A photo made the email rounds at work today, and in a place where we have weekly safety meetings people laugh, shake their heads. “It was a different time!” they said. Not so long ago, I think, but then again maybe it’s just me. The photo is a grainy one, and it depicts a tiny pigtailed girl perched atop a 100-gallon propane tank. Next to her, her dad leans in with a big grin on his face and a lit cigarette in his mouth.
I thought for a second about why it looked so familiar. Later that night, almost dozing, an image came to me out of the dark of the past. We are living out in the desert somewhere, most likely Arizona because it often was. It was dark, and Ed was drunk. He’d been tying one on for hours already, and he was at the loud stage accompanied by a slight lack of coordination and a hair trigger. I sat in the dark, watching him, in his chair by the flickering fire. Everyone was quiet, except for him. At his feet was a hunk of twisted metal, rusted by age. He liked to go on walks during the day, accompanied by a handgun of some kind and sometimes one of the kids. The desert we frequented had been used as training grounds for “Old Blood and Guts,” General Patton in the World War II era. We often found rusted spent shells or even live rounds, we found the old milky glass Coke bottles the soldiers had tossed aside, and the tank tracks from their play-wars still scarred the desert. You could see them if you climbed a rise and looked out across the desert. This time, Dad had found a large artillery round of some kind. The kind with fins and a payload, really more a missile than an artillery round.
He crushed the empty beer can and tossed it behind him. He picked the missile up, turning it over in his hands.
“Let’s see if we can light this baby up,” he said. I moved farther back into the darkness, to what I hoped was a safe distance. Mom did her best to ignore him, and the boys huddled close behind Dad’s chair. This was something they wanted front seats for. The pipe-bomb burnt-eyelashes gene runs strong in the male side of the family. In the female side, a little, but mostly our common sense will overrule the need for explosions.
Ed dug around in his crate of tools for a hammer. I must have been 10 or 11, I remember being incredulous but not surprised. I knew my father well. This wouldn’t be the craziest, or stupidest, thing I’d ever seen him do. I wondered if he’d kill himself, and the detached part of me that always seemed to float just above and behind my head tried to find an emotion related to that possibility. Nope, none there. Just a sense of expectancy.
The boys were giggling, shoving each other, eyes big and round and faces shining. Dad being a 10-year-old boy was their favorite kind of dad. This was exactly what they would do with a missile if one ever fell into their grimy little hands.
“Watch out kids, this thing could blow!” Dad tapped the missile lightly below its head. Nothing. A harder swing, and the metal bent. He jumped back, nervous, then shook it off and laughed and smacked it good. The body of the thing detached from its payload, and black powder poured out on the ground.
“All right!” That was what he was hoping for. I let out the breath I hadn’t known I was holding. The boys huddled over the mass. Behind them the flames flickered bright.
“OK boys,” Dad said to his captive audience. “Back up now, I’m going to see if this thing will light.”
His shining eyes matched his sons’. He pulled a burning stick from the fire, dropped it on the powder, and took off like a shot behind the tree. His head and my brothers’ two towheads popped out on opposite sides of the tree, like something from a cartoon. The stick fizzled, and burnt out. “Awwwww!” The men ventured back out to the disappointing missile.
“I know,” Dad said. “Watch this.”
“Ed, be careful.” Mom finally made an appearance. She twisted her hands in front of her, her mouth tight as she looked at her boys. She didn’t dare say too much, not when he had made up his mind already.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m an expert. Don’t worry about it,” he said. He gave her a kiss in passing, and came back from a box under the trailer with a blowtorch. “This is how it’s gonna work.” He directed the boys to pour a line of black powder a little out from the tree, then to pile the rest of it at the end of the powder “fuse.” Eagerly they scooped the powder up in their hands, setting the explosion up exactly as dictated.
I huddled closer to the trailer, hoping its metal shell would protect me from shrapnel if the shit hit the fan. The next thing I saw was the unearthly green of the palo verde tree lit from below by a bright flash of light. There was a brief shhhing sound like tearing fabric or a bottle rocket just before it launched. I saw my dad dancing, dancing near the fire as he swatted the flames from his clothing, maybe from his hair, did I smell the acrid smell of burnt beard? Then, laughter.