As promised, here is Part I of III of Greg Lackner’s opus called Rockets’ Red Glare or Toby Prevents World War III. I shortened it to its present title.
by Greg Lackner
*Editor’s note: This strange tale was discovered and passed along to us by family members searching through the artifacts of an often unemployed writer based in the Midwest. He claims it actually happened, and represents only one example of how Toby (supposedly a close friend of the writer) found himself doing the wrong thing in the right place at the right time.
This adventure of Toby’s dates from a much tenser period in world history known as the Cold War. Lasting from 1945 to approximately 1991, it was a time of mutual distrust between the United States of America and the former U.S.S.R. During the 1980’s United States’ policy and Soviet belligerence had brought international tensions to such a point that experts believed the slightest incident would trigger the beginning of a nuclear armageddon.
The hero of this tale may well have prevented such an event and perhaps cleared the way for the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union. Or, perhaps it was all just one massive coincidence. Even more likely is the possibility that the writer, in a typical alcoholic fog, simply concocted the whole thing. Reader, judge for yourself.
Ever since he could remember, Toby liked to blow things up.
Not only did he like to blow things up in person, he liked to watch things blow up in the movies and on television. Whether it was a big or small screen he was watching Toby didn’t root for the hero or the villain, but for whoever was most likely to blow up the most cars or buildings.
Before fireworks were declared illegal in most states by a stuffy bureaucracy that didn’t think people should play with explosives, Toby and his friends used to count the days until the Fourth of July. Soon the fireworks stands would be open, and they could pick up as many cherry bombs, M-80’s and black snakes as they could afford.
The concept that these items were meant to celebrate the birth of the United States of America was completely lost on Toby. They were to be experimented with in intriguing combinations of firepower. What effect did an M-80 have when combined with three cherry bombs and so on.
Toby likened himself in later years to the heroes of Los Alamos who developed the atomic bomb because they could. Like those pioneering physicists, Toby, with equal zeal and dedication, would endlessly push the boundaries of his experiments.
To Toby’s disappointment he discovered the bang remained pretty much the same no matter how many fireworks were combined. Then one day he was reading his science textbook and came across the account of how the hydrogen bomb was developed. He read that for a hydrogen bomb to explode it had to be detonated by an atomic bomb.
That made a lasting impression on Toby. Atom bomb triggers hydrogen bomb, he thought, now how could that be used in his own pyrotechnic experiments? On yet another night while he lay awake in his bed pondering this question, he had the answer. The shock and pleasure of it made him sit straight up. He was on fire with the need to test his theory.
Unfortunately, it was the middle of winter so Toby couldn’t spend much time outside. And he had discovered earlier that it was hard to light fireworks in the cold.
Instead he pulled down the box of fireworks left over from the last Fourth of July from its hiding place in his closet. The box was labeled Dangerous, High Explosives, Do Not Touch, Do Not Remove. A quick glance confirmed his stash was still intact.
Toby carried the box downstairs carefully, trying not to make any noise that would wake up his parents. He padded across the moonlit landscape of his kitchen and, holding his breath, he slowly opened the basement door.
Toby peered for a moment into the darkness of the basement. On most days he was never thrilled about going down to the basement by himself but this time he was on a mission and managed to shove his fears to a corner of his mind. He flicked on the light switch at the door.
The bare light bulb above the stairs barely made a dent in the basement’s darkness. Toby was aware the basement monsters were lurking very near by, but he felt somehow emboldened by the box of variously-packaged gunpowder and fuses he was carrying. Any basement monster he encountered would find itself on the business end of a cherry bomb suppository he thought as he slowly moved down the stairs trying to avoid the steps he knew contained creaks.
He quickly flicked on the rest of the basement lights at the switches at the bottom of the stairs. In the middle of the basement, Toby saw his James Bond slot-car racing set still set up from Christmas. Toby loved it more than life itself, but he realized his experiment had to come first. Toby’s mother had done the laundry that day, and sheets were still hanging up between the stairs and his car set.
Toby threaded his way through the sheets and reached the car set. His idea was simplicity itself. Instead of just throwing all sorts of fireworks into a can and lighting one fuse, Toby would set them up in sequence. A black snake would set off a cherry bomb which in turn would set off an M-80, which in turn would set off three M-80’s which then would lead directly to the remaining fireworks in his box.
In just a few minutes he had wired up the fuses in the proper sequence. They started from the edge of his car racing set and wandered over plastic hills and valleys to the box set directly in the middle of the race track where a few plastic buildings were set up to look like a spy headquarters.
Toby ran to the furnace, grabbed the kitchen matches from where his dad kept them for relighting the pilot and returned to his race set now decorated with his handiwork. As he stared at his experiment, he thought this tingly feeling that was swarming through him must be what those Los Alamos guys felt like before they pushed the button that changed the world.
He scratched a match against the box, and it flared into life. Already visualizing the path he would take to safety behind the furnace, Toby touched the match to the first fuse. There was a breathless second before the fuse caught and then that glorious sound of fizzing and the sight of the orange-white sparks flying and dying in all directions as the fuse consumed itself.
Toby took an extra second to look in satisfaction at the burning fuse, turned and ran as fast as he could to the furnace and dove behind it. The match was still in his hands and burned his fingers. It was still lit. Toby hardly noticed it as he flicked it away. Then the cherry bomb caught.
Then it ignited the black snake.
That ignited the first M-80.
Next came the series of three M-80’s.
Then the whole box went up.
White light flooded the basement. The heat from the explosion singed Toby’s eyebrows and hair. He felt his ears pop. The concussion sent him falling backwards, and his head hit the basement floor very hard. He didn’t know for a second if he was seeing sparks from the fireworks or from his banged-up noggin.
After waiting a second for his head to stop twirling, Toby got to his feet and came out from his hiding place. He looked in wonder and pride at what had happened.
The car racing set had ceased to exist. The table it was sitting on was just four legs. The legs slowly separated and fell to the floor. Toby felt a blast of cold wind from four directions and turned to see that all the basement windows had blown out.
Then he smelled smoke and looked over to see that his mother’s sheets had turned black on the side that faced the car racing set and were on fire around their edges. Toby filled a handy bucket with water from the laundry sink and dowsed the fires, but not before the fire had changed them from rectangles into strange abstract shapes, suitable, perhaps, for framing, but now rendered useless as bed linen.
The combined smoke from the explosion and the burning sheets was starting to irritate Toby’s eyes and nose, so he made as many mental notes as he could about what had just happened and left the basement. He was careful to turn off the lights as he left. His father was always giving him hell about leaving lights on.
On his way back to his room, as he felt wrapped in an aura of pride and achievement, he heard his mother call from their room.
“Toby,” she said. “Are you all right?”
“Just fine, Mom,” Toby said. And he went back to bed where he slept blissfully until the next morning.
Twenty years later, Toby had not lost his fascination with fireworks and explosives, but the state he lived in had outlawed fireworks for sale or use in the same year his experiment had succeeded. Also certain killjoys disapproved of igniting explosives on the Fourth of July. For several years Toby had felt empty without his beloved fireworks but he didn’t believe in flouting the law and disturbing his neighbors. He suffered his withdrawal in quiet despair.
One day at work, Toby got a new office partner in the adjacent cubicle. His name was Albert and Toby soon discovered that Albert liked to talk a lot more than he liked to work.
About mid-June Albert began to talk about Toby’s favorite subject.
“You know, Toby, it’s a darn shame we can’t touch off any fireworks any more on the Fourth of July,” Albert said.
“Um-hmmm,” Toby replied in what he hoped was a non-committal tone. Inside he felt himself getting excited.
“Why a person has to go out of state now and buy his fireworks and then take a chance that nobody will call the cops on him,” Albert said.
“Um-hmmm,” Toby replied again.
“Lucky, for me, I’ve saved myself quite a little stash of fireworks over the years, so I don’t have to make the trip every year,” Albert said. Toby said nothing, but he had stopped breathing. Albert didn’t need any prompting. “Yeah, I know I’m breaking some silly law, but I can’t help it. I love fireworks. That’s why I work in the summers on a real fireworks crew.”
Toby could contain himself no longer. He jumped on his desk and looked over the cubicle partition at Albert. “You work on a real fireworks crew,” Toby said. “What’s it like?”
Albert smiled slowly at Toby. He loved to keep his audience riveted. “Yeah, it’s a real fireworks crew,” Albert said. “We send up the big stuff. You know. The BIG stuff. We work at the small town shows around here. Me and a bunch of other guys work kind of free-lance for Big Bang Fireworks out of the big city.”
Toby was normally shy about asking people to discuss their lives, but luckily Albert loved to talk about his experiences wowing crowds every Fourth of July.
“When we’re all running around setting off the fireworks it’s like being in hell itself,” Albert said with poetic imagery. “All that smoke and flame and sparks. Sure sometimes it’s dangerous. Sure, I’ve seen guys blown in two setting off fireworks. Every year it seems the fire department has to hose somebody down who catches a stray spark, but damn, if it isn’t the most exciting thing you’ve ever done in your life. You want to help this year?”
Toby had gotten so caught up in the mental picture Albert was painting that he almost missed the question at the end. Then he realized what he was being asked.
“You mean help you guys light off fireworks. I could?” Toby said.
“Sure,” Albert said.
“Don’t I have to take some kind of training, get some kind of certificate?” Toby asked hardly believing his good fortune could be this easy.
“Nah,” Albert said. “It’s really not that hard. You just follow directions. Look, we work three shows a year, and the show down in Dixon is our pride and joy. We could always use a little help. I’ll put in a good word for you with the guy who runs our crew.”
After that conversation, Toby found he could think of little else. His waking and sleeping dreams were about him holding a glowing flare in his right hand. His left hand would be held straight back to hold off the crowd of voluptuous fireworks groupies who had gathered to watch Toby work his magic.
Then he would touch flare to fuse, step nonchalantly back a few feet and wait for the explosion. All eyes as one would follow the rocket up into the darkness where its trailing flame died for a second and then a rainbow of colors would blossom, splitting the darkness into fiery beauty.
A moment later the sound of the explosion would arrive, mixing with the crowd’s roar of approval. He’d turn around and see the groupies smile at him in complete and total surrender as they moved close to soothe his aches and proclaim him the hero he knew he was.
After that initial offer, Albert did not talk any more about Toby working with the crew and Toby watched with some alarm as the calendar pages flipped closer and closer to July. Had they forgotten about him?
Then one day alarmingly close to the Fourth of July, Albert casually asked him in the coffee break room if he was still interested in helping with the Pooteeweet show.
“YES!!” Toby said reaching over and grabbing Albert by the shoulders and shaking him vigorously. Albert’s coffee sloshed over his hands and shoes.
“Okay, okay,” Albert said looking at Toby with some alarm and shaking the coffee off his hands. “I’ll have you meet Lewis, the guy who runs our crew. Meet me after work, and I’ll drive you over there.”
Toby found Albert in the company parking lot after work and rode in his car to what Toby knew was his destiny. Lewis lived in a small mobile home on the outskirts of town. Two cars of unidentifiable vintage were on blocks in front of the slightly leaning trailer. In the back, a rowboat was turned upside down.
Lewis opened the door and popped out as soon as they drove up. He had a bunch of papers in one hand and a beer in the other.
Albert introduced Toby to Lewis who eyed him for a moment.
“You know what you’re getting into?” Lewis asked.
“Do you have hospitalization insurance?”
“Do drugs or drink to excess?”
Lewis eyed him again and took a healthy pull off his beer.
“Okay. I need you to fill these out and sign them.”
The papers he handed Toby seemed to be asking a lot of questions about health and next of kin. There must have been at least five references to absolving Lewis and the home company against any blame in case Toby was killed or maimed for life.
While Toby scribbled and signed his name on the forms, Lewis and Albert talked for a while. Just as Toby finished the last “You agree to hold us harmless for any…,” he heard Albert exclaim.
As Toby walked up to Lewis and Albert to return the papers Albert said, “Hey, Toby, guess what? Lewis says there’s going to be a bunch of Russian commies at this show.”
“Not exactly a bunch,” Lewis said. “I think there’s about three of them.”
“Whatever,” Albert said. “They’re here because there’s a town in Siberia named Dicksohn, and they were invited to America to be at their sister city’s celebration. Boy, we’ll show them what America is all about.”
Toby realized this made his debut show that much more important. He was so thrilled he almost didn’t hear Albert say:
“Wait til you meet the rest of the guys. They’re cool.”
At that very minute one of those guys was driving towards Dixon on the only road that led from Toby’s town to the Siberian sister city.
He slowed to a crawl as he neared a roadside rest stop that he had been instructed to look for. At the same time as he spotted a car parked unobtrusively under some trees it flashed its headlights at him three times.
He parked about fifty feet from the car. Both he and the driver of the other car came out about the same time and met halfway in between.
“Are you Sheldon?” asked the stranger.
“Yes,” said Sheldon. “And you are…”
“Anonymous as far as you’re concerned,” the stranger said abruptly. “You don’t need to know my name. Follow me.”
The stranger led Sheldon to the back of his car and popped open the trunk. An iron box about the size of a footlocker rested snugly in the center, surrounded by pillows. Sheldon noticed a couple of the pillow covers had baby ducks on them.
“Ducks?” Sheldon asked.
The stranger didn’t seem to hear him. He reached into the trunk for a flashlight, opened the box and shone the beam of light inside.
“That look familiar?” the stranger asked turning his head so abruptly that Sheldon stepped back a bit.
“Sure does,” Sheldon said. “I saw plenty of them in ‘Nam. Never thought I’d see them at a fireworks show back in the U S of A.”
“With this you can put on the most spectacular fireworks show anybody has ever seen,” the stranger said.
“I’ve already promised you people a very satisfying show,” Sheldon said. “I’m your guy.”
The stranger handed Sheldon the flashlight and yanked the iron box from the trunk. Picking their steps carefully over the dark ground Sheldon led the stranger to his car. He opened his trunk and stood to one side while the stranger carefully placed the box in his trunk. Sheldon was using old blankets for padding. No baby ducks for him.
“That should do it,” the stranger said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a very fat envelope. “Here’s your reward in the service of a noble cause.” He held the envelope out to Sheldon.
“I don’t want that,” Sheldon said and leaned into the trunk to adjust the box.
“Why not?” the stranger said leaning over Sheldon. “You’ve earned it. The other half is for after the show.”
“I guess I have my reasons,” Sheldon said and straightened up suddenly from the trunk. He had a .45 automatic in his hand which had conveniently been waiting for him in his trunk. Before the stranger even realized what Sheldon was holding, Sheldon shot him once in the chest.
The force of the bullet threw the stranger halfway between the cars and laid him out flat on his back in the gravel. He propped himself up on his elbows and looked in astonishment at Sheldon who was moving slowly towards him.
“What, why…” the stranger gasped.
“Like I said, I guess I have my reasons,” Sheldon said, calmly pressed the gun to the stranger’s forehead and blew off the top of his skull.
The shot had barely echoed away when Sheldon dragged the body to the stranger’s car, opened the back door and shoved it inside. He kicked random pieces of brains and bones under the car and then went back to his own vehicle. He put the .45 back in the trunk, reached behind its hiding place and drew out an object that was about the shape and size of a small rutabaga with a three foot paper tail.
Sheldon returned to the stranger’s car, opened the gas tank and put the rutabaga inside, leaving the tail trailing out of the opened tank. Sheldon pulled out a lighter and set the flame to the tail. It started hissing and a flame of sparks and smoke advanced to the trunk of the stranger’s car.
Sheldon didn’t really see this happening because he was wasting no time in getting back to his car. The engine caught immediately and he floored the accelerator. The car zoomed out of the rest stop spraying gravel behind it.
He barely hit the road when a dull boom came from the rest stop. The back end of the stranger’s car blew outwards and upwards in a shower of flame and curiously beautiful green/red sparks. Then the gas tank caught fire and the whole car disintegrated into a cloud of fire and black smoke.
Sheldon’s speeding car bucked forward from the concussion of the explosion. As he looked at the rest stop from his rear view mirror, he noticed small pieces of the car and undoubtedly what was left of the stranger drifting lazily back to earth.
What a beautiful sight, Sheldon thought. To him it seemed a very fitting beginning to the important work he had to do.
As it turned out Toby never got to meet the “rest of the guys” on the fireworks crew. One morning a very hung-over looking Albert told Toby in a quavering voice that he had forgotten to invite him to the meeting which had included drinking, dope smoking and cocaine snorting.
Somewhere in all that the group had spent a small amount of time planning the Dixon show. Toby only really felt left out when Albert told him that after the planning session was over they had gone out to shoot off some of Class X fireworks using Lewis’ junked car as a launching pad.
Even through his blinding headache, Albert could see that Toby was a little crestfallen. “I’ll tell you what, old buddy,” Albert said. “How about if you pick me up and drive us to Dixon tomorrow. I got something special to show you.”
Toby readily agreed, and he and Albert made the necessary arrangements on when and where to meet.
After a nearly sleepless night filled with mixed feelings of euphoria and anxiety, Toby managed to choke down some breakfast and coffee and headed to Albert’s house, which was sort of on the way out of town.
Toby was basically driving on auto-pilot. All his conscious thoughts orbited around the upcoming show. In anticipation of what Toby fully believed would be the defining experience of his life every nerve, sensor and blood vessel in his body was working overtime and flooding his brain with a curious energy. At this point in time, Toby felt like he could conquer the world.
When Toby finally pulled into Albert’s driveway, his fellow fireworks crewman was already heading out of the backdoor. Toby started up the walkway towards Albert’s house, but the way Albert closed the backdoor firmly behind him made it look like there was little or no chance that Toby was going to be invited inside.
“Come on out to the garage with me,” Albert said. “I’ve got something to show you.”
Toby followed Albert to his handsome two-and-a-half car garage and watched with interest as Albert used the littlest key Toby had ever seen to turn a lock that made the overhead door raise upward.
“That is pretty neat,” Toby said.
“That’s not what I wanted to show you,” Albert said disappearing into the shadows of the garage. Toby heard some boxes being moved and some muffled grunts and then Albert came back into the daylight carrying a large iron box.
Albert placed the box by the trunk of Toby’s car, looked around for a moment to see if anybody was watching, yanked open the lid, and gestured for Toby to take a look inside.
Toby could not believe his eyes. For a moment or two he literally stopped breathing. Inside the box was a treasure trove of fireworks: Roman candles, bottle rockets, sizzlers and, best of all, a hefty collection of black snakes, cherry bombs and M-80’s. Toby had not seen this kind of firepower in one place since the glory days of his youth when he almost blew up his parents’ basement.
“You know I once used black snakes, cherry bombs and M-80’s to make a really big…” Toby said.
“Yeah, that’s great. These babies are for us to play with at the show. I’ve been collecting them for years,” Albert said with some pride. Then he glanced at his watch. “Look it’s getting late and we got a little bit of driving to do. Let’s get moving.”
Toby decided to hold his story for a more opportune moment. He and Albert loaded the box into the trunk of Toby’s car and Albert handed him a box with a button on it.
“That’s the automatic garage door opener,” Albert said. Toby nodded absently as he looked at it. He was still thinking about the box of goodies he had just put in his trunk. “It’ll be dark when we get back, and I thought it would be nice not to have to get out of the car to open the garage.”
Albert went back into the garage and came back with two very nice lawn chairs which he put down inside the door to the garage.
“Okey-dokey,” Albert said. “One more look around. Go ahead and get the car started.”
Toby got behind the wheel and looked once again at the garage door opener and put it on the seat beside him. He started the car and leaned over to turn on the radio. At the same time he accidentally pressed down on the garage door opener.
Since Toby’s back was to the garage, he did not see the door begin to lower. Albert, who was inside the garage, did, however, and realized with horror that the door was about to crush his two valuable lawn chairs.
Screaming in vain to get Toby’s attention, Albert lunged for one of the chairs and dragged it out of the way of the descending door. Perhaps he should have settled for the one, but Albert had just paid big money for those two lawn chairs.
Just as he got back to the second one to pull it to safety, the overhead door cracked him on the head and sent him sprawling over the chair. Then the door hit the top of the chair and folded it over on top of Albert in a shape vaguely resembling a hoagie roll.
The door continued to come down crushing both the chair and Albert underneath it until the resistance of metal and human flesh triggered an automatic safety mechanism and stopped the door. Albert was quite stuck under the door and inside the folding chair and was having trouble catching his breath to yell for Toby to help him.
Toby had thought his friend had deserted him. He looked in the rearview mirror and thought the overhead door was all the way closed. Figuring Albert had perhaps gone back into the house, Toby turned off the radio and the engine to wait.
Only then did he hear faintly, “Toby…help…me…chair…”
Toby looked in the rearview mirror and still saw nothing. But the faint cries for help continued. Toby scratched his head and tried to decide what to do. Although he hated to halt his forward progress to the fireworks show, he decided to get out of his car and look for his friend.
As soon as he did, he saw Albert wrapped up in the chair. Albert’s arms were waving feebly in the air.
“Toby…get…the…opener…” Albert said.
Toby dashed back to the car and reached in for the door. As he pulled himself out of the car he stumbled backwards and the opener went flying through the air, shattering into several unusable pieces just inches from Albert.
Albert yelled in frustration. Toby ran back to his trapped friend grabbed hold of his arms and tried pulling him loose. Albert yelled in pain.
“That’s not going to work!” Albert screamed. “Open the door! Turn the key!” And he waved his arms in the direction of the key that he had left in place on the side of the garage.
Toby jumped to the key and turned it in the wrong direction. It snapped off in his hand like a Thanksgiving wishbone. He looked at it in wonder for a moment and then held it out to show Albert. Albert’s eyes got very large when saw what Toby was holding.
“I’m going to die here!” Albert screamed. “Do something!!”
Toby thought of the only solution possible.
“This is what I was going to tell you about,” he said as he dashed back to the car and grabbed the box of fireworks from the trunk.
Moving faster than he thought he ever could and ignoring Albert’s increasingly hysterical queries as to what he was going to do, Toby repeated his childhood basement experiment, only this time placing the large amounts of M-80’s under the garage door farthest away from Albert.
“Turn your head to to the other side,” Toby yelled as he touched his handy disposable lighter to the first fuse. Toby once again couldn’t resist staring at the mesmerizing hiss of the fuse and then ran and hid around the front of his car.
The cherry bomb caught.
Then it ignited the black snake.
That ignited the first M-80.
Next came the series of three M-80’s.
Then the rest of the M-80’s went up.
Being daylight, the flood of light was not quite as severe as Toby’s memory of the basement experiment, but the concussion from the explosion still rocked Toby’s car. He crawled from the front of the car to see what had happened and was quite satisfied with the result.
Albert was standing in the now open doorway holding a few twisted pieces of metal from the lawn chair. Most of Albert’s clothing and hair were missing. The upper part of his body was singed coal black. Other than that he appeared to be unharmed.
The same could not be said for the garage. The explosion had thrown the door clear upwards through the roof, carrying most of the roof with it. As Toby looked on in amazement, the wreckage of the door and the roof came down in Albert’s back yard effectively destroying his flower garden and most of his back porch.
With the sound of a cardboard box being torn apart, the rest of the garage separated and fell with a crash into four separate pieces on to Albert’s lawn, two of his neighbor’s lawns and Albert’s driveway. Toby marveled at the similarity between the collapsing garage and his basement table.
Toby walked over to where Albert stood swaying slightly. Toby grabbed Albert by the shoulder and began leading him to his house, being careful not to trip over what was left of the garage.
“Toby,” Albert said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to help out this year.”
Meanwhile Sheldon was making good time on the road to Dixon. His cargo was secure in the trunk. His plan and its justifications were secure in his mind. He felt the purity of a man on a mission.
He also felt very satisfied with how he had acted during the crew meeting. It would have been so easy to let some hint drop of what special feature was planned for this fireworks show. But, it remained his secret, even though in a few short hours the whole world would know what he had done and why.
Sheldon believed nothing could go wrong. He allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction as he negotiated the winding road to Dixon.
When he passed by the rest stop where he had done away with his supplier and his car (the headlines read “Mystery car explosion kills unidentified man”) he gave in to an impulse to stop and relive the experience. After all, killing this man was the step that had set him irrevocably on this course and, so, he felt naturally drawn to the spot.
He stopped the car, got out, and walked around for a moment savoring the memories. He leaned back against his car and recalled how the stranger had contacted him, and how surprised he was with the eagerness with which Sheldon had accepted his offer. Little did the stranger know how Sheldon had modified the plan.
In this semi-trance in the rapidly growing heat of the day Sheldon lost track of the time. He snapped back to reality with a start when he heard another car pull into the rest stop. He looked up to see a nondescript vehicle brake to a stop so close to him that he was practically pinned between the two cars.
Toby leaned out of his car window. “Is this the road to Dixon?” Toby asked.
“It’s the only way that I know about,” Sheldon said slightly miffed at this unwelcome interruption.
“Thanks,” Toby said. “I was supposed to have a friend along with me on the trip but he had an accident and had to stay home.”
“Are you going there for the fireworks show tonight?” Toby asked.
This shocked Sheldon into a state of hyper-alertness. “Why do you ask?” he said.
“Because I’m going to be working on the crew!” Toby said. “See you later!”
And he drove off, but not before Sheldon could move away from the departing car. The rear wheel of Toby’s car drove over both of Sheldon’s feet.
Sheldon was so shocked by Toby’s inquiry on the fireworks show that he didn’t feel a thing for a few moments. Then he looked down. His feet had been flattened into the soft gravel of the rest stop driveway and there was a tread-mark across his very expensive tennis shoes. As the pain washed up from his feet through the rest of his body he stopped thinking about who this “crew member” was. Sheldon was too busy dancing around and screaming obscenities. Lately this rest stop was turning out to be anything but restful.
Toby drove on in an almost perfect state of bliss. He was sorry about what had happened to Albert, but he still had most of the fireworks Albert had brought out and he was on his way to be part of a real fireworks crew. He hoped the nice guy he met in the rest stop would enjoy the show. Toby pledged to try even harder for the sake of helpful American citizens like that. This is what the Fourth of July was all about. This is what made America great.
The ultimate object of Toby and Sheldon’s journey was looking forward to the final Fourth of July festivities that would mark the end of the visit by their Siberian counterparts.
In his small but comfortable office, decorated with equal parts photos of Ellsworth holding up enormous bass and citations from various local civic groups, Ellsworth Fondue, the long-time mayor of Dixon, was conferring with Harriet Sweet, the ad hoc director of this year’s Fourth of July Special Events. They had been “conferring” on this year’ special celebration for almost nine months now and by now were getting a little sick of each other. Ellsworth felt his ears begin to ring every time Harriet entered a room and Harriet was convinced beyond doubt that Ellsworth was the the most thick-headed man in the county. These feelings had escalated geometrically during the last few days and it was becoming increasingly difficult for Harriet and Ellsworth to even acknowledge each other’s conversations in a civil manner. They only had one more day to deal with this event, and each was quite happy about that.
“So, you have the final revisions to today’s schedule?” Ellsworth asked.
“Do you think I would have thrown it away?” Harriet said, relishing for a moment the wince that came over Ellsworth’s face. “I’ve run off about 100 copies for everyone concerned. Here’s yours. Don’t lose it.” She tossed a stapled sheaf of papers at Ellsworth, who neatly snatched it from mid-air and took a look at it.
“Well, I see you actually spelled the town’s name right this time,” Ellsworth said looking for and receiving a reciprocal look of anger and hurt from Harriet.
The single-spaced typed schedule was the outline for the final day of the Russians’ whirlwind frolic through small-town America. It was going to be a jam-packed day. The Russians were to be honored at a special brunch at 11 a.m. with a performance by the combined church choirs of Dixon. It was thought by some on Harriet’s committee that some good Christian music would have a subliminal effect on their atheistic visitors. Ellsworth was skeptical on that point but raised no objections.
Next the Russians would be taken to the start of the parade on the opposite side of the river from City Hall where they would ride in the first car along with Ellsworth and Harriet. Harriet had prevailed in having Ellsworth drive the car even though he had protested vigorously that this was not the proper role for the mayor in his town’s parade. Harriet had argued and triumphed with the rest of the Special Events Steering Committee by stating that having the mayor drive the car would present the “proper egalitarian spirit so long celebrated by the Marxist/Leninist societies.” This was exactly the way she said it. Ellsworth could still recall her look of steely-eyed triumph when she realized she had carried the day on this point. It was just one more item to resent about having to deal with this power-mad woman. Ellsworth went along with that too.
After the lead car of the parade crossed the bridge over the Wannasee River and came down the main street by City Hall the Russians, Ellsworth and Harriet would join the other local dignitaries in the reviewing stands to view the remaining part of the parade.
This year’s parade was almost twice as long as usual. Every business, charity and fraternal organization in town had wanted to get in on the act. Each seemed to have some point they wanted to make to the Russians. Ellsworth and Harriet had found it impossible to turn them down.
After the parade the Russians and certain town dignitaries would adjourn to the VFW hall and have an “old-fashioned Russian/American Fourth of July Party.” When Ellsworth pressed Harriet on what exactly that meant she said the menu would include standard Fourth of July foods like fried chicken, corn on the cob, apple pie, etc., but would be washed down this year with vodka rather than apple cider. Ellsworth wondered about the appropriateness of using vodka but Harriet once again prevailed with the committee when she began referring to their obligation to include something distinctly Russian in the menu and really who would want to eat borscht with their fried chicken? Once again he was treated to Harriet’s look of triumph. It was perhaps at this moment more than any other when he decided how much he loathed this woman.
By the time the picnic was over it would be just about time for the fireworks to begin. Once again they would be set up in a small park on the opposite side of the Wannasee River. The parade reviewing stands would have been turned to face the river on the other side from the fireworks crew. It was in these stands that the Russians, Harriet, Ellsworth and certain other special guests of the day would be gathered to view the show, on which the town had spent an unprecedented sum.
Ellsworth finished his review of the list and stared at it for a few moments. “I guess you have it all covered,” he said grudgingly.
“No misspellings?” she asked.
“No, I don’t see any this time,” Ellsworth said making sure he emphasized the last two words of that sentence. “Have you seen our honored guests yet this morning?
“Not yet,” Harriet said. “But, I understand they had quite a night of it.”
Ellsworth was not surprised to hear this. Ever since their arrival in Dixon two days ago the Russians had not yet stopped enjoying capitalism to the fullest. Ellsworth, Harriet and the Steering Committee had laid out a very detailed agenda for the Russian visit, but they had not counted on the plans of their visitors.
Every time the Russians were out of their sight for more than ten minutes they would magically vanish, only to appear a few hours later at Dixon’s Farm and Fleet purchasing Bugle Boy jeans, VCR’s and new rock, pop and rap records. The Russians disdained country music and jazz. If they weren’t at the Farm and Fleet they could be found in the Lightning Bolt Bar and Grill holding forth at the bar in a mixture of Russian and broken English that the Bolt barflies seemed to understand perfectly. It had become quite a game for the committee members assigned to the Russians to keep track of them. A couple of them had been talked into drinking with the visitors at the Bolt and had paid for their weakness dearly the next morning.
Last night, though, the town had thrown the Russians their official “Hail and Farewell Party.” Again by order of the Steering Committee, there had been lots of vodka present and lots of toasts. Ellsworth and Harriet had managed to lay off most of the offered spirits, but the visitors and an alarming number of townspeople had happily joined in. By the time the lights were shut off the Russians were showing their hosts how to perform traditional Russian folk dances which seemed to conclude by the dancers throwing furniture around the restaurant banquet hall. They were finally persuaded to get a good night’s sleep and left the hall decorated in broken bottles, pieces of furniture and a few partygoers who had collapsed in the corners.
A mere nine hours later the game was afoot again.
“Well,” Ellsworth said, checking his watch. “I guess we better go wake up our visitors and get them ready for the brunch. I’m really glad this thing is almost over.”
“No more glad than I am,” Harriet said. “After this I’m going to hibernate in my home for a month.”
“Well, we’ll certainly going to miss you.”
“Is that supposed to be a crack?”
“Take it any way you like.”
“Ellsworth you are without a doubt the biggest…”
Harriet was never able to tell Ellsworth what the biggest thing he was because Ellsworth’s intercom buzzed him at that moment. His lovely and supportive assistant came on the line.
“Mr. Fondue,” she said. “The fireworks guy is here. He wants to pick up the final permits so they can start setting up.”
“Great,” Ellsworth said into the intercom calming himself by trying to recreate in his mind what his assistant had been wearing that day. “They’re in the folder marked fireworks on my desk. And have him stop by the police office so they can set up the roadblocks.”
Ellsworth clicked off and looked ahead dreamily for a moment. He quickly lost the dreamy look when he noticed how Harriet was appraising him with a cool eye. He reddened in embarrassment and despised himself for doing it and Harriet for making him do it.