Rockets’ Red Glare or Toby Prevents World War III—Part II
(If you missed it, here’s Part I .)
by Greg Lackner
Mr. Mike, as he liked to be called by his crews whether they liked it or not, was a few doors down the hall from Ellsworth and Harriet, in the cramped office of the police chief, reviewing the last of the fireworks permits in front of the Dixon police and fire chiefs. This ritual was one of things he hated and loved about his job.
Mr. Mike hated the time he had to waste on this because he had to field the idiotic questions of “civilians” which is how he referred to anybody who did not have an active role in setting off fireworks.
Civilians, in Mr. Mike’s universe, were interchangeable bodies and faces that responded like dogs begging for table scraps while he worked his magic. In reality Mr. Mike created his fireworks shows mostly to please Mr. Mike’s aesthetics and he never felt any warmth or particular obligation to the Civilians he was supposed to be entertaining.
On the other hand, Mr. Mike loved this part because it gave him a chance to lord it over these officials who under other circumstances might have the power to order him about.
“Same set up as last year?” the police chief asked.
Mr. Mike stopped reading but did not bother to look up from the page. “No,” he said talking to the paper and not the Civilian. “It’s not the same set up.”
“But, I thought…”
“This year your city council in their wisdom decided to upgrade the show.” Mr. Mike finally looked up and leaned in conspiratorially to the police and fire chiefs who in turn leaned in to him. “This year we’re adding…electronics.”
This got the reaction he desired. Both chiefs leaned back and glanced at each other. “Don’t worry,” Mr. Mike said. “If anything these are a lot less dangerous than the ones you fire by hand. We’ll have those, too.”
The fire chief said, “I thought you came in a bigger truck this time.”
“That’s right, Chief,” Mr. Mike said. He pointed out the window behind the chiefs to the red, white and blue panel truck parked along the curb. The truck said “Big Bang Fireworks, Hammond, Indiana.”
“That truck has all the launchers, primary fireworks, back-ups, everything I need plus it’s where we fire off the electronic fireworks,” Mr. Mike said as if he were explaining something to a child.
“Why electronic fireworks?” asked the police chief.
Mr. Mike warmed to his topic. “It’s the difference between playing with fire and playing with electricity. Don’t worry, you guys are going to love it. Everybody will,” he said, smiling like a wolf sizing up a particularly slow sheep.
Before the police and fire chiefs could annoy him with any other questions, Mr. Mike grabbed his permit and without a word walked out of the office, down the hall, and out the front door. The day was starting to warm up perceptibly and the weather report predicted fair weather, virtually no wind and high temperatures in the mid-90’s.
Good fireworks weather, Mr. Mike thought as he climbed into his truck. He stole a glance through the back window before he took off. The sight always made him feel all tingly. Stored securely in the back of the truck were boxes of almost all shapes and sizes containing the launching equipment and the actual fireworks he and his crew would be setting off that night.
Mr. Mike thought that maybe he should have warned Lewis, his lackey of the day and nominal crew chief, that the reason he was coming to this show was because of the electronics and not so much the importance of putting on a good show for the Russians.
Ah, well, Mr. Mike believed a little paranoia was good for fireworks crews. Lewis said he was bringing along a new guy this year, someone named Tony or something like that. They didn’t really need anybody new this year, but he could do some of the grunt work.
The truck’s engine turned over and rumbled quietly with power. Mr. Mike loved this vehicle and he thought of how thoroughly cool he looked as he headed it towards the riverside park and his appointment with destiny.
Toby was hopelessly lost. Finding Dixon was really no problem; he just kept going down the road until he was there. But, once inside the town, he was completely turned around. All he had to do was find the river, but it seemed to be deliberately hiding from him.
The streets were rather deserted, which Toby thought was strange at this hour in the morning. In the distance he could hear what sounded like a brass band warming up and people shouting, the sounds of the Fourth of July.
The few townspeople he did see seemed to be in some kind of pain. They took their steps very gingerly and spoke softly to each other. Toby thought they might all have some slight case of the flu. They looked so pitiful he actually hated to ask anybody where the fireworks set-up was.
Then to his left he saw three chunky looking men in shabby sport coats and what looked like designer jeans standing outside the Dixon Arms Hotel. They were talking animatedly and pointing around in all directions. These guys look like they feel okay, Toby thought, maybe they could help him out.
He crossed the center lane of the street and pulled over to the curb next to the three happy guys. They stopped talking immediately and stared at him suspiciously. Toby was a little taken aback by this reaction but decided to press ahead anyway.
“Sorry to bother you guys,” Toby said. “Could you direct me to the place where they’re shooting off the fireworks?”
One of the group detached himself for a moment and stepped over to Toby’s car. Instead of answering Toby’s question he stuck his head inside the passenger window and began looking around the car.
Toby tried again. “Happy Fourth of July,” he said. The stranger looked up at him sharply. “I’m looking for the fireworks crew…”
Suddenly the stranger came to life. “Da! Da!! Happy Foat ob Jool-eye,” the stranger cried. “Da, da, Goat bluss Amairatscha!!” he yelled to his friends outside the car. They cheered and Toby noticed one was waving around a quart bottle of clear liquid. The one with the bottle passed it to the stranger with his head inside Toby’s car, who in turn passed it to Toby.
Bottled water, Toby thought, well the day was already sweltering, and he could sure use that. He thanked the stranger and took a long pull off the bottle.
The world, for Toby, misted over briefly. A burning sensation started at the back of his throat and gained power until it exploded full force inside his stomach. It took him only a moment to realize that he was drinking something a lot stronger than water.
Toby was not a drinker and in his present keyed-up state the vodka he had just gulped felt like he had swallowed diesel oil. It started to rise up in his throat like a blowtorch. Toby had seconds to hand the bottle back to the stranger, all the while making strange gurgling noises. Then he flung open his door, leaned out, and prepared to puke his guts out. That thought flew out of his head when he heard a car squeal to a stop right behind his own car.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Ellsworth Fondue said as he got out of the car and walked around the side of Toby’s car to where Toby was leaning out of his car in front of the three guys.
Harriet, who had been riding with Ellsworth to pick up their Russian guests, was sitting stiffly in the passenger seat. They both were horrified to see their charges out of the hotel and talking to a stranger in some out-of-town car. Ellsworth was almost up to the car when he noticed someone was leaning out of the driver’s door.
“Who are you?” Ellsworth demanded of Toby.
Toby looked up at Ellsworth for a moment. Then his stomach lost the battle with the vodka. He managed to say “Fireworks crew” before he lost control over his guts and vomited spectacularly over the pants and wing-tip shoes of the mayor of Dixon.
As his head swam and he slumped back into his seat, Toby could hear screams of outrage from Ellsworth and raucous laughter from the three strangers (and what also sounded like chirps of mirth from a woman).
This is a very odd town, Toby thought, as he fought to clear his blurred vision.
Even though Sheldon had been delayed by having his feet slightly crushed in the rest stop, he had an advantage over Toby in that he knew where the fireworks site was. He got there before any of the other crew, even before Mr. Mike, showed up. Sheldon, of course, had no idea Mr. Mike was going to be there this year.
The site was a four block stretch of riverfront located between two of the main streets of Dixon. The river bisected the downtown area and Main Street boxed off the fireworks site to the north and Elm Street did the same to the south. The parade route traditionally ran down Main Street, crossed the river where the fireworks crew set up, and finished just past the reviewing stand on the far side.
The fireworks launching site was a patch of greenery and trees that sloped gently down to the rushing river. Running adjacent to the site was a side street that had already been blocked from general traffic coming from Main or Elm Streets by orange warning cones.
Sheldon drove around the cones coming off Elm Street and pulled over to the side of the street away from the river’s edge. He gingerly got out of his car and limped over to the launch site to take a private look around.
This was a pretty sight, Sheldon had to admit. The shore had just the right number of shady trees, some of the older ones were so big around that two people hugging the trunks from either side could not have touched. The trees near the river lightly brushed the top of the water with their branch tips. The river itself was about 150 feet wide at this point and after years of environmental awareness had lost the taint and stink of industrial pollution from the town’s factories.
The Wannasee River at this point ran with barely a wave and seemed cool and serene in a day that was rapidly becoming oppressively hot. Sheldon liked the weather. It reminded him of nightmarish days in the jungle and why he was doing what he was doing. The lack of wind worked in his favor, too.
Sheldon observed how the river appeared to be a watery dividing line between the sanity of the section of downtown Dixon and the reviewing stands across the way and the insanity of the fireworks show that was about to be fired off right at this park.
Figuring he had a good 10 or 15 minutes before the rest of the crew showed up, Sheldon walked slowly back to his vehicle and opened the trunk of his car. He carefully unwrapped the blanket from around the metal box he had received a couple of days ago.
Sheldon marveled at how the box could look so innocent and yet contain the means to disrupt the lives of not only the people in this one-horse town but perhaps of the entire world. He looked around quickly and saw nobody nearby. Sheldon opened the box and gazed at the contents. A smile crossed his face.
The sights and sounds of Dixon receded to a corner of his mind. Now he saw explosions ripping up dirt around him, bodies twisting in the air, and smoke rising above a steaming jungle. He heard the screaming of bullets and shells mingling with the screaming of his own men. He heard somebody come up behind him and speak to him.
“Hey, are you with the fireworks crew?”
Sheldon vaulted back to the present and spun around to see a scrawny, sour-looking old man scowling at him. Sheldon had let himself daydream and now look what had happened. He had been ambushed. Sheldon saw the old guy was wearing a “July Fourth Volunteer–Welcome Russians” badge pinned on his plain white T-shirt.
“Uh, yeah, I’m with the fireworks crew,” Sheldon said trying to step in front of his open trunk. “The rest of the guys should be here soon. Maybe you should meet them over…”
“I’m looking forward to watching you guys do your job,” the volunteer said. “Hey, what have you got there? Is that what fireworks look like?”
The man moved a lot faster than Sheldon thought possible. Before he could stop him the geezer had side stepped around Sheldon and was leaning into the trunk.
“Hey, that’s a funny-looking piece of fireworks,” the man said. “Wait a minute. I think I know what that is. Hey, what are you planning on doing with…”
The volunteer would have finished his sentence except at that instant Sheldon slammed the trunk down hard on his head. A high-pitched “bong” echoed across the river as metal met skull. The volunteer collapsed half in and out of the trunk. His legs twitched and he looked like he was trying to push himself away from the car.
Sheldon really couldn’t allow that to happen, so he slowly raised the trunk lid. This old coot had left him with no choice. Sheldon’s feet actually left the ground as he slammed the trunk lid down again with a repeat of the “bong” sound. Just to make sure he repeated the process two more times. Bong. Bong. The volunteer was no longer moving.
Sheldon grabbed the old man’s matchstick legs and tried to swing him into the trunk. There wasn’t enough room with the box in there. For the first time Sheldon felt the cold breath of panic on the back of his neck. He looked around again and there was still nobody in the immediate area. But how long would that last?
Sheldon left the volunteer hanging out of the trunk, replaced the lid to the box, and muscled the box and blanket out of the trunk and into his back seat. He wrapped the blanket around the box and hoped this would keep it away from any prying eyes.
Sheldon flung the volunteer into the trunk and closed the lid carefully. Now there was room to spare. He stopped and caught his breath. Sweat was pouring down his face and arms. He could even feel it trickling into his undershorts.
The only sounds Sheldon heard were the slap of the waves of the river and the distant sound of a brass band. Somehow he had managed to do all this without a car driving by or a wandering pedestrian nosing around. Whether it was because the traffic had been rerouted due to the holiday activities or just because he was one lucky SOB, Sheldon had renewed confidence that his mission was going to succeed.
He allowed himself to smile and relax until the sound of an approaching truck brought him to alert status. He looked over the top of his car to see a red, white and blue “Big Bang Fireworks Co.” truck pull into the park from the same direction as he had come. The truck drove past Sheldon and parked on the opposite end of the street and shoreline.
It’s showtime, folks, Sheldon thought, as he headed for the truck. He wondered idly where the rest of the crew’s cars were.
The rest of the crew and Toby had been delayed by the massive confusion on Main Street that was supposed to be the start of the parade.
Ellsworth, Harriet and the three Russians had finally arrived and were trying to pick their way through the milling crowd of teenagers in band uniforms, homemade floats, horses, horse droppings and town residents dressed in what were supposed to be costumes of the American revolution, assuming George Washington’s troops wore Reeboks into battle.
The Russians were entranced by what they saw around them and Ellsworth and Harriet had to frequently yank on one of their sleeves to get the whole group to keep moving. This, of course, only added to their frustration at not being able to find their lead vehicle or Flint McMurdry, the parade marshal. And, judging by the crowd’s restlessness and the choking heat and humidity, it had to be close to noon and the time of the parade to begin.
In the heat of the day and the crush of the crowd, Ellsworth felt his mind begin to disengage from the discomfort his body was experiencing. He was convinced that after today he would never celebrate another Fourth of July as long as he lived. Not only had he had to put up with Harriet and her all-powerful Steering Committee; not only had he had to play babysitter to three Russians whom he was beginning to think of as Moe, Larry and Curly; he had just had one of the fireworks crew throw up on his brand new Florsheims.
It seemed as if life could hold no further indignities for Ellsworth. He honestly believed the only reason Harriet had directed the boob with the queasy stomach to the fireworks launching point was to aggravate Ellsworth even more. Ellsworth had wanted to throw him in jail.
He wondered if jail wouldn’t be such a bad place to avoid the Russians and many of his fellow townspeople who had attending the pre-parade brunch. The brunch itself, thank goodness, had been relatively uneventful. The only thing that seemingly distracted the Russians from drinking and shopping was free food.
Ellsworth marveled at their quaint Russian custom of not bothering to load up a plate from the buffet line and return to their table, but rather grabbing the serving utensils at the buffet line and eating directly from the bowls and platters.
After food had been served, the Russians dozed while Harriet and members of her Steering Committee took turns standing at the microphone and patting themselves on the back for the superb job of hospitality they had shown everyone.
Ellsworth realized that his name was not being mentioned by the committee at the same time he realized they were late for the parade. Other brunchers must have figured that out, too, because Ellsworth saw people nervously checking their watches and trying to sneak quietly out of the VFW Hall that housed the brunch.
He had finally managed to snag Harriet’s attention by vigorously pointing at his watch. Harriet wrapped up her remarks and helped Ellsworth wake up their honored guests so they could rush by foot to Main Street.
Now that they were swimming through this mass of humanity, Ellsworth was about at his wit’s end. Harriet was turning the most interesting shade of magenta, either a product of the heat or her frustration or both. The Russians were looking like they were about to bolt again, and the parade marchers were reminding him of ants at a picnic that desperately needed stepping on.
Ellsworth was about to suggest they head for the Lightning Bolt and have a liquid celebration, maybe catch the Cubs game on the tube, when he heard a brusque voice behind him.
“Well, Fondue, it’s about time you showed up. How can we have a parade to honor our Russian guests when there are no Russian guests?” said Flint McMurdry.
Flint, a barrel shaped man who in real life owned the town’s largest hardware store, was wearing a pith helmet with Parade Marshal stenciled across the front in bright red lettering and was holding a walkie-talkie in one hand.
“We’ve been looking for you, Flint,” Ellsworth said.
“Where is our car?” Harriet asked. One of the Russians started to wander away towards a shapely majorette who was twirling a baton between her long, tanned legs. Harriet grabbed him by the sleeve and yanked him forcefully closer to her. The other two seemed to decide to stay put for the time being.
Flint looked around for a moment. “Dang,” he said. “It was here a minute ago. Just a second.” He picked up the walkie-talkie and spoke into it. “Zack, where’s the Russkies’ car?”
The walkie-talkie emitted a short burst of static. “Fly ning ef znart oof Flam Ball,” a voice, possibly Zack’s, said.
“Ten-four,” Flint said. “Follow me.”
“What do you mean, ‘follow you?'” Ellsworth asked. “What did he say?”
“The car is down the block at the Flaming Bull Steak Pit,” Flint said.
“I understood him,” Harriet said.
Ellsworth turned to answer Harriet and discovered he was talking to an empty space. He turned completely around and saw Harriet, Flint and the Russians heading off down the street. He had to break into a trot to keep up with them. This must look very mayoral, he thought, as he passed the surreal group of parade marchers who had now turned to watch him.
He finally caught up with Harriet, Flint and the Russians just as they stopped in front of a sparkling, candy-apple red, brand new, Cadillac Eldorado convertible. Draped on the side was a banner that read “Friends Forever in Dixon.”
The Russians were staring open-mouthed at the car. Then they began talking animatedly to themselves. Ellsworth managed to catch his breath, walked around to the driver’s side, and got behind the wheel. As soon as he did, the Russians turned to Harriet and began talking all at once to her.
“Please, please,” she said as she tried to listen to all of them. Finally she managed to grab the attention of the one Ellsworth had dubbed Curly and listened intently. Ellsworth couldn’t really hear what they were saying. She nodded agreement and said something to Flint who shrugged and opened the passenger side door of the car.
“Get in back,” she said to Ellsworth.
“What are you talking about? I’m supposed to drive. Remember?” Ellsworth said wrapping his hands around the wheel.
“Yes, yes, I know,” Harriet said. “But our honored guests want to drive the car themselves. They’ve never seen anything like it.”
“They can’t drive themselves,” Ellsworth said.
“Why not?” Harriet asked. “Flint says it’s okay.”
Ellsworth noticed the Russians were staring at him like puppies in a pet shop window. “Because they don’t have driver’s licenses,” he said and realized how silly that sounded.
“Really, Ellsworth,” Harriet said ushering the Russians into the front seat. “Sometimes I think you live your life in right angles.”
With the Russians crowding towards him, Ellsworth had no choice but to raise himself out of the driver’s seat and catapult backwards into the back of the Cadillac. The Russians were all sitting up front now, and the one he called Curly was looking around trying to figure out how to start the car.
Harriet climbed in back with him. Flint barked an order into the walkie-talkie, listened intently to the unintelligible reply, fished a large police whistle out of his shirt and blew it. He looked at the lead car.
“That means you can start now,” he said, climbing in next to Harriet. “Just make sure you keep them pointed in the right direction.”
Curly started the car. His eyes had a curious sheen to them.
“I don’t know about this,” Ellsworth said to Harriet.
“Ellsworth, what could happen?” Harriet said, smiling indulgently at Flint.
“Don’t ever ask that!” Ellsworth said as Curly slammed the car into drive and lurched forward onto Main Street.
Sheldon was in quiet despair. He was seeing everything he had risked up blow up in his face.
First, Mr. Mike, of all people, had stepped out of the “Big Bang Fireworks” truck and announced he was going to personally oversee the show this year. This was definitely not what Sheldon had planned. He figured a typically drunk and drugged Lewis and crew would be easy to work around as he finished his personal preparations for the show.
Then Mr. Mike proudly opened the back door to the truck and showed Sheldon the firing panel that would control the electronics part of the show.
“Electronics,” Sheldon said. “We’ve never rated that before. We’ve always used all hand-fired shells.”
“You’ve never worked in front of an international crowd before,” Mr. Mike said. “The town has paid for the best, and I’m going to make sure they get it. You have a problem with that?”
“No, sir,” Sheldon said. He would have to think of some way around this. His plan would never work if he angered the always-volatile Mr. Mike and got booted off the crew.
Just then three cars turned off of Elm Street into the park area. The first two stopped next to the truck and the third parked about a hundred yards from the vehicles. Four bodies each in T-shirts and shorts rolled out of the first two cars. They were laughing and high-fiving each other vigorously. Then everyone froze in their tracks when they realized Mr. Mike was looking at them with a stare that could freeze ice.
One of the human statues detached himself from the group and approached Mr. Mike and Sheldon. The others were so absorbed in watching what was going on they didn’t realize Toby had emerged from the third car and had joined them.
Toby was so happy he had finally found the site of the fireworks launching, he really didn’t notice that the rest of the crew looked like they had eaten something putrid. This spot was perfect, he thought, looking over the beautiful park and the broad river. He could see the reviewing stands on the other side, turned now so they could watch the parade, which judging by the sounds from behind them was finally beginning.
But what really filled Toby’s heart with pure joy was the sight of the panel truck with “Big Bang Fireworks” on the side. A real fireworks truck, he thought, and inside were the devices that would work magic for the people of Dixon.
That he could be a part of this was almost more than anyone could ask for. Toby recognized Lewis standing beside the truck and, to his astonishment, also standing by the truck was the helpful citizen from the rest stop talking to a man who did not look like he was particularly enjoying himself.
What Toby was watching was Mr. Mike carefully explaining the new game plan to Lewis while Sheldon listened in growing horror.
“Now, listen, Lewis,” Mr. Mike said choosing at this moment not to mention the obvious smell of beer on Lewis’ breath. “This assignment is just too important for Big Bang to let your crew mess it up.”
“Mr. Mike, my crew has a great record,” Lewis protested.
“That’s debatable and even so ‘great’ isn’t good enough this time, Lewis. I’ve heard reports that you guys have been firing off Class X fireworks and drinking beer on site. How can you expect people to respect what we do, if it looks like you’ve been drinking and you’re shooting off illegal fireworks, too?”
Lewis had no reply for that. Mr. Mike really didn’t care if he did or not. He continued, “Now here’s how we’re going to do it. Your guys will set up the tubes and the finale rack and I’ll show you how we’re going to wire some of it to the electronic firing board. Then when it’s show time, I’ll direct the manual firing and personally fire off the finale electronics. Got it?”
“Sure, Mr. Mike,” Lewis said not very enthusiastically.
“Then get your guys moving,” Mr. Mike said. Lewis hurried away to the crew. “That means you too, Sheldon,” Mr. Mike said. Sheldon gulped and ran to catch up with the rest of the group. Mr. Mike climbed into the back of the truck and began counting boxes.
Lewis rejoined the crew and Toby and explained what was happening. They all groaned except for Toby and Sheldon.
“I’m sorry, guys,” Lewis said. “But this year’s show isn’t going to be as much fun as usual.”
“I’m planning on having fun, Lewis,” Toby said. “Where do we start?”
Everyone turned slowly to look at Toby. He was smiling from ear to ear. “Guys, this is Toby,” Lewis said. “He’s a friend of Albert and he’s new. Toby?”
“Yes,” Toby said eagerly.
“Just stay out of our way,” Lewis said. Then something occurred to him. “Hey, where’s Albert?”
“Oh,” Toby said. “He didn’t feel up to making the trip. I got all his stuff, though.”
“Whatever,” Lewis said. “All right, guys, it’s assholes and elbows.”
As the crew broke up and headed for the truck, Toby thought his heart would burst from happiness. He never noticed the odd look Sheldon gave him as they started unloading boxes from the truck.
With the Russians driving the lead car, the parade was taking a lot longer to make its way down Main Street and towards the bridge. Ellsworth was taking grim satisfaction in the fact that Harriet was now discovering what else could happen.
By the way the Russians drove, it appeared that Russian cars did not have accelerators or brakes. Or if they did they must be in different places in the vehicle. Instead of maintaining a smooth 5 or 10 mph along the parade route, the Russians would lunge forward at about 30 mph, screech to a stop, and wait for the rest of the parade to catch up with them.
Once the marching band with the flag girls carrying a banner that read “Independently Minded Dixon,” that led the remainder of the parade would get within fifty feet of the car, they would have to stop and march in place while the Russians changed drivers in the front seat.
The rest of the parade would then contract and stop like a Slinky that had been thrown against a wall. No sooner would everyone regroup than the next Russian driver would lurch forward a couple of hundred feet, stop and the whole process would begin again.
In the rear seat, Ellsworth could hear more and more audible complaining from the rest of the marchers. After they had been parading for 45 minutes and had covered only about half a mile, the complaints were turning into outright threats.
Ellsworth had asked Harriet several times whether he could please drive so they could finish the parade before Labor Day, and every time she had refused. Ellsworth felt a dull throb grow in power behind his right eye. And certainly the heat was not helping his developing headache.
The crowd watching the parade were visibly wilting in the heat. So much so that since the Russians were starting and stopping and taking 15 minutes between each round, most of the parade viewers were able to see the majority of the parade by walking back along its route while the lead car played leap frog.
As far as Ellsworth could see, there was virtually no one ahead of them left to watch the parade. They had seen it all by walking backwards along the parade route.
And, to make matters worse, if that was possible, the Russian he called Curly was pulling regularly off a vodka bottle he had somehow smuggled into the car with him.
The parade had finally crossed the Main Street bridge over the Wannasee River in this curious stop and start fashion. Ellsworth was glad to see the fireworks crew had most of their gear unloaded and were starting to set up. Hopefully, that part of the celebration would go well. At least he wasn’t directly involved in it.
The parade itself only had a little ways to go. They were now stopped at the opposite side of the bridge. The main part of the parade was stretched along the bridge behind them. It was Curly’s turn to take the wheel and he appeared to be very unsteady.
“I really think I should drive,” Ellsworth said, for perhaps the 50th time.
“We’ll be fine, Ellsworth,” Harriet said through gritted teeth. “Besides we’re almost at the end.”
Ellsworth was about to say “thank goodness” when from the direction of the fireworks crew he heard an incredibly loud bang.
While the parade was torturously crawling towards their location, Toby and the rest of his crew had been literally sweating it out under the directions of Mr. Mike. The crew couldn’t decide which was worse, the hot weather or Mr. Mike’s equally hot temper. Certainly the two combined were making for an exceptionally unpleasant experience.
Except for Toby whose complete fascination with the whole process was unfazed by the heat or the insults of Mr. Mike. Even though he had always been intrigued by explosives he had never bothered to get a good idea of what a real fireworks show was all about. The reality of it was certainly different than his expectations.
Instead of sleek skyrockets aimed at the skies, the actual fireworks looked like large bags, resembling rutabagas in size and shape, with long papery tails that were the fuses. The shells, as Toby learned they were called, were actually fired from metal tubes that were partially buried in two parallel straight lines in the ground running along the shoreline. The crew called them the mortar tubes.
When a shell was loaded in the tube, the fuse trailed out and along the ground where it would be ignited by a flare. The fuses, Toby was told, were quick. It took less than 10 seconds for the fuse to reach the firing charge in the shell which propelled the shell into the sky. When the firing charge had burned all the way out, it ignited the actual fireworks and the shell exploded in glorious fire in the sky.
Since Toby was the rookie, it was his job to dig the holes that the mortar tubes were to be placed in. Using a posthole digger and a small shovel, he had already dug a half dozen of the holes and had naturally worked up quite a sweat. He stopped for a moment to wipe his brow and look around him adoringly at the other activities.
His fellow crew members seemed to be moving in slow motion as they opened boxes and wrestled the heavy mortar tubes into the holes he had already dug.
Mr. Mike was inside the back of the fireworks truck and was working over a control panel mounted on a four foot stand. This allowed Mr. Mike to operate the panel while he was standing up.
Lewis was outside the truck talking to Mr. Mike about something. Mr. Mike seemed to indicate the conversation was over by pointing forcefully at the crew and then inside the truck.
Lewis walked over to where Toby and the rest of the guys were working. He clearly was not in a good mood.
“That jerk wants to set up the finale rack now,” Lewis said. “He says he’s going to need all the time he can get to wire it up.”
To underscore what Lewis was telling them Mr. Mike yelled from the truck, “I want this set up sometime TODAY, Lewis!”
Everyone except Toby groaned again. Lewis dispersed his disgruntled troops.
“Sheldon, you and whats-his-name keep placing the tubes,” he said pointing at Toby. “The rest of you come with me.”
Sheldon looked for a long moment at Toby who was grinning at him and bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. Sheldon’s still dully throbbing feet reminded him of his first encounter with this clown in the rest stop. Sheldon didn’t forget or forgive such things easily. Perhaps now was time for a little payback.
“Hey, while those guys are busy,” he said to Toby. “Do you want to see something really cool?”
“Sure,” Toby was always up for something cool.
Sheldon put his finger to his lips in the universal gesture of sneakiness and looked over to where the rest of the crew was struggling to unload the finale racks from the truck.
He grabbed Toby by the arm and pulled him off to the far side of the firing range where the crew had deposited their personal belongings.
Once they got there Sheldon started rummaging around in the various knapsacks and bags. “I know it’s here somewhere, Lewis always packs one for the shows,” Sheldon muttered as he rummaged. Suddenly he stood up.
“Got it!,” he proclaimed holding a shoebox-sized package. Sheldon opened the lid and Toby looked inside. The box contained a black cylindrical tube, about eight inches long with one open and one closed end. The closed end had a fuse trailing from it. There was a small cloth sack in the box, nestled next to the tube.
“What’s that?” Toby asked.
“It’s a black powder cannon,” Sheldon answered picking up the tube and handing it to Toby. “It’s just a big noisemaker. The crews fire them off while they set up the shows. Just for laughs. “
“How’s it work?” Toby asked peering down the open end.
“Well,” Sheldon said picking up the cloth bag. “You load in some black powder like this.”
He took the tube from Toby, opened the bag and shook some black powder in the open end.
Sheldon realized a little bit would do, but he wanted this to be an extra special surprise for Toby, and put in three times the amount normally used.
“Then you hold it out in front of you like this,” Sheldon said giving the cannon back to Toby’s hands and pulling Toby’s hands out so that the cannon was almost right in front of his face.
“Don’t you put it on the ground and run?” Toby said hopefully. Part of the fun of fireworks was lighting the fuse and hightailing it away.
“No,” Sheldon lied. “This is the best part. You can hold this one. No problem.” He pulled out a lighter and handed it to Toby. “Go ahead and fire it up, captain.”
At the exact moment Toby was lighting the fuse and Sheldon was preparing to jump clear, a voice came bellowing from the truck. It was Mr. Mike at full gale force.
“Hey, you guys either get to work or you’re outta here!” he screamed.
That was the last thing Toby wanted and he panicked.
“Here,” he said to a surprised Sheldon as he handed back the smoldering cannon. Toby ran back to the mortar tubes.
Sheldon had just a moment to look down at the cannon before it went off with a shockingly loud bang. A cloud of black smoke instantly enveloped the upper part of Sheldon’s body.
The crew from the truck, minus Toby who had returned to the mortar tubes and was digging furiously, rushed over to Sheldon.
By the time they got there,the smoke had cleared. Sheldon’s face was pitch black, his eyebrows were gone, and his hair was swept straight back in spiky tufts. The cannon was only strips of metal curled back to look like a peeled banana.
Lewis grabbed Sheldon and asked “Are you all right?”
Sheldon blinked for a few moments before answering and then, given that all he could hear was a high pitched ringing in both ears, replied with the only thing he could that he could think of.
Sheldon’s little surprise for Toby also startled the already jittery parade marchers. It had an even more profound effect on the Russian visitors.
Thinking back later on what happened, Ellsworth could only conclude that Curly, who was behind the wheel when the black powder cannon went off, must have suffered some type of combat trauma, maybe during his country’s unfortunate adventures in Afghanistan. It seemed the only explanation for Curly’s actions.
Ellsworth, Harriet and every marcher in the parade, which stretched the entire length of the bridge and a block and a half past it, jumped visibly when the cannon went off.
Curly not only jumped, he screamed in terror. Then in his panic he mistakenly shifted the stopped car from Park to Reverse. And then he floored the accelerator.
Everyone in the car was thrown forward, sparing them the sight of seeing the reactions of the almost 100 parade marchers behind them as the car bore down on them in reverse.
Only quick reflexes and a basic instinct for self-preservation saved the marchers who had the misfortune to be the closest to the Cadillac.
The parade stretched out behind them prevented them from retreating backwards away from the car. The only escape for the marchers was to run to the sides of the Main Street bridge and leap into the Wannasee River.
The Eldorado turned into a sort of human plow as it careened in reverse along the entire length of the bridge. Musicians and majorettes either threw their instruments and batons into the air or took them with them when they jumped into the river.
Luckily this stretch of the river was not particularly deep and had almost no current. Most of the marchers along with musical instruments, flags, banners and batons bobbed easily to the surface of the placid river.
Those who had trouble were helped by the stronger swimmers getting to shore. Incredibly no one was seriously injured.
The same could not be said for the Eldorado. Given the utter totality of Curly’s panic and the basic power of the car, it might have gone in reverse for quite a distance except for the presence of the first float in the parade.
Called the Land of Corn float, it boasted a gigantic ear of corn raised upright in an ocean of corn shucks and stalks. It was built over and around a motorized golf cart.
The Eldorado smashed full force into the Land of Corn float. For a few brief seconds all the stunned survivors of the parade in and out of the river could see was a cloud of flying corn stalks with one ear of corn standing regally inside of it. As the cloud of stalks settled the Eldorado could be glimpsed. Or, rather the front part of it could. The rear half of the car had merged with the Land of Corn float. None of the car’s occupants could be seen.
The gigantic ear of corn began to wobble. It creaked and groaned in a very un-vegetable like way as the wobble turned into a sway. The crowd took a collective breath as the ear of corn toppled forward and on top of the Eldorado, which now looked like a big corn-on-the-cob with wheels.
A shocked hush settled over the parade, only a trailing band in the distance could be heard gamely playing the Washington Post March. Then the near hysterical voice of Harriet could be heard coming from the car/ear of corn.
“Get off me, you fat idiot!” she screamed.
“I can’t move until you do,” replied Ellsworth.
The three Russians, looking not much more rumpled than they had earlier in the day, climbed out from under the ear of corn and stood by the car brushing themselves off. They looked completely unconcerned about the havoc they had wreaked.
The left rear passenger door popped open spilling Ellsworth onto the pavement. Harriet’s legs were dangling from the door and Ellsworth grabbed them and yanked. Harriet came along with them and she landed in his lap with an audible “oof.”
Flint McMurdry crawled out after her. He reached back into the car to retrieve his pith helmet. Then another man, who had not been in the car before the accident, stepped out from the same door and stood checking his extremities for any major fractures. It was the driver of the golf cart inside the Land of Corn. He had miraculously survived being hurled into the Eldorardo when it hit the float. The same could not be said of his golf cart.
To Toby watching all this from the fireworks site, it looked like one of those circus acts where clowns keep emerging from a small car. He looked around at his fellow crew who had all stopped what they were doing to watch this unique sight. Even a still smoldering Sheldon and Mr. Mike were gazing in rapt attention at what was left of the Fourth of July parade.
This is a very weird town, Toby thought.