosions, even tiny ones.  One if one of those firecrackers being lit last night was being lit by a kid who was holding it in his hand instead of setting it on the ground?  I didn’t hear any crying nor screaming, so I assume that everything was all right.

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