The 4th of July was the day I looked forward to most on the farm. It began with the annual Farm Olympics, where everyone won a trophy and winners and losers did not exist. My poor cousin, Lisa, had to be penalized after every single event to even the playing field; she was just so much faster than the rest of us, and God forbid Farm Olympics didn’t end with every kid receiving the exact same number of points.
This particular year, everyone received a bowling trophy, which was shaped like a bowler mid pose and covered in gold paint. Aunt Kathie had bought them all for five bucks at a champion bowler’s yard sale the week before. We never questioned the trophies. We raised the golden bowlers high above our heads with pride and disregarded the fact that some random guy’s name was on the plate.
The real trophies lived on our knees, the scrapes we earned soaring down the slip ‘n slide, of which, if we’re counting, I had the most. Those tiny stones below that thin, plastic tarp were unforgiving, and yet we met them again and again with belly laughs and bruises.
Next came the pig roast and hay ride at Bill Swigert’s farm down the road, which ran wild with corn on the cob, hot dogs, hamburgers, and Uncle Roy’s cooler packed with thick steaks for the grill. This was the only food that ever came close to my grandma Rose’s home cooking, and our bellies were bursting after first helpings. When it was time to leave, we cut through Swigert’s cornfield back to the farm, and I was lucky enough to get a ride on the back of Uncle Wayne’s motorcycle. The husks tapped my hands as we soared, sounding like the Ace of Hearts pinned to the spoke of my bicycle back home. I breathed in the sweet summer corn, prime for the plucking, and the salt from my skin exciting goosebumps in the breeze.
We were all back at the farm by the time the sun sunk below the horizon line, and Penny laid the fireworks out on the dining room table. While he always bought fireworks for the 4th of July, this year’s spread was doubly impressive. There were tanks and tubes and rockets and, of course, classic sparklers we’d light only when the good stuff had been exhausted. I was even more excited than usual, as this was the first year I was deemed old enough to light a match to the fuse and run for my life across the field with the big boys. I looked back in wonder as flames escaped to the sky and burst with color by my own hand. The old flag on the front lawn stood prouder in that moment and waved its red, white, and blue with unmatched brilliance.
The entire valley was ringing by the time we lit our third round, and smoke consumed the air. We could barely hear the police sirens nor see their flashing lights as they approached the entrance to the farm.
“Cops!” someone yelled, and in that moment we sensed the fear in every adult’s face and knew we were doing something we probably shouldn’t be doing. Penny, Wayne, and I rushed to the dining room and scooped up the remaining fireworks in our arms.
“Down to the cellar!” Wayne ordered, and I obeyed like a soldier in the heat of battle. In the cold, dark cellar, we stacked the contraband in a corner and covered it with a heavy drop cloth. My heart never raced so quickly with fear, yet devilish exhilaration. Meanwhile, out by the mailbox, Cousin Don was left to stall the cops alone. They parked their cars just as Don was lighting a firecracker, and in his panic, he quickly hid it behind his back. We would question him over and over again throughout the years, why he thought the best thing to do was hide a lit firecracker behind his back, but poor Don could never really muster up an explanation that made any sense.
The officers approached.
“Do you know anything about the fireworks in the valley?”
“No, officer, I don’t” Cousin Don lied through gritted teeth. The flame of the firecracker was consuming the wick and it wouldn’t be long before it exploded in his hands.
“Ok...Ok…” the officer muttered, assessing Don’s eyes and the farmland in the distance. “Well, if you happen to see anyone lighting off fireworks ‘round here, you be sure to call us, you hear?” The officer backed away slowly, skeptically. Don’s fingers were dripping sweat with the mounting heat, but still he stood his ground.
“Sure thing, officer,” he winced in agony.
As soon as the last cop car reversed into the darkness, Don tossed the firecracker as the flame found its way into the barrel. He prayed it remained silent for just a moment longer, and then
Had they heard? We certainly had heard from inside the house, where everyone gathered around the table playing board games as if the largest stockpile of illegal fireworks weren’t secretly amassed in our cellar. But miraculously, they had not. The cop cars disappeared through what remained of the smoky air, and we found ourselves looking to Penny to breathe the first sigh of relief.
“Well,” he said, “Who wants to roast marshmallows?”
We found Cousin Don down by the bonfire, his hands gripping two ice cold beers, and quickly put two and two together.
“Was that you? The loud explosion?” I asked.
And he told us the whole story. How he had lit the firecracker right as the cops were approaching the house, that he had looked around for help, but we had all run back to the house, and so he had to do what any brave man would do and face the cops himself. “I’m lucky I didn’t lose my hands!” he exclaimed.
His hands were burned, but he’d survive. We all agreed it was the penance to be paid for lighting all those fireworks in the valley, and thanked Cousin Don for being the sacrificial lamb. Penny said little, his head still low with shame, but offered to open Don’s beers.
That night, we laughed over a roaring bonfire, the logs Wayne and Penny had chopped that morning sending pops of color to the sky. We dipped sparklers into the flames and spelled out our names in quick loops of burning white. We roasted maple marshmallows at the end of sticks that had been used as rifles the day before, the smoke of a bullet now the gooey goodness of a charred ‘mallow.
I find myself cracking up almost 50 years later at Cousin Don’s stupidity and the look on Penny’s face when one cop car turned to six at the entrance to his beloved farm. Since that day, whenever anything goes wrong, when I’ve bitten off more than I can chew and there’s no explanation I can give, I smile with Penny’s twinkle still in my eyes, and say, “Well, who wants to roast marshmallows?”
The Farm Olympics
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