The International Writers Magazine: Travel Stories
“Lets blow something up,” said Sean, cramped in the backseat. We all exchanged glances, and no one could find fault with the idea. In truth, we had nothing better to do. Our spring break had morphed from a drunken stupor through the bright lights of Memphis into a monotonous car ride down I-95 with no particular destination. Lacking gas, cash, and purpose, we headed to the nearest beach in North Carolina to blow something up.
A firework tent on the side of the road provided the ideal shopping destination for our recent inspiration. A wooden sign with streak-painted letters directed our attention to its existence. With boyish eagerness, we turned the teal green ’97 Toyota Corolla to the side of the road where sand lined the edge as a reminder of the beach just over the horizon. As we emerged from the car, the smell of ocean salt refreshed our consciousness like the first bloomed flower of spring. Our eyes caught sight of the tent drooping in the middle. Four 10-foot poles leaned under the weight of the red-striped tarp, ready to collapse at any moment, forever vanishing the firework stand in a massive magic trick.
With fireworks being illegal in Pennsylvania, we lacked an expert’s savvy in our search for supplies. Consequently, our eyes wandered like a 2nd grader with undiagnosed ADHD: everything seemed tantalizing. Jess held up a pack of bottlerockets – child’s play for the level we were hoping to achieve; Dave went straight for the sparkling fountains—aesthetically appealing, but destructively inefficient; Sean and I browsed, but felt artistically challenged: we needed more boom.
Luckily, a boom-delivering connoisseur owned the stand and understood the look of frustration on our faces. He set his book of Garfield comics down, rose from his 1970’s fan’s jet stream, and slowly labored his way towards us. His name was Jackson, and he must have weighed closer to three hundred pounds than two hundred. While he pulled his jean shorts up, we noticed that he dubiously lacked part of his pinkie and ring-finger on his right hand—an absence of phalanges, I assumed, constituted a cost of business for a man in his industry.
“You boys looking for some power?” he drawled in his Southern accent.
“Yes sir,” I replied, “We’re looking to get in the business of pyro-techniques.”
“Well, I might have just what you’re looking for,” he said, putting an uncomfortable pause on the “well.”
He guided us to the back of the tent, which constituted as a backroom. Under a pile of boxes and general firework-stand supplies, he revealed a 2-foot canister, shaped like a rocket. The creation — probably illegal in a majority of US states and Canada—featured a large safety warning: “For Professional Use Only.”
“This here is the best of the best,” he beamed. “You know those shows you see on the TV during the 4th of July? This is what they’re using. Real professional, top of the line.”
Sean and I exchanged appreciative glances.
“How much?” Sean said in a low voice meant to make him seem much older than his hairless face would suggest.
“Usually, I’d be selling these for 500 a pop, but I’ve recently learned I have to unload’em. Police checks and everything. So I’m willing to sell for 75.”
“75, huh?” Sean said, now trying to play the part of frugal businessman.
“Are they gonna blow up in our faces?” I added for precaution.
“No way, I’m a honest, Christian businessman,” defended Jackson, without a hint of irony, considering his illegal contraband.
“We’ll take four,” Sean said without hesitation.
Later that night after gathering all the needed supplies, we settled onto the shores of the Outer banks for our pyro-technique display. The fire cackled and popped as the Atlantic Ocean hurled itself onto the beach with thunderous ambition. Splitting in two, a log sparked, shooting embers that gently swayed on their return flight down into the cool night. I gently nestled my feet into the sand, and a peculiar sensation arose, as grains of sand found their way into the crevices of my foot and tingled my spine. Thumbing my beer bottle label, its feeling of sliminess shocked me. The condensation from the cool bottle had resulted in a damp label. The fire performed as the perfect backdrop for exceptional stories. While Jess conveyed folk tales of the area, a cackling resonated from our laughter. His story chronicled the ghost of Blackbeard who haunts the Outer banks beaches.
Legends wander the Carolina shores from the days when pirates commandeered the seas. Notoriously, Blackbeard—a buccaneer so gruesome and fear-inducing that when he and the devil locked eyes (legend says), the devil himself turned the other way from fright—used the protected coastline to hide from the British fleet. After years of debauchery, the British finally cornered him against the Carolina shoreline. Refusing to go down without a fight, the swashbuckler lit his beard on fire, fanning a nauseating smell of sulfur and burnt hair towards his arresters while horrifically appearing like a demon. The skirmish resulted in decapitation for Blackbeard as a sword swiped across his neck.
Now, eerie tales of a bright light dancing where the water meets the sky are told around bonfires on beaches. The story warns that the light is Blackbeard as he roams the coast looking for his missing head. Vindictive, the Devil won’t let him into hell without a head, so Blackbeard drifts for eternity, begging to find his head. A legend of a man without purpose, left to wander the coast as a light that will never go out.
Sean had become noticeably restless as the night progressed: shifting positions, bobbing knees, clanking finished bottles. The rockets rested next to him, ready to be deployed. With brashness, Sean interrupted the conversation to declare that the launch would take place in T-minus five minutes. We had been waiting for him to say those words all night.
Our launch pad consisted of a piece of plywood that we found on the side of the road, four empty 2-Liter Coca Cola bottles that were taped to the plywood, and four sticks that washed ashore during high tide. Taping the sticks to the fireworks, we placed them into the bottles, and we prepared to launch. Ready, with matches in all of our hands, Sean started the countdown. Simultaneously, we struck our matches and lit the fuse, sending of smell of extinguished match smoke and freshly ignited gunpowder into the air.
I jolted away from the fuse, for fear of combustion, but Dave had difficulty getting his started. Suddenly, a large quantity of smoke began spewing from the bottom of the firework—a cloud of evidence supporting the chemical reaction transpiring.
A sense of impending doom rose from my stomach, as the fog of smoke grew larger and larger. With conviction, I screamed, “Run!”
We sprinted in every direction from the launch pad, deploying a mist of Carolina sand behind us. As I peeked back, sparks dashed in every direction from the fireworks. The loose footing of the sand catapulted me to the ground, just far enough to avoid the by-products of the launch.
All four fireworks exploded into the atmosphere, ripping the peaceful darkness with magnificent colors. Booming like a civil war cannon, the explosion echoed against the dunes. Colors ruptured the serene skyline into a Van Gogh-like panorama: blue's swirling downwards; yellow's flashing quickly; red's canopying slowly; green's cascading into the horizon. A symphony of light dancing to unheard music. With awe, I stood, and I appreciated the painter’s stroke we had exerted onto the blank night canvass. We were unintentional artists of the dusk.
The colors quickly faded away, and the world returned to normal. We settled around the fire again, but no one could say anything. What was there to say after igniting the horizon on fire?
Looking back on that night, I wonder why the fireworks left us so dumbfounded. We had all seen fireworks before, but never ones of that magnitude under control of our matches. With brazen determination, we lit the fuse, starting the audacious display, not knowing what could happen, but the payoff proved worth the cost of admission. Maybe that dumbfoundedness grew from the seeds of our shared boredom in that cramped car before Sean wanted to blow something up; maybe it began even before then in what might be called a generational disillusionment. After years of living through war, poor economies, stressful relationships, changing family dynamics, we felt lost, powerless, purposeless, wandering the coast searching for our missing heads, forever charged with being a light, but not knowing the extent of its radiance. But in that moment, when that spectacular illumination burst into the obsidian sky, it all made sense. We controlled the fireworks; we controlled the moment; we controlled our lives. Let the world go to shit, but we still owned the night.
© Jeremy Dillon May 2012