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fireworks, revisited


Two years ago, I wrote an entry that endures as one of my all-time favorites.

It's timely and topical, and (most importantly) frees me up this weekend to hang out with my wife.

Longtime readers will probably remember this, and I hope that new readers enjoy it as much as I do.

Have a great weekend, everyone.




Fireworks

(Originally published on July 5, 2002)

When I was growing up, my family spent Fourth of July with my father's aunt and uncle, at their fabulous house in Toluca Lake.

It was always a grand affair and I looked forward to spending each Independence Day listening to Sousa marches, swimming in their enormous pool and watching a fireworks show on the back patio.

This fireworks display was always exciting because we were in the middle of LA County, where even the most banal of fireworks – the glow worms – are highly illegal and carried severe fines and the threat of imprisonment, should we be discovered by LA's finest. The excitement of watching the beautiful cascade of sparks and color pouring out of a Happy Flower With Report was enhanced by the knowledge that we were doing something forbidden and subversive.

Yes, even as a child I was already on my way to being a dangerous subversive. Feel free to talk to any of my middle-school teachers if you doubt me.

Each year, the older children, usually teenagers and college-aged, would be chosen to light the fireworks and create the display for the rest of the family.

I was Chosen in 1987, three weeks before my fifteenth birthday.

The younger cousins, with whom I'd sat for so many years, would now watch me the way we'd watched Tommy, Bobby, Richard and Crazy Cousin Bruce, who always brought highly illegal firecrackers up from Mexico.

I was going to be a man in the eyes of my family.

This particular 4th of July was also memorable because it was the first 4th that was celebrated post-Stand By Me and at the time I had become something of a mini-celebrity around the family. Uncles who had never talked to me before were asking me to sign autographs for people at work, older cousins who had bullied me for years were proclaiming me “cool,” and I was the recipient of a lot of unexpected attention.

I was initially excited to get all this newfound attention, because I'd always wanted to impress my dad's family and make my dad proud, but deep down I felt like it was all a sham. I was the same awkward kid I'd always been and they were treating me differently because of celebrity, which I had already realized was fleeting and bullshit.

Looking back on it now, I think the invitation to light fireworks may have had less to do with my age than it had to do with my growing fame . . . but I didn't care. Fame is fleeting . . . but it can get a guy some cool stuff from time to time, you know? I allowed myself to believe that it was just a coincidence.

The day passed as it always did. There were sack races, basket ball games and water balloon tosses, all of which I participated in, but with a certain impatience. These yearly events were always fun, to be sure, but they were standing directly between me and the glorious excitement of pyrotechnic bliss.

Finally, the sun began to set. Lawn chairs were arranged around the patio, wet swimsuits were traded for warm, dry clothes, and I bid my brother and sister farewell as I joined my fellow firework lighters near the corner of the house. I walked casually, like someone who had done this hundreds of times before.

As the sun sank lower and lower, sparklers were passed out to everyone, even the younger children. I politely declined, my mind absolutely focused on the coming display. I wanted to make a big impression on the family. I was going to start out with something amazing, which would really grab their attention. I'd start with some groundflowers, then a Piccolo Pete and a sparkling cone. From then on, I'd just improvise with the older cousins, following their lead as we worked together to weave a spectacular tapestry of burning phosphor and gunpowder for five generations of family.

Dusk arrived, the family was seated, and the great display began. Some of the veteran fireworks lighters went first, setting off some cascading fountains and a pinwheel. The assembled audience cheered and gasped its collective approval, and it was my turn.

I steeled myself and walked to the center of the large patio, casually kicking aside the still-hot remains of just-fired fountains. Casually, like someone who had done this hundreds of times before.

My hands trembled slightly, as I picked up three ground flowers that I'd wound together. My thumb struck flint and released flaming butane. I lit the fuse and became a man. The sparkling fire raced toward the ignition point and rather than following the directions to “LIGHT FUSE, PUT ON GROUND AND GET AWAY,” I did something incredibly stupid: I casually tossed the now-flaming bundle of pyrotechnics on the ground. Casually, like someone who'd done this hundreds of times before.

The bundle of flowers rolled quickly across the patio, toward my captive and appreciative audience.

Two of the flowers ignited and began their magical dance of colorful fire on the cement, while the third continued to roll, coming to rest in the grass beneath the chair of a particularly old and close-to-death great-great-great aunt.

The colored flame which was creating such a beautiful and harmless display on the patio was spraying directly at this particular matriarch, the jet of flame licking obscenely at the bottom of the chair.

The world was instantly reduced to a few sounds: My own heartbeat in my ears, the screams of the children seated near my great-great-great aunt and the unmistakable zip of the now-dying flowers on the patio.

I don't know what happened, but somehow my great-great-great aunt, who'd managed to survive every war of the 20th century, managed to also survive this great mistake of mine. She was helped to her feet and she laughed.

Unfortunately, she was the only one who was laughing. One of my dad's cousins, who was well into his 20s and never attended family gatherings accompanied by the same date, sternly ripped the lighter from my hand and ordered me back to the lawn, to sit with the other children. Maybe I could try again next year, when I was “more responsible and not such a careless idiot."

I was crushed. My moment in the family spotlight was over before it had even begun and not even the glow of pseudocelebrity could save me.

I carefully avoided eye contact, as I walked slowly, humiliated and embarrassed, back to the lawn, where I tried not to cry. I know the rest of the show unfolded before me, but I don't remember it. All I could see was a mental replay of the bundle of ground flowers rolling across the patio. If that one rogue firework hadn't split off from its brothers, I thought, I would still be up there for the finale, which always featured numerous pinwheels and a Chinese lantern.

When the show was over, I was too embarrassed to apologize and I raced away before the patio lights could come on. I spent the rest of the evening in the front yard, waiting to go home.

The following year I was firmly within the grip of sullen teenage angst and spent most of the festivities with my face planted firmly in a book -Foundation or something, most likely- and I watched the fireworks show with the calculated disinterest of a 15-year-old.

That teenage angst held me in its grasp for the next few years and I even skipped a year or two, opting to attend some parties where there were girls who I looked at, but never had the courage to talk to.

By the time I had achieved escape velocity from my petulant teenage years, Aunt Betty and Uncle Dick had sold the house and 4th of July would never happen with them again.

The irony is not lost on me, that I wanted so badly to show them all how grown up I was, only to behave more childishly than ever the following years.

This 4th of July, I sat on the roof of my friend Darin's house with Anne and the boys and watched fireworks from the high school. Nolan held my hand and Ryan leaned against me as we watched the Chamber of Commerce create magic in the sky over La Crescenta.

I thought back to that day, 15 years ago and once again I saw the groundflower roll under that chair and try to ignite great-great-great aunt whatever her name was.

Then I looked down at Nolan's smiling face, illuminated in flashes of color.

"This is so cool, Wil!” he declared, “Thanks for bringing us to watch this."

"Just be glad you're on a roof and not in a lawn chair,” I told him.

"Why?"

"Well . . . ” I began to tell him the story, but we were distracted by a particularly spectacular aerial flower of light and sparks.

In that moment, I realized that no matter how hard I try, I will never get back that day in 1987, nor will I get to relive the sullen years afterward . . . but I do get to sit on the roof with my wife and her boys now and enjoy 4th of July as a step-dad . . . at least until the kids hit the sullen years themselves.

Then I'm going to sit them in lawn chairs and force them to watch me light groundflowers.

Comments

Great stuff Wil. I could read that every year. Cheers.

Great story. Have a great time with your family this weekend?

Am I first? Heh, imagine that...all these people try and I don't even care about it.

Anyway happy 4th!

~m~

No one can know the depth of embarrassment and shame you feel in your own soul during such and angst-filled moment...but thanks for sharing with us again and making us think of our own moments in life...

OK, not first, but wasn't trying.

I hope everyone has a great weekend...and be safe!

XOXO

fireworks are illegal in the county i live in. but not where i work. i went out today at lunch and bought myself 2 boxes of sparklers to share with my favorite 5 year old and his mommy.

and all afternoon i have danced around my desk in glee singing "i've got sparklers, i've got sparklers"

do we every really grow up?

happy fourth to you and yours wil! hope it's safe and sane.

... oh ... um.. FIRST! . Yeah! (for once)

My father always has said, "No need to relive the past because it is long done and gone. Can't fix what we have done or attempt to do it another way. What has been done has been done for a reason."

Fireworks are illegal where I live as well, Riverside County, Calif.

I too have had bad times with fireworks, nearly caught my brother's shirt on fire when I was a kid. But we were only allowd to play with sparklers. Except for my cousin when he was older he was allowed to play with fountains and much more. I didn't light my first foundtain or so till I was long gone away from home.

So nowdays we just go over to my inlaws place to watch fireworks shooting off at some park in Riverside.

Enjoy your 4th of July and BBQ dinner!

This story reminds me of the very stupid things I did as a teen, and perhaps older. The silly mindset I had back then was that one single mistake defined you, instead of all the great things you did. And what's wrong with mistakes and flaws. Eventually I learned to own them. To almost be proud of them. There is great learning in them of course.

It came full circle for me when one day I was involved in a 'blow out' in a house several friends shared. Relations degraded, and our home divided into two camps. I and the leader of the 'other side' eventually had a huge scrap. I was tired of taking any more 'shit' and wasn't holding back. As her arguments were failing, she tried to belittle me by bringing up a past mistake I made. My response was to say really plainly and honestly, that "yep, I did that, what's your point?!" She was completely confused by my response, and diffused in her response. She had no ammo against me because I didn't accept it. It was quite a satisfying moment actually, because I got control of an old inner ogre that used to control me. And also because she had this really confused look on her face when she saw I was unaffected. Priceless.

Basically, I learned to be the first one to point out my own mistakes. No one can make me feel little by their judgement. I don't let them. It's made possible by true honesty. This is actually the reason I like to come read your blog. I hear some of that sort of honesty coming from you Wil.

Anyone know a good place to see the Rose Bowl fireworks in Pasadena? It's my first year here.

I remember reading that entry when you first wrote it. It always makes me feel happy and giggly and nostalgic. And also a little flashback-y, since I was once chased by one of those fireworks that zooms around on the ground.

I ran into a lawnchair and fell over trying to get away from it, but I was only about six years old. Eh. Anyway, happy Fourth, Wil!

i love reading this story and i think you should make it a tradition to put it up every year around this time to share with others who havent read it. Brook

i read "fireworks" again this year...it's a wwdn classic...ever since i read it the first time, it has been a part of the image that comes to mind when i come here and read your latest posts...i don't know if it makes any sense...but alot of what you write is better understood, if you have read that story...of all of your entries, that is the one i love the most...i was hoping you would repeat it this year...thank you!

I grew up in LA, and when I moved to Northern California and discovered that fireworks are legal in some places...crazy, man! I always still feel like we're doing something naughty, it's just ingrained by now.

Wil -

this is quite honestly a brilliant post. You are an eloquent, albeit geeky, guy. The world could use more like you!

Regards
Ryan

Thanks so much for posting this story again. It brought back memories of my own 4th of July celebrations with my family back in the '80s.

Hope you have a wonderful weekend with your family.

Teresa Villa

I think this may just be up in my top three favorite entries ever :) I'm glad you posted it again for those of us who haven't been able to get to that point in our archival reading just yet! I love reading the growing up/family entries because they remind me to appreciate the times my (very spread out) family has gotten to spend together. Happy 4th :) Write your name in the air with a sparkler for me :)

I like the post very much; it was well-written and entertaining. But it especially hit home in reminding me of mistakes in my past that even 30 years later make me cringe. At what point will we get over those and stop feeling like a dork?

(P.S. I love geeks, they are the smartest and most interesting people I know!!)

A charming story, which reminds me . . . Though I am now an ancient fogey, I well remember my sullen years and their main cause: teenagers are expected to behave like adults but are treated like children. Try to remember to treat teenage Nolan and teenage Ryan like adults even when they are sullen and childish; it may help. But I'm sure you know that and will get it right - eventually.

It's a real shame that you had to be in a big time movie before the family accepted and embraced you as one of their own. It reminds me why I don't talk with most of my family anymore.

I'm not wierd or anything (Yeah, that's what they ALL say, ain't it? lol.... ;) But I'm sure you were a great little guy as an early teen, and I think it would have been a pleasure to know you way back then, as it is to know you in a small way now. I'm sure as a young teen guy I would have had a totally massive crush all over you. :)

Anyway, thanks so much again for sharing your life with us in a little way. Your loyal legion of internet monkeys love you always, as well as your family by your side, and we appreciate your tireless work for the people of our country, the internet community, and all. :)

Best wishes! :)

Wow... nice story... it makes me think back of all the nice moments I shared with my family... It's reallt hard to live alone and away from your fsamily... sigh... but I have no choice... i have to work... I know someday my sacrifices would actually paid off...

Wow, we could have been the same kid. It seems everytime I got to do something cool I'd do something to screw it up. I really enjoyed you entry even if it was a recycle.

BTW, I though CA outlawed fireworks in every part of the state?

Ahhh yes, a classic. One of the first entries I read here at WWdN, too.

Have a good 4th of July, Wil. My best to the family, and try not to set anything (or anyone) on fire, OK?

Now, I must go and rock out, for the band that plays the 4th of July party will always rock, and will alwasy consume mass quantities of beer, provided that the singer (me) takes along his own stash of Guinness...

Wow....great story. By the time I finished reading there were tears in my eyes.

Happy 4th of July

That was some beautiful writing, man. I don't normally sign your comments-no reflection on the frequency with which I read or you yourself-but that was worth it. Funny and touching all at once. We can't bring it all back, and yet there are times we realize we don't have to, and those times are when we see that now is the best place to be.

Trust a TV actor to start posting "reruns"... :o)

Great story--I have a similar one where an errant spark from my sparkler landed in the giant box of fireworks, ignited them all. we actually had to crouch down behind trees and under cars to hide from the roman candles and bottle rockets that were going off all over the place. Good times.

btw, got a notice about JAG being shipped out today. Can't wait!

I loved that story two years ago, and feel the same way now. Wil, you have an amazing ability to transport your reader to each moment you write about, you truly are a gifted writer. Happy Fourth!

As you enjoy hookey sales on e-bay you might like to take a look at this http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&?ViewItem&item=5505173750 He is selling the "evidence" from an unsolved burglary. Quite a funny description too!

Thank you for sharing, Wil. I think each of us has a similar story, but few of us have the remarkable gift of storytelling you do.

This story reminded me of my awkward childhood and adolescence, and although I'm sure many of those blunders are long forgotten by most everyone, why do they still sometimes come back and jeer at me, 15+ years later?

Odd how we judge ourselves harshly and remember things so very vividly when others' memory seems more selective -- a memory that barely remembers the incident, let alone its details?

I guess there's still some remnant "geekiness" in all of us. Thankfully, as an adult, I can distance myself [somewhat] from those embarrassing moments and giggle a little sheepishly at the reminders of the stupid things I did/done to me. :)

Happy Fourth of July to all in the U.S. and happy Canada Day to fellow Canadian friends.

Have a wonderful holiday weekend with your family Wil!

Okay... I'm sure that this isn't the right place to put this... but you guys really have to read this:
http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/story.cgi?show=71&story=6766
It's Wil Wheaton related, I promise.
It's a site that does reviews of TV shows and they just reviewed Justice from TNG.... with hilarious results.
Seriously, I laughed so hard that I cried.

"Then I'm going to sit them in lawn chairs and force them to watch me light groundflowers."


Parents are so cool in their own way. Me and one of my brothers turned out quite a bit different than the other kids. I'm ashamed to say that we are the "cool" ones. We both get annoyed when our mothers over-react about stupid little things like a pretty ground flower and how they make a huge deal out of someone who stole the comics and coupons from the other newspapers in the box. Then we realize, these are the same women (our fathers are mia) that have worried about those things to make us happy and that gush over a ground flower, not because THEY like it that much, but because they hope we do.

I do remember this entry. It really makes me smile. It made me think of my own period of teenage angst and how petty it all really was. But it shaped the person I am now, and I have to respect that. Great story, Wil! It remains one of my favorites. I hope you and your family have a blast this 4th!

I remember reading this, I could picture it so clearly.

You know, a lot of your stories would work as part of a TV series. Sort of a 1980's 'The Wonder Years'. Hell, I'd watch it, I'm an 80's kid myself and nostalgia is fun.

Great Story Wil. Reminds me of the time (the late 80's, so it was around the same year) that someone carelessly lit off like 50 bottlerockets simultaneously and one of them got me right in the chest. Lovely!!!

Happy Holiday :)

Why are there people's IP addresses showing up in this blog? What is the purpose behind that and why are they there?

It's to deter those who post 'nasty' things. Their post is removed and replaced with their IP.

Wil,

I was just watching the awesome fireworks display lighting up the night sky over the Washington Monument when a jetliner zipped through the firebursts and into the darkness; my heart skipped a beat--I have a bad feeling about this.
Did anyone else see this?

There ain't no doubt
I love this land.
God bless the USA.

Grace and peace to you and your family. Happy 4th

Freeman :)

New story for me. I loved it, Wil!

The teenage years! Gotta love them!

:)

Scott

Thanks Wil, this makes me feel a lot better. If someone who is "supercool" etc, can be a dork like the rest of us, it actually makes me less ashamed of my own failings.

Anyway, if anyone in my family ever becomes a child actor I will make sure to treat them exactly the same way I do before they become such.

:)

Oh, and I like the part about "you can get cool things from time to time". I am also very touched that you are a full father to those boys.

-ron

Very funny and touching piece of writing, a perfect example of why JAG is going to be essential reading this Summer.....

Great story, I really enjoyed reading it.
Have a wonderful & safe holiday weekend!

happy 4th wil, family, and maonkeys!

do they still make the metal silver sparklers? i remember having a couple 3' ones going while us kids wrote stuff in the air with the smaller ones. all i have seem recently are the wooden ones and they dont have the same 'feel' when you wave them around. personally i always liked the 'snakes' the best. i loved trying to make them 'grow' where *i* wanted.

ps. just got a notice from amazon that my JAG/DB order should be shipping soon. cant wait!!! especially since i am laid up following ankle surgery and have lots of time to read.

Wil,
I'm one of your younger and newer fans, and I'm always amazed by some of your stories from your childhood. Oddly enough, I was born later the year that this story took place, in November of 1987. I always watched your childhood movies and could never get over the fact that I was still an infant when many of those were made, and you are now twice my age! I'm glad that you are still active, because I'm not sure what I would have thought if my favorite actor didn't have a blog. You're now a celebrity just because of WWdN! Plus, you have that whole bit about you being an author! It's just great to have such an active and caring celebrity to share his embaressing moments for those teenagers who live in Maine and don't have anything good or important to think about. Thanks twice more!
Nicholas-

What a sweet but a little sad story! I wish we had some patriotic holidays here in England. The only time people want to be English is when soccer is on!

Hope you had a top weekend! Look forward to reading your next post!

Take care

Celeste XXXX

Dude, you better post again; the rumours that you've died are starting to go around again.
(the amateur animation guy)

Wil,
My favorite story of yours is the one about how you auditioned for "A Christmas Story", one of my favorite movies, of course besides Stand by Me. Every Christmas since 2 years ago when you wrote about it, I have asked you to copy and paste it so we can all enjoy it again. You still haven't done it, maybe its because you havent read all the comments? Well, if you do see this, please copy and paste that story i'd really appreciate it, Love Always,
Maureen

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