by Robert J. Collins
Guys like to blow things up. It’s a genetic thing. (Scientists recently identified the blowing-things-up gene—the double helix is clearly imprinted with the representation of a stick of dynamite, fuse a-sizzle.) That gene is why we have wars.
It’s also why we have fireworks. Blowing things up is sublimated away from the real nastiness of war and redirected to the socially accepted phenomenon of laying back on a summer’s evening and watching colorful explosions in the sky.
Japan, as we all know, outdoes itself in the fireworks department each summer. Every community across the country has displays and, of course, the big daddies of them all happen in and around Tokyo. I’ve been to most the venues around here over the years and the shows have always been excellent. They’ve all been great summertime fun.
One might wonder why a nation that experienced the biggest fire crackers of all time in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the weeks of fire falling from bombers over Tokyo, would do anything but hide out under the futon during one of these current displays, but impulses caused by internal circumstances are too strong. Guys like to blow things up… and watch what happens. It’s in the genes.
As a kid, I liked to blow things up. My pals and I did all the creative things pre-teens are capable of—given marginal supervision and a somewhat dangerous supply of dynamite remaining from discarded World War II weaponry. We sent gophers, squirrels and the occasional rabbit into outer space. Or, at least I think we did, after the explosions, we never saw these creatures again.
One memorable experience involved a metal barrel (which I guess originally contained oil) and a particularly large “propulsion” load (gunpowder collected from dozens of rocket shells that had originally failed). At ignition, the explosion was the type that rattles the chest—like the grand finales in the displays over the Sumida River.
The colors probably weren’t as good as the displays in Tokyo— I couldn’t really tell as I was rolling down a hill—but our barrel explosion did interesting things. It started the bells ringing in the church next door and blew out four stained-glass windows. Big trouble, but because it was genetic, we couldn’t help it. If only we’d known then. We would have had another layer to our various stories and confessions about the event.
A more memorable experience — one I think of each time I watch a fireworks display today—happened when I was older (and should have known better).
At 16, my pal Joe K. and I were driving around in my family’s car. Joe K.’s girlfriend had just broken up with him. He wanted to “get back at her.” We had a plan. Remember, we’re 16.
The plan involved driving past her house in the dead of night and throwing a “T-bomb” onto her front porch. (For those who don’t know, a T-bomb was the mother of firecrackers available at the time—about the size of a cigar with a wick entering the thing in the middle. T-bombs could be heard miles away.)
There was an extra feature to this plan. Joe K.’s ex-girlfriend’s front porch had just been painted that day. The tiny bits of paper involved in wrapping the bomb would blast out and cover the porch—sticking to the drying paint thereon. Just why Joe K.’s ex-girlfriend’s father should also be punished in this regard was an issue we had not addressed thoroughly—but remember, we were 16.
We pulled up in front of her house. I put the car in neutral. We were actually whispering out there in the street. This was really a great idea, we both agreed.
Joe K. produced the T-bomb and I lit it. We gazed at the sizzling wick for a delicious moment, and then Joe K. swung into action. The idea was for him in the passenger seat to backhand the thing out the window and, as soon as this was accomplished, I’d step on the gas and we’d be gone.
Except Joe K. neglected to roll down the window on his side of the car. He went into his motion… and his elbow hit the closed window. We then looked at the sizzling wick for a less than delicious moment, then he tossed the T-bomb up in the air. In the car.
The explosion, among other things, blew out the windshield in my family’s car. It also permanently deafened Joe K. in his left ear and me in my right ear. (“What did you say?”) It also deposited billions of little paper bits throughout the interior of the vehicle that no amount of cleaning would ever clear up. (“Puzzling,” the elders around me would say after I explained about the owl and the windshield. One uncle suggested that perhaps the owl had been reading The Times when he hit the car.)
In any event, I’ll be, as always, at a few of the fireworks displays this summer. I’ll have a good time. But if anyone sees me, you’ll probably notice I keep my hand over my right ear. I don’t really hear anything out of that ear now, but loud noises still hurt. Blowing up things is in our genes. Dammit.