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After posting a decent enough GPA that said, “I didn’t necessarily try, but I also didn’t completely waste your money” in my sophomore year, I convinced my parents to let me live in my college town for the summer, on the condition that I took at least one summer class and got a job. It ended up being the best decision of my life. An older guy from my house was staying for the summer to study for the MCATs, and had two sublets available at his massive house just off campus. He approached me and one of my pledge brothers to live with him. Hell, he even got us jobs working at a fireworks distributorship. The pay was shit, but we could treat ourselves to all the pyro we wanted. I signed up for a freshman level Spanish class and made good on my promise to my parents. The rent checks were signed and the path was paved to the best summer of my life.
We moved into the house a week after the semester ended. The place was a 120-year old three story house with five bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms, making rent dirt cheap. I was damn near certain that this house was haunted. A week after we moved in, our landlord told us that it once served as a hospital during the Civil War. It was big enough for us to believe him. I’d wake up in the middle of the night to what felt like someone playing with my feet. Some nights I would find myself hoping that this ghost nurse would find her way up my leg ala Dan Akroyd in Ghostbusters, but to no avail.
After several weeks, it was apparent what the regular schedule was during the summer. What else were we going to do? Summer classes were long, but they were relatively easy, and my job was a mere formality. Our regular days were filled with a few comatose hours at the fireworks stand, long lunch breaks and happy hours that never seemed to end. It was beautiful. I don’t think I have ever been more carefree in my life. Two hours of class five days a week, followed by six or seven hours doing hard labor, toning my body to jacked cocoa perfection, and then eight to ten hours of heavy drinking in the afternoon and into the night.
Most days, I’d wake up around eight or nine in the morning, brush my teeth, get class out of the way and head off to work. The hangover was gone before an hour of work as we sweat out the booze from the night before. We had an empty trailer on the loading dock that we used to take breaks, but the container didn’t have any air flow and usually just baked under the sun. We mostly used it for a sauna in the morning as the sun was baking it long before we had shown up for work. It was a real nice setup. We worked for eight bucks an hour doing good old fashioned American labor, slinging Chinese-made explosives for the American working man, because that’s who we were and that’s who we cared about.
There was a truck stop nearby that we always went to for lunch to gorge ourselves with piles of steak, potatoes and eggs. These feasts often lasted well on into the afternoon, unless we had a truck to load. The guy who hired us was an alum from our house, so yeah, all we had to do was clock in on time and not fuck anything up. We got in real good with the manager of the restaurant in the truck stop with all the money we spent in his place every day. He started hooking us up with free sodas, then it turned into unlimited hash browns, and by the MLB All-Star Break we were getting charged next to nothing for steak and eggs. This was all probably due to the fact that he was more than happy to see college kids in his restaurant rather than strung out truck drivers on five-day crystal meth benders.
It was a charmed life. Working 30 hours a week in the Midwestern summer’s heat, which made shedding the weight I gained in the previous semester much easier. I never set foot in the rec center that summer. Not that I would have anyway.
As summer wore on, we began thinking about our Fourth of July plans. Obviously alcohol, babes and some sort of grilled meats were high on the priority list, because this is America, and that’s what we do. We started spreading the word about our massive celebration of the USA a few weeks beforehand, and began accumulating enough pyro to invade a small country. Each guy who worked at the stand had to spend the night in the fireworks tent once a week. We got a small stipend and were allowed to take as many fireworks as we could fit in our car for our trouble. It was worth taking the risk of being shanked to death by some drifter that had wandered off the interstate during the night.
After a few weeks’ worth of what would likely classify as smuggling explosives in most states, we had amassed an artillery of fireworks to set the stage for our midsummer bash. Bob and I began drinking as soon as we woke up on Independence Day. We hit Sam’s Club around the middle of the afternoon, loading up on booze and beef. A quick afternoon nap and we started getting the show on the road.
We had invited about 25 people to the party, and like any party in college, formal invitations don’t exist, so around 50 people showed up. Luckily, Bob and I had planned ahead and the party raged on as the sun went down. Finally, dusk had come and gone and we decided it was time to blow the doors off the place, almost literally.
Bob and I had been stashing what we estimated was close to $20,000 dollars worth of fireworks in our garage, and were planning the biggest amateur display of explosive air art in the history of Mid-Missouri. There wasn’t a plan, per se, we were just going to plant all these gigantic explosive devices in our massive backyard and let freedom ring.
Bob was completely shitfaced, and I was well on my way to my umpteenth blackout of the summer. Being the drunkest person at a party thrown by yourself. TFM. As the sun finally disappeared, we decided it was time to unleash our massive cache of pyrotechnics. It all started innocently enough with a 200-count, 15-pound cake, which was pretty much just a glorified Roman Candle. Sensing the crowd was unimpressed, we decided to up the stakes and settled on lighting everything at once.
It all happened so fast. We went from cake to cake, lighting them as quickly as possible. But in our drunken state, we hadn’t realized we’d pretty much trapped ourselves inside a ring of fire. Bob and I were encircled in brilliant flame, surrounded by an inferno of American glory. To paraphrase First Sergeant Carwood Lipton in Band of Brothers, “It was the most awesome and terrifying display of firepower I’ve ever seen in my life.”
We threw ourselves on the ground and waited for it all to end. I remember looking up into the sky and seeing all of this beauty above me. It was exhilarating. Soon, I saw a spectacular array of red, white and blue dancing off of our brick summer commode on our nation’s greatest holiday. I thought to myself: “This is it. This is my perfect American moment.”
My sheer euphoria quickly turned to dread as I realized that the fireworks display had long since ended. The red, white and blue lights were coming from three police cruisers parked out in front of our house. The crowd had scattered and Bob and I were there, lying on the ground with nowhere to run.
“Anybody want to tell me what’s going on here?” The officer had a surprisingly courteous tone in his voice.
I stood up, covered in soot, reeking of alcohol and gunpowder, and addressed the men in blue that had surrounded us. “Yes, officer. Just a little celebration of our nation’s freedom.”
“That’s all fine and good son, but do you realize that fireworks are illegal in the state of Missouri?” he asked as he kicked aside the smoldering remains of our fantastically terrifying display of patriotism.
“No sir, it hadn’t occurred to me,” I retorted. I nearly shot back with the “I thought this was America?” routine, but thought it best to comply with the long arm of the law and extend an olive branch of American brotherhood.
We went back and forth with the officer for about five minutes, and miraculously they decided to let us off with a warning as long as we “picked up the mess.” Calling it a “mess” was a wild understatement as our backyard looked more like Iwo Jima than an amateur fireworks spectacular gone horribly wrong. Apparently, the cops had been out in front of our house for much longer than I realized and enjoyed the show we had put on for them.
After a firm handshake with the police and pretending to begin our massive cleanup operation, Bob and I retired to the house, which turned out to be in worse shape than the yard was. Bob disappeared into his room for a few minutes and returned with a small plastic bag.
“Wanna do shrooms?” he asked. And then we did shrooms.
I woke up 18 hours later in a total daze. I had missed work and was well into missing another day, so I texted my boss to apologize, and stumbled out into our yard to find that the mess had already been cleaned up. A good third of our massive backyard was completely charred and there was paper shrapnel all over the place.
The summer drew on, but nothing ever came close to that night. Days got shorter and nights got cooler, as the dread of another semester dawned on us. We enjoyed every minute of it, though. Each time the weather warms up and school gets out, I always think back to that shitty five-bedroom abode and how much it enhanced my college experience.
Those were the days, man. Those were the days.