Our marriage has always been filled with fireworks. The real kind. I'm talking bottle rockets, moon shots, whistlers, ground blooms and fountains. Spinners, sparklers, silver salutes, rockets, Roman candles and crazy aces.
Peggy accepts my love of blowing off fireworks the way football widows stop caring about Sundays. With resignation. But every woman has her breaking point. Peggy's came on July 4, 2000, as I teetered atop the neighbors' ladder, hose in hand, soaking down their roof and gutters.
The Panthera Rocket we launched from our driveway had slammed directly into their house, which was disappointing. The Panthera is a reliable performer with good flight. But this one barely lifted before bee-lining into the slant of their roof, trailing its trademark light crackle.
It smoldered in the gutter for a long second. And then the Festival Ball aerial shell delivered the dramatic, powerful red star burst, sending angry sparks down the length of the house.
"No one's hurt!" I reassured Peggy, as I sprayed the roof.
She stood across the street scowling. Behind her, fanned across the driveway in lawn chairs, like a hillbilly poker hand, was my family, in for the holiday from Kentucky. I worked the water deeper down the gutter line and caught a glimpse of my father. He gazed back with a mixture of concern and pride.
Peggy knew the whole thing was his fault. Like my love of foreign cars and fried chicken, he's the one who ignited the firework craze within me. He and his pal Henning Soderberg, a big, bigoted Swede he worked with when we were growing up.
The Soderbergs lived in a clapboard house surrounded by tobacco, cows and corn in Okolona, Ky. Every Fourth of July we'd pack up our share of potluck and pyrotechnics and make the hour drive from Louisville.
A lot of people think fireworks were legal in Kentucky in those days. They weren't. That's why we had to buy them, like everybody else, in Tennessee on our way home from spring vacation in Florida.
Loco Joe's. Crazy Charlie's. The names of the shops themselves acknowledged that you had to be nuts to play with things that exploded. My sister Molly and I sipped from cold bottles of Coke and munched Slim Jims as we followed Dad up and down the colorful aisles. The air snapped with the silvery scent of gun powder. The big boxes of mortar rounds with names like Thunder Mountain and Pandemonium were wrapped so tightly in thin plastic that a thumbnail prick broke the seal with a loud pop.
Our dad shopped for fireworks the same way the owner of L'Etoile works the produce tables at the Farmers' Market. He'd plop a big Uncle Sam Assortment Pack in the cart first. This was the cheapest way to load up on the happy junk. Your snakes, snaps, chickens, poppers, sparklers and a big, colorful nest of smoke bombs.
After that he worked his way into the hard stuff. Ground blooms, wheel jacks, pearl comets and power domes. Two bricks of Black Cat firecrackers finished the job.
We slotted our empty Coke bottles into the wooden rack out front, climbed into the car, and headed north. That was Easter. The sacks of munitions sat on the ping-pong table in the basement until July 4. Ticking away like a party time bomb.
When we pulled into Okolona in the late afternoon on the Fourth, the Soderberg brothers would already have a badminton game going in the side yard. Instead of using birdies, they volleyed lit cherry bombs. Short points, but exciting. I joined them as fast as I could. They were country kids, a few years older than me, who hid bottles of Falls City beer in the bushes and lit whole packs of firecrackers from the tip of their Salems.
It's been said that the last thing a redneck shouts just before he dies is, "Hey, y'all, watch this!" There was a lot of yelling of this phrase. Blowing things off was never enough. Blowing things up was where it was at.
Styrofoam coolers were a specialty. M-80s in an abandoned clothes dryer was fun one year. Terry Soderberg could ignite a hay bale with a hand-held Roman candle from 50 yards. He taught us how to aim bottle rockets to hit horses out in the pasture. It's not as easy as it sounds. There were a lot of fires. Grass fires. Trash fires. Barn fires. You name it.
Terry turned out to be one of the most famous urban architects in the world. I recently saw him in a PBS documentary about skyscrapers. I sat in wonder over how a guy with such raw destructive instincts could turn it around and make a career out of building things.
At nightfall, our fathers would push away from the indoor bridge game and, with a slam of the back-door screen, appear in the yard. Bottle of beer in one hand, cigarette in the other. Like a Dixie version of Martin and Lewis.
By then the lawn was illuminated as if from combat flares over a jungle firefight. Under that flickering, white glow the dads would bend over, ass-to-ass, oblivious to each other's business, torching the big shells, punching holes of color into the black sky.
By 2000, Dad was too old to move off the fuse with any speed. I became the igniter, as did, to Peggy's dismay, our own sons. That night in 2000 was the last Fourth of July I spent with my old man. But it was a good one.
Shortly after I doused the fire on the neighbors' roof, a sprinkle of rain began to fall. This moved the audience into the garage. Next up, a poorly positioned whiz bomb shot straight into the crowd. It streaked past within an inch of my sister's left ear, and ricocheted overhead for several wild seconds among the paint cans and ceiling beams.
Our neighbors sprang up, excused themselves and beat a trail home through the thick, blue smoke. The rest of our group sat in relieved silence for a moment. Then my sister Molly spoke.
"That was great, Andy! What else you got?"