Brian Doyle, an award-winning author and the editor of Portland Magazine, says, “Bad personal essays are about the writer. Good personal essays are about all of us.” His point, of course, is that good writing touches something familiar in us. It makes us nod our heads and say, “Uh huh, that reminds me of Cousin Bobby,” or “Yep, I did that once.”
In this month’s Southern Living, Rick Bragg, one of the best personal essayists alive today, writes about Southerners and fireworks. While this particular essay might not be about all Southerners, it is about all Southerners with a Y chromosome. As I read the column, called “When Fireworks Go South,” all I could think about was my uncle Gerry. For starters, Bragg’s opening line, “Southerners, I believe, should not be trusted with fireworks,” could have opened this way: “Gerry Adams cannot be trusted with fireworks.”
It began when he was a kid. He tossed a lit match into a paper bag filled with firecrackers just to see what would happen. After a few seconds of silence, he opened the bag and peeked inside. The bag exploded in his face, and he was lucky he lived to tell it. In his teenage years, he progressed to snapping the tails off of bottle rockets to see what would happen. Bottle rockets without tails tend to chase down the people who maimed them. And don’t get me started on the foolishness of tying a bunch of bottle rockets together and trying to light them all before one goes off.
He progressed to roman candles. The warning label on them clearly states, “Never hold a roman candle in your hand or point it at anyone or anything.” But, I ask you, how can you have a good, old-fashioned roman candle battle unless you’re pointing one at another person? I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure Gerry Adams is the reason people in Georgia have to drive to Alabama or South Carolina for their fireworks. (Yes, I know it’s possible to buy some online, but the kind you get online are the starter kits Southerners put in their toddlers’ Christmas stockings).
Despite all his teenage antics, the worst my uncle ever got hurt handling fireworks happened when he was in his forties. He procured a big box of the smelliest stink bombs in the state of Georgia. I was a newlywed, and my new husband and I had just purchased our first car. While my husband stood watching, Gerry opened the driver’s door and bent over to place a stink bomb on the floorboard under the steering wheel. “Don’t do it,” my husband warned. In the South, we all know the words “don’t you do it” are the exact same thing as saying, “I double-dog dare ya.” Gerry straightened his back, grinned at my husband, then raised his foot and stomped that stink bomb right into the carpet of that new car.
At the time, my husband was a 6’3”, 200-pound college football player. Gerry, like I said, was in his forties and was not in the best shape of his life. The punch landed squarely on his jaw, and he hit the ground. The incident ignited a family feud that lasted nearly until my divorce was final in 2007. I don’t condone my then-husband’s actions, of course, but I have to point out that Gerry did fail to heed the warning on the product label: “Caution – Irritant. Break vial and get away.”
Like Bragg, my uncle Gerry is now pretty much out of the fireworks shooting business. But that’s not to say there are no fireworks left in his arsenal. This July 4, I imagine he’ll sit on his back porch with a plate of ribs and a glass of merlot and introduce a new generation of Southerners to the joys of celebrating with pyrotechnics.