Years ago, the area around the Budweiser brewery in the central San Fernando Valley contained mostly parceled up farms so that many of the houses sat on large lots. The area, even after becoming decidedly urban, still maintained that kind of farm-like character. People kept chickens, rabbits, goats, and larger livestock like a cow or horse. Nights were dark, mainly because the streets only had a few streetlights, and it is on one of these dark nights that our story is set.
My father grew up on one of these large lots with his ten brothers and sisters, and when I was about ten years old, the two of us went over to visit my grandparents on a dark night that as I remember it, was somewhere around Halloween. As we drove down my grandparents’ street, which was dark with many of the homes sitting way back from the curb, a figure suddenly loomed in front of us. My father slammed on his brakes and the truck fishtailed from side to side before coming to a stop. The “figure” was on the hood and partially obstructing the windshield. As our heartbeats slowed to normal and we caught our breath, we realized the “figure” was really some old clothes without a body inside of them. My father got out of the truck and pulled the shirt and trousers off the hood, but they appeared to be caught on something. Then, it became clear what was going on.
Some kids had strung a rope across the dark street and tied the clothes to it. As we drove by, the miscreants, hiding alongside the road, yanked the rope causing the “figure” to leap up as if a real person suddenly appeared in front of us. As my father stood in the headlights of the truck holding the tangled clothing and tattered rope, he could hear the kids laughing and running away in the darkness. He was angry.
We drove on to my grandparents’ house. My uncle came out to open the gate for us, and my father told him what had happened. “Hey, I got an M80 in the house,” my uncle said. “Want to go light ‘em up?”
An M80 is an illegal firecracker containing between three and five grams of flash powder. The legend had it that the distinctive one to two inch red tube was a quarter stick of dynamite, but this was not true. However, the M80 did pack quite a bang and there were all kinds of urban legends, some of them true, that an M80 could take off your hand if you were unlucky enough to be holding it when it exploded.
My uncle got his M80 from his room and we piled back into the truck to exact some revenge. My father drove, my uncle sat in the passenger seat, and I was in the middle straddling the stick shift. We drove down the street and approached the spot where the rope man appeared. My uncle pulled out his lighter and ignited the fuse on the firecracker. As expected, the rope man leaped up off the pavement in front of the truck. My uncle passed the flaming stick to my father to throw out the window, but in the passing, my father fumbled the sparkling flame and dropped it right into my lap.
I began screaming and waving my arms around because I thought I was on fire. I wasn’t thinking about the imminent explosion out of the immediate concern for becoming a human torch. My uncle and my father literally dove into my lap, fumbling around on the floorboards trying to get a handle on the firecracker. The truck lurched forward, throwing us all off balance. After what seemed like an eternity, somehow, my father found the flaming device and hurled it out the window almost simultaneously as it exploded with a deafening concussion.
We sat there for a moment in the dark street, our ears ringing. My father, no doubt, was probably thinking about how he nearly maimed his oldest son over a practical joke. I was crying out of relief that I wasn’t on fire, but now I realized I could have suffered a catastrophic injury had the damn thing gone off in my lap.
My father turned the truck around and we drove back to my grandparents’ house without a word. It seemed pointless to speak, since none of us could hear anyways. We let my uncle out and then drove home. My father’s voice, distant and muffled, came to me as we pulled into our driveway: “Probably a good idea not tell your mother about this.”
Once inside, he went to his barcalounger to watch the evening news. I went to my room to go to bed. Neither of us ever spoke about what had happened.