The bungalow’s uninsulated tin roof crackled and popped each evening as the sun set and temperatures dropped from the hundreds into the eighties. I stood at the sink washing up after a simple dinner, surrounded by a halo of hornets that lived in the ceiling. My evening bath was in a tub with a bandana tied around the spigot to strain out the chunks of lead and zinc that leached into the region’s water supplies. The bathwater was gray and smelled of rotten eggs. It was the summer of 1980, my last as a teenager, and I spent it toiling on a ranch in northeastern Oklahoma.
I was an outsider and had nothing to do during the long summer nights. When I finally met some local boys, I found the nightlife was nothing to brag about. Most nights we hung out with other teenage boys on a long, old bridge over the Neosho River near a spot called Mudeater Bend. Beer, fireworks, and firearms were usually involved.
Eventually a semi-organized nightly event emerged. The mob divided into two groups, one at either end of the bridge. My group consisted of cowboys and farm workers; the other included the “heads” and pot-smokers. We threw fireworks at one another to see which team could drive the other off its end of the bridge.
Horseplay had turned into total war. And my side was Sherman’s Army marching to the sea through a resentful and dangerous population.
Two or three times a night one side was driven completely off the bridge and onto its patch of the sandy dirt road. The victors roared, then things calmed. Each team could see the other through a cloud of smoke: black silhouettes milling about, calling out profanities and good-natured insults. These lulls reminded me of stories I had heard about the Civil War, stories of soldiers crossing enemy lines at night to meet one another, often at rivers, where they would share stories, swap tobacco, and enjoy a brief respite from the war.
As the summer progressed, our tactics became more sophisticated and daring. We started by throwing Black Cat fireworks and cherry bombs. Then some began shooting bottle rockets. We’d hold the stick loosely, feeling the sparks burn our knuckles as the rocket slipped from thumb and forefinger and sped toward the dark image of an unidentified enemy combatant. If your aim and timing were good, the rocket would catch in his clothes or hair, spitting a shower of sparks before exploding as the dark image of your anonymous foe danced and yelled. It was supremely satisfying.
The next step up in the arms race was Roman candles. You could hold these like sawed-off shotguns, shooting from the hip, pumping off one blazing ball of fire after another while roaring an ecstatic, Rambo-like call to war.
One night, I walked off the bridge and past the cars and pickups parked along the dirt road. I pulled something out of the bed of my truck and strolled back into the fray. I knelt, not in the middle of the bridge, but near the ancient steel girders at the edge. Close to my side was a broom handle with an empty beer can strapped firmly to it by duct tape and baling wire. One end of the broomstick rested on the bridge, the other angled in front of my knee, as I aimed the beer can toward our foes. I had cut away one end of the can, into which I placed an entire gross of bottle rockets. I checked the fuses, taking care they all lined up neatly just outside the open end of the can. I adjusted the angle of my aim so the rockets would fly in a slight arc toward my target. Then I held a cigarette lighter under the fuses.
If your aim and timing were good, the rocket would catch in his clothes or hair, spitting a shower of sparks before exploding as the dark image of your anonymous foe danced and yelled. It was supremely satisfying.
It sparked, and a flame licked high into the mass of fuses. A startling shower of sparks spewed across my hand and legs. Then the barrage began. I had hoped the entire gross would leap out of the can all at once, but the actual result was even better. The bottle rockets sped out of the can in nicely timed salvos of about a dozen at a time. For nearly 30 seconds, a continuous stream of fire poured forth into the enemy until all 144 rockets hit their mark. None of us had ever witnessed such a glorious display of raw, relentless firepower.
These lulls reminded me of stories I had heard about the Civil War, when enemy soldiers crossed the picket lines at night to meet one another, often at rivers, where they shared stories, swapped tobacco, and enjoyed a brief respite from the war.
The potheads sprinted from the bridge with their heads down, not saying a word. The cowboys rushed forward to celebrate our victory in the middle of the bridge, jumping and yelling, spraying beers on each other, shouting promises of ass-whippings to come. We retired to our ice chests for more beer. The potheads were quiet. An occasional “What the hell was that?” could be heard, along with Led Zeppelin playing on their car stereos.
I was able to keep my innovation a secret over the next few days. We always fought in the dark, our views of one another obscured by smoke and fire. I took care to use my weapon sparingly. I was our hero, our Achilles. I didn’t have to buy my own beer anymore. People introduced me to their sisters. I was in love with life and drunk with power.
Our reign of terror changed everything, upended the balance of power. The cowboys won every charge, driving the potheads off the bridge five or six times a night. The taunting grew abusive. The good-natured insults were replaced by bitter shouts:
“Go to hell, assholes!”
“Come over here and say it to my face if you’re so tough!”
“I know where you live, jerk!”
The lulls between charges were no longer easygoing beer breaks. These were now the times that frustrated potheads and loudmouthed cowboys squared off in the middle of the bridge, first yelling, then shoving, finally fighting until one of them backed off or we pulled them apart. Things were getting ugly. Horseplay had turned into total war. And my side was Sherman’s Army marching to the sea through a resentful and dangerous population.
Each team could see the other through a cloud of smoke, black silhouettes milling about, calling out profanities and good-natured insults.
Fewer and fewer guys showed up at the bridge. Those who did were the ones who took it more seriously, too seriously in some cases. Anonymity was impossible. The more resented one guy was, the more likely he was to be singled out for special treatment if he was caught too far away from his team. He might get blasted with a massive, coordinated volley of fireworks. He might be surrounded, kicked, and beaten for a moment or two before his band of brothers rushed to his aid.
I made the agonizing decision to relinquish my role as conquering hero and quit going to the bridge. The summer heat pulled me back into its spell. I don’t remember much about those last few days at the ranch. I trudged through the days half-awake and sweated through the nights halfasleep, tormented by the screeching cicadas and acorns hammering the tin roof. In late August I packed my truck, picked up my last paycheck, and drove home.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5 Issue 3. Feb. 01, 2014.