Escape from North Dakota Part the Second: Fireworks!

A couple of years ago, my mom’s husband John handed me a couple of fireworks.

“Here, Jesse, I’m too old to light these off,” he said. I looked at the yellow cylinders. They had serious looking green fuses jutting out of them.

“Uh, where did you get these?” I asked, before interrupting his answer. “Wait a minute. What are these, M-80s?”

“I don’t know what they are,” John replied. “Bobby gave them to me as a gift, but I’m just not into fireworks like he is.”

“Huh,” I said.

To be honest, I was a little afraid of those fireworks. My family has a history of finger loss, yet I had managed to burn and explode my way to puberty completely unscathed. My mother, on the other hand, lost a fingertip to a pit bull fighting her husky, and her father lost two fingers to a circular saw. I hope to inherit his claw-like prostheses that he hand carved and occasionally taped on to help him type. I figured that I had pretty much used up my luck all at once making it to Minnesota with all of my limbs basically intact.

That said, I really wanted to set off the yellow packages. I needed to find some place safe, where my resulting uncontrollable laughter (possibly accompanied by rolling on the ground and being unable to breathe) would not render me incapable of escaping the law enforcement officers who would rightly be called in to investigate small explosions. When Sarah offered to take me to North Dakota and offered to sweeten the deal with legal fireworks, I struck upon a brilliant idea: set them off in the country, where gunfire and screaming go unheeded.

In North Dakota, I realized that there could be no explosives without alcohol. I armed myself with a lighter and Extra Special Bitter. I drank long, sweet pulls of the liquid as I rolled ideas around the inside of my head. I had a little trouble not picturing bloody stumps from the internet, but these things were overcome when I hit upon a simple idea: put the firework under a beer can so the can would fly into the air. Genius! I performed a trial run with a “Water Cracker” and a can of Bud Light.

Bang! Clang!

The can was scorched and smoking a bit, but seemed ready for the next level. I crumpled in one side of the can so that it would rest on top of the three inch long tube and set them on the ground. I grinned at Sarah, who was across the yard.

“Should that be farther away?” she asked. I nodded to the negative and tried to light the fuse. It wouldn’t catch. My mind raced as I thought about the two year old fuse suffering through humid summers and dry winters.


No, there hadn’t been an accident yet, I Sarah’s sister Lisa had thrown a water cracker at me. I steadied my nerves and lit the fuse. Orange sparks burst out. I loped across the yard and turned around just in time to see a burst of white smoke. I felt the deep thump in my chest and immediately began laughing. Had the can split in two?

As I approached the drifting smoke from the explosion, I noticed a bare patch of dirt at least a foot wide in the grass — but where was the can? In tiny pieces! Shreds of blue and silver aluminum covered the yard. Sarah and I hunched over and picked up glimmering remnants for five or ten minutes.

Where did the grass go?

I want a cigarette so bad!

My personal favorite fireworks story is the one from when I was about eleven or twelve and had a big stash of Black Cats and Ladyfingers. Neither one of those are very dangerous, but my friends and I lit them off one by one over several weeks. One day we spotted gourds volunteering in my mother’s garden. We were fairly sure that they grew from stray pumpkin seeds, but instead of turning into squat grinning heads they remained slender with just a bulbous nodule on one end, almost like a German “potato masher” grenade from world war two. Being wild young men and barely restrained by our towering intellects we decided that gourds would be the perfect thing in which to spend a pack or two of Black Cats.

We simply poked one firecracker into each gourd, lit the fuse, and lofted pure fun into the air. The gourds arced lazily over the neighbor’s garage before flying to pieces with muted bangs. We boys giggled and threw, enjoying the splendor of greens and oranges raining down in a chunky mist. Our joy dissolved as we readied the final gourd for flight: a police cruiser rolled into my driveway. Sean, Brian , and I stood still as statues, as if our silence would render us invisible. I held the last gourd in my hand, its slender tail cool against my grasp.

“Hello, boys,” the officer said. “Do you boys know anything about some fireworks?”

I was a responsible kid and answered him straight away.

“We had some,” I said. Brian grimaced and looked like he was about to punch me for talking.

“This is the last one, though,” I continued, flashing a sheepish and earnest look. I had enough Jumping Jacks, Black Cats and Bottle Rockets in my bedroom to fill a shoebox. I held out the gourd to the officer, who took it and poked at the fuse sticking out of it. I wonder now if he kind of wanted to see the gourd blow up — but instead he pushed the fuse into the wet interior of the vegetable and tossed the whole thing into my mom’s compost heap.

“Where did you get these?” he inquired. I was quick with an answer.

“They were in the woods. We found them,” I replied. He seemed satisfied and left unceremoniously.

The guys finally exhaled and we decided to head out to play video games at Sean’s house.

When I returned, it was nearing dark. I saw a large vase on the kitchen counter. It was mostly full of water, but there were no flowers in it, no delicacies plucked from nature’s bosom, no sweet smells to balm tender hearts — my bottle rockets were sprouting from the vase. Worse yet, it was the unnaturally red sticks sprouting forth. I was robbed of my delicate sprays of color and that sweet smell of sulfur that was a balm for my young heart.

“Oh no. Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no!” I stammered. I had been caught! How had my mother known? She wasn’t home, and neither Sean nor Brian’s parents had heard. How?

Just then I heard a rushing sound like a train crossing the sky. The screen door rattled on its hinges. The air turned over and the clouds grew black and feral. The ground rose up and every cupboard opened and closed. Then my mother took a second step towards the kitchen and things grew more bleak. I lashed myself to the faucet with the sink sprayer as each further step grew her rage to previously unimaginable levels. Wind and rain tore at my clothes, interrupted only by tongues of flame scorching the soles of my shoes.

“Jesse Patrick Mullan!” she said with that quietly devastating voice that mothers use while commanding their legions of hell hosts to scourge you clean of skin and flesh.

“I’m sorry about the fireworks, Mom,” I said, glancing at the vase full of my hopes and happiness. A bubble of air let go of a brilliant yellow Ladyfinger and floated upwards, only to be trapped in a fold of a Black Cat wrapper.

“I can’t believe you would do something so stupid,” she said, her anger twisting in midair to become mere exasperation.

“But, nothing got broken, and nobody got hurt, right? What’s the big deal?” I asked, wishing with all my might to go back in time and grab the fireworks to take to Sean’s house, or, failing that, the ravine next to Sean’s house. Time travel yet eludes me.

“Jesse, you were throwing fireworks into the neighbor’s yard,” my mother explained. I failed to see the issue — the neighbors were trashy and had a loud dog that barked incessantly. I said as much.

“The neighbors run a day care,” my mom said flatly. I don’t remember much after that except the leg irons and the pet pill bug that was my only friend during the following imprisonment.

I had told Sarah an elaborate version of that tale already, and she seized upon it straight away.

“My mom has gourds in her garden,” she said.

After that, things blurred a bit.

“Do you need a buck knife?” asked Sarah’s father as I set the small gourd on the tail of his green truck. I retrieved his knife from the dashboard and made an inch wide hole in its dark green flesh. I left the fuse springing forth at a jaunty angle.

Sarah photographed while I worked and drank.

Eventually, the time came. I placed the package at the edge of the field of pinto beans, lit the fuse, and ran.


This one seemed louder than the last. A cloud of smoke pooled over the blast site. I laughed uncontrollably while Sarah I searched, but we found only the small bits of yellow flesh and a handful of seeds.

A firework of that size is probably something called an “M-250.” The internet implies that they are so illegal that they aren’t manufactured anywhere in the US — well, not legally manufactured. There are apparently shade tree fireworks factories that make their own. When I was thirteen such news wouldn’t affect me, but now that I’m old, I am thoroughly cautioned against ever accepting anything like that again. Of course, when I was thirteen, we took apart fireworks and bullets to get out the gunpowder to power our fiendish experiments, but that was then and the statute of limitations has probably run out.

I hope.

(most photographs by Sarah)

8 Responses to “Escape from North Dakota Part the Second: Fireworks! ”

  1. Sounds that come from the direction of Donald’s redneck neighbors’ house on any given night, between May and September:




    Repeat as needed.

  2. I need to meet Donald’s neighbors!

  3. How did I know about the lofting of fireworks into the neighbor’s backyard? It wasn’t the police officer who informed me, nor any of your co-terrorists. No, instead it was the husband of the day care provider, standing at my back door, spent firecracker wadding displayed in one outstretched hand, a really pissed-off expression on his face, and decidedly angry words tumbling out of his mouth. Peeking out from behind one of his legs was his tiny son, his pale little face registering a strange mix of fear and triumph.

    My weak response, “So sorry…won’t happen again…didn’t raise my son to do things like that…he’ll be grounded forever…no one hurt though,” apparently failed to assauge his anger, as he stumphed off my back porch and across the lawn to his own house, his little boy running to keep pace with his father’s bigger strides.

    Of course I never complained about his junked cars in his driveway or his incessantly barking hound or his rickety fence or his garage in need of paint, but that’s besides the point.

  4. Apparently it was too much work for anyone to holler “hey, knock it off, there’s a day care over here!”

  5. And yes, you did raise me like that.

  6. Are you referring to the incident in the alley when you and your cousins poured gasoline on some sort of airplane toy and lit it on fire? And I stood by and watched? Until your cousin’s prissy mother put the kabosh on your incendiary activities? Is that what you’re talking about?

    Well, that was merely semi-dangerous, but harmless, fun, wasn’t it?

  7. my middle school art teacher taught me how to extract gunpowder from shotgun shells and use that to create explosions. “feel free to improvise and make bigger exposions”

    also, waterproof strike anywhere match-heads and gasoline are a lot of fun in a tennisball.

  8. Paul, we did those things too, but I don’t know if I can turn the blunderbuss that we made into a whole story. Sure, we cast our own bullets out of lead, but there isn’t an arc to the story, just some kids shooting Reader’s Digest Condensed Books in the woods.

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