Most people associate the Fourth of July with parades, cookouts, watermelon, homemade ice cream, and a pleasant trip to see the fireworks. My family did that stuff, too, but sometimes instead of a trip to the fairgrounds, our fireworks meant a trip to the Emergency Room.
Most of my friends have met my two eldest brothers, Tom and Bob. But usually when I mention Pete, they scratch their heads and say they don’t recall meeting him. Allow me to introduce you now.
Pete is one year younger than Tom and Bob, who are twins, and I’m about six years younger than all of them. Maybe you could blame it on his middle child status and a need for attention, but for whatever reason, Pete was always getting into trouble. I should clarify: he was always finding trouble, but not necessarily getting in trouble, as getting in trouble would necessitate getting caught.
In one of our earliest collective family memories, Pete was about six years old and holding a Roman candle when it shot out backwards, catching his coat on fire. (Sometimes it’s cold in Pennsylvania on the 4th of July.) You might think such an incident at an early age would scare a child away from future similar dangers, but it just sparked Pete’s interest in all things combustible.
By age eight, Pete was stealing cigarettes from our parents’ coat pockets. At little league baseball games, he would smoke in the outfield. At Ligon Junior High, he would walk down the hall between classes with a lighted cigarette hidden in his palm and may or may not have been to blame (or thank) for shutting down the school one day due to a plumbing issue involving a cherry bomb, although he claims that was actually Richard Snelling. He taught me to snuff out candles with my fingers, and he would impress my friends at birthday parties with various feats of prestidigitation and/or by purposefully lighting his hands on fire. I am pretty sure he bought lighter fluid by the case, as he always seemed to have a can on him at the ready.
At Halloween, other mischievous kids might smash your pumpkin. To Pete, that was just kind of mean, unoriginal, and lacking in finesse. He would light yours on fire, ring the bell, and hide in the bushes to watch. (This would be after having gotten the candy from you already, of course.) Oh, relax - only the lighter fluid around the pumpkin would burn; the pumpkin and your porch would be just fine. Probably. Unless you did something stupid like try to stomp it out.
On nine-hour family car trips to Pennsylvania, whenever my parents lit up a cigarette, Pete was in the back seat lighting up a pot pipe disguised as a miniature baseball bat. My other brothers would look on in horror, but Pete would exhale the smoke into a pillow and of course never got caught.
He began mixing homemade gunpowder at the kitchen table with sulfur and charcoal and saltpeter. On the patio, he’d mix up a batch of goopy napalm with Styrofoam and gasoline, which he would then fashion into a torch.
One particular Independence Day, he thought it would be fun to try to make some noise by shooting BBs at a shotgun shell. He was smart enough to remove the shot so that we all didn’t get pelted, but somehow, nevertheless, he managed to shoot himself anyway, as the shell’s primer, a little brass pellet, backfired and lodged deeply into the skin of his belly. Because none of us was yet 16, he then walked half a mile to the clubhouse where my parents were spending the holiday and where there was no phone. I guess most parents might freak out to see their shirtless son walk in with blood trickling down his belly, but it wouldn’t be a real holiday for us without police or at least one trip to the Emergency Room.
As an adult, Pete might seem, to the casual observer, to have mellowed out. Of the four of us, he was the first to marry and is still the only one with a child (that we know of). But adulthood has afforded him (1) a few extra years to acquire forbidden knowledge and (2) the resources to build a secret lair where he can conduct even more diabolical experiments and stash items of questionable legality.
We were in his man-cave/tiki bar one day when I asked him if he watched that TV show MythBusters.
“Those guys are amateurs,” he said, as he poured me a shot of moonshine that he had made with some peaches and a still that he inherited from his wife’s sister’s deceased ex-husband.
Then he showed me a letter from the Feds that he’d tacked up on the wall of his man-cave like a trophy. The Department of Justice is watching him because he bought some kind of not quite legal, homemade fireworks kit. Either that or he bought this one ingredient, and now he can’t legally buy this other ingredient because of 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing - some kind of terrorist watch list thing or other.
In planning our wedding four years ago, my fiancé and I asked some of our friends and family members if they would take on certain duties to help us. So instead of having a lot of groomsmen and flower girls, we had a “King of Kegs,” “Sultan of Soda,” “Vicar of Liquor,” “Baroness of Birdseed,” etc. I asked Pete if he would shoot off two bottle rockets at the end of the ceremony, as sort of a tip of the hat to our mom and the groom’s dad, who could not be physically present, due to the fact that they were deceased.
“You just want bottle rockets?” asked Pete. “I can get you something bigger.” But I declined, not wanting to cause a mudslide, forest fire, or police raid there at my wedding in the mountains.
When the time came, we, the bride and groom, kissed and immediately began being pelted with birdseed. We ran through the crowd of wedding guests, bombarded all the way, and once we’d made it through, I squealed to my new husband, “There’s birdseed in my underwear!”
“You get used to it,” said the Prince of Pyrotechnics, as he passed us by on his way back to the party after having successfully shot off two bottle rockets.
I guess it was a bit like asking Michelangelo to paint a fence.