Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Pyro

JULY 6, 1998:  As if shooting off the fireworks wasn’t bad enough, I had to shoot off my mouth.

“Tell me your name and badge number.”

It was a line I had heard on TV a million times, and thusly presumed it to be a reasonable request – especially when an officer of the law brought the possibility of deadly force into play; when it was obvious to anyone with but a single functioning brain cell that none was required.

The blow the officer delivered was sudden and forceful. I had no reason to suspect it. My shirtsleeve ripped loudly and all the way to the shoulder as he twisted back my right arm and my cheek laid a sloppy kiss on the cold stone wall.

Rip. Snap. Crack. Click. The handcuffs bit deep into my wrists. He was a young cop, and cocky, obviously bored and looking for some action. He was shouting but I couldn’t understand a damn thing he said. It’s hard to understand anything when he’s screaming so close to the back of your head. You can only hear the vowels.

“You can’t do this!” I said.

“We can do whatever we want,” he answered, tightening the cuffs another click. We had been respectful to the officers; in fact we had been downright cordial, volunteering information before they even asked for it. Then one of them, quite unexpectedly, pulled his gun. The acrid smell of spent pyrotechnics filled my nostrils, and the only thing holding me upright was my face against the wall.

“How did I end up here?” I wondered. The answer was trite and obvious … I played with fire.

The celebration had been pretty low-key until the fireworks came out. All my friends are artists, and like many artists they experiment from time to time with fireworks. They know where to get good ones, too, so there are always plenty around – especially at a party. This time it was different. I had never seen so many fireworks in one room. There were thousands of Black Cats, every conceivable kind of rocket, festival balls – you name it. The kitchen table was a never-ending buffet piled high with black powder and bad judgment.

Photo by Daniel Ball
Somebody lit a whistling chaser and to everyone’s delight it shrieked through the house filling the rooms with dense purple smoke. Then a Roman candle sent red,white, and blue fireballs bouncing off the ceiling and walls, and a fountain of sparks erupted in the living room. It was certainly dangerous, but before long I too was brandishing a sparkler and spelling my name in the air as the sulfurous smoke grew thicker, beers cracked open, and the music got louder than bombs.

Things had gone from calm to out-of-control in the flick of a Bic, but nothing bad would have ever come of it (okay, maybe a fire) had someone not begun a conspiratorial whispering campaign, “Let’s go outside and shoot off the rockets.” That was when the neighbors complained … that was when the police came ... that was when the party ended … just the way The Man intended.

Anyone who has trouble grasping the concept of eternity should spend an hour in the back of a police car. Seconds stretch to their breaking point and everything you have ever done wrong and forgotten bubbles out from its hiding place to haunt you.

At least I wasn’t alone. My friend Ray was in the car with me. It was Ray who had the gun pulled on him earlier while attempting to comply with the officer’s request to see his driver’s license.

Photo by Daniel Ball
“I can’t believe I’m going to jail for this again,” he said. This was the second time he had gone downtown on a fireworks-related charge. Ray had a problem with fireworks. Both of his parents had used fireworks on a regular basis, and his father had let the boy shoot them at an early age. Ray always claimed to be cutting back because he couldn’t afford it, and because he didn’t want to go to jail again, but he continued to use fireworks regularly. It wasn’t just the blaze of light in the sky, or the ear-splitting “crack” that dazzled him. Ray loved the chaos of it all – that each and every firework might be the one that explodes in your hand.

“The shorter the fuse, the bigger the thrill,” was Ray’s motto. In lean times he manufactured his own fireworks, fully aware of the dangers involved. “When you first start out making fireworks,” Ray joked, “you’re going to make a few bombs – but then there is nothing wrong with a good bomb … and gunpowder is cheap, too.”

Once, after a friend had given Ray the gift of tequila, Ray in turn presented his friend with a bomb made from the empty bottle. The card read, “You gave me Two Fingers [the tequila brand] so now I’m gonna leave you with two fingers.”

Ray’s friend loved the bomb. It blew up real good.

“I can’t go to jail again,” Ray repeated his mantra, rocking back and forth, as if he could somehow rock himself to freedom. Outside, the two cops were going through monumental tomes to determine what to charge Phil with. Phil owned the house, as well as most of the fireworks that had been used. They weren’t going to take Phil to jail, but they were sure going to charge him with something – providing they could find something to charge him with.

“What do you do?” one of the officers asked.

“I’m an artist,” Phil replied.

“Yeah, but what do you do for money?”

“I told you I’m an artist,” Phil said again.

“I think we have a conspiracy,” the cop finally said, his face glowing with the light of discovery. It was then that the cop began to question Phil about Marcus.

Photo by Daniel Ball
Of course Phil knew Marcus; we all did. Marcus was also an artist, and he had been arrested about a week before after using fireworks.

“This is a part of some kind of artists’ conspiracy to annoy the police with fireworks,” the officer suggested. Phil just shrugged and shook his head.

Marcus had lived and worked in the same warehouse apartment, hidden away in a narrow alley, for a dozen years. He is a sober Christian man; dedicated and hard-working – but he would on occasion buy fireworks. When Marcus stumbled upon an all-but-forgotten bag of M-80s (powerful firecrackers) he had stashed away in his workshop, he figured, why not take a couple up to his rooftop deck and shoot them.

“You know I was standing there feeling ripped off,” Marcus told me, “because M-80s are supposed to be loud, and these weren’t loud at all just, ‘Fizz Pop.’ Then I see this police helicopter fly by.” He knew they were looking for somebody because the chopper was circling low. He had no idea they were coming for him.

A police car crept up his alley and from behind the car came eight cops with guns. “They had pistols, shotguns, you name it,” Marcus said. The Memphis SWAT team had been called in and sharpshooters quickly assembled on the roof next door. Marcus heard guns cock behind him. He tried to see what was going on but the cops below shouted, “Don’t you look away, motherfucker! You look at us.”

“There were 15, maybe 20 guns pointed at me,” Marcus said. “And they were all young cops, and I just knew the wind was going to blow my hat off or a bird was going to fly by and they were goi7ng to shoot me.

“How did you get up there, motherfucker?” they were screaming, and when I said, ‘I live here’ they said, ‘Don’t lie to us, motherfucker, we’ll blow your fucking head off.’”

Photo by Daniel Ball

Marcus tried to tell the police how to get up to his deck but they couldn’t understand him. Eventually a group of officers made their way across neighboring rooftops.

“They cuffed me and got me down on my knees,” he said. “They frisked me and felt my genitals. They kept asking me where the gun was, and I told them I didn’t have a gun on me.”

Someone entering a bar in Marcus’ neighborhood had seen him on his roof with the fireworks, and reported to the police that they had spotted a sniper. “I told them about shooting the fireworks, and told them that I had more downstairs.” Eventually the police found a gun in Marcus’ bedroom. It was a pistol that he kept for protection, and it was clear that it had not been fired in some time.

“When they got me outside, it was incredible,” Marcus said. “They [the police] had blocked the street off at Union and there were cops everywhere. There must have been 50 police cars. They threw me in the back of one of the cars, and felt my genitals again, and I was thinking, ‘Can’t someone please tell them I’m not a sniper, and I don’t have any fireworks hidden between my balls and my butthole?’”

The police asked Marcus if he knew who the president was. “Well, I think it’s Bill Clinton,” he answered. Repeatedly they asked the names of the mental institutions Marcus had been in, and he told them, “None.”

They asked him the name of the mayor, and the congressmen. During the course of the interrogation the police miraculously produced the remains of two exploded M-80s in the neighboring lot. Marcus’ story checked out, but the SWAT team had been called in, so they couldn’t just cite him for fireworks and be done with it. Marcus was taken to jail and booked. The charge – disorderly conduct. Fifteen hours in jail, three court appearances, and a thousand dollars later, it was expunged from his records.

I told Ray as much as I knew about Marcus’ situation while we waited in the back of the police car. It passed the time. Ray was quiet, and I could tell he was rethinking his life.

“Not long after I started making my own [fireworks],” he said at length, “I woke up on the floor one afternoon, and there was nothing but gunpowder, whiskey bottles, and fuses everywhere. I said to myself right then, “This has got to stop.”

Photo by Daniel Ball

Then things got quiet in the squad car. Hypnotized by the reflection of flashing blue lights, forgotten wrongdoings bubbled up from their hiding places to haunt me.

When I was a kid I built sand- castles with my friends. The sandcastles became sand forts, and we would take our army men and dinosaurs and Star Wars action figures and play out huge battles between good and evil. It was only a matter of time before fireworks came into the picture.

We blew up our forts with Black Cats, M-80s, whatever we could get our hands on. My cousin brought his sister’s Malibu Barbie to be the nurse for all the army men who got arms and legs blown off, but being kids (kids being cruel) we called him a fag and he quit bringing her. It rained a lot that summer and there were frogs everywhere, so we started blowing them up too. We would put them down in the forts with a firecracker in their mouth, then – “GET BACK OR GET WARTS.”

My cousin who brought the Barbie made little hats for the frogs out of paper. We were the Continental Army; the frogs were the Lobsterbacks. We were the cowboys; the frogs were the redskins. We were winners; the frogs were dead meat. It was all very patriotic. We were heroes that summer – all summer long.

I deserved to be in handcuffs. In the silence of the squad car I thought about Marcus, who had never meant to harm anyone – not even a frog.

I recalled the story of some friends who play in a well-known rock band, and how they once set their neighbor’s house on fire with a stray bottle rocket during a Fourth of July celebration. They had to take up a collection at their next gig to help pay for it. I looked at Ray as he rocked back and forth. His fiery addictions had lead him down a deadly road, past Snap-N-Pops, beyond Cherry Bombs, straight to the hard stuff – setting the lockers on fire at school, igniting a car wash as an adolescent.

I was no better than he was … not really. Nobody made me put that match to the fuse; I did it because it felt good. I began to see how easy it was for our time-honored celebration of patriotism to become an all-out rehearsal for revolution. Whenever a child claps at the explosion of color ripping apart the night sky or claps in wonder at the rocket’s report, imagine that same precious child with a Molotov cocktail in his or her back pocket and an AK-47 pressed tightly against his or her sweet baby shoulder.

Perhaps you will cry, “Hyperbole! My child could never be a terrorist! My baby is nobody’s revolutionary! I’ve never heard such utter rot.”

Well don’t take my word for it, ask the British … and remember: setting off fireworks in the city of Memphis, and many of its surrounding areas, is a crime.

The Unabomber was somebody’s baby once too, you know.

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