Some time ago, my wife and I were having dinner at a restaurant with my sister. As often happens, we started talking about the old days. Memories can be painful, selective, incorrect, and lots of other things, but the memories I prefer are funny. The actual experiences might not have been funny at the time, but the craziness makes them funny to talk about now.
We sat down in a booth, which I prefer, as opposed to a table out in the middle of the room. In booths you have your own little house with two doors which can be protected from intruders. At tables people can move all around you, which can be unsettling. I noticed an older couple (older than us) sitting in the next booth, but didn’t think anything of it.
What makes most of our stories even funnier is that the things we did, some of which could have burned the house down several times over, went totally unnoticed by our parents, especially our father. He was a guy who couldn’t see things right under, or even on his nose, but had a sixth and seventh sense about what we were thinking. So, the answer was not to think.
In 1961, my grandparents came for a visit from California. At the time, they had a beautiful 1956 Ford Fairlane, a spotless two-tone green and white classic. Probably not so much to protect it as to make it easy for my dad to go to work each day, the Ford was parked in our one-car garage. My brother and I decided to be very helpful, and wash Grandpa’s car in the garage. So, using Comet cleanser, we began scrubbing the hood of the car. We didn’t understand why our white rags were turning green, but we must have thought we were doing a great job. This one didn’t go unnoticed, and the lights must have really gone out, because I don’t remember anything that happened after that.
We talked about the time I made match-head rockets. I wasn’t outside, in a field, or a parking lot. I was in the basement. The rocket worked perfectly, shooting across the string I had stretched between two chairs, the exhaust left a blue cloud that filled the basement. Who can’t smell a single match lit anywhere in the house? No one asked about the blue smoke in the basement.
For a while, I was fascinated with chemicals, test-tubes, and bunsen burners. When I didn’t have a real alcohol burner, I tried to make one. I had an empty shotgun shell, put a piece of cloth in it, then used a capillary tube to take alcohol from a bottle and drop on the cloth as it burned. What I didn’t know is that alcohol flame is invisible. I didn’t see the flicker on the end of the tube as I put it back in the bottle of alcohol. “Phoooomp!!” Nope, the bottle didn’t explode and set my bedroom on fire, my hair didn’t burn, I still had my eyebrows. I just didn’t do it again.
I talked my mother into taking me to a store where I could buy some chemistry equipment, including a real bunsen burner. My sister and I set up a lab, IN MY CLOSET, behind the clothes on a shelf that ran the length of the closet. We were mixing chemicals, cooking them, with fire, in my closet! (The house is still standing.)
I loved firecrackers. I heard someone at school talking about taking gunpowder out of shotgun shells, so I decided to try it. Standing over the shell my dad never missed, which I had taken from his unlocked ammo cabinet, I used a screwdriver to dig into the crimp and open the shell. (That almost takes my breath away.) I poured the tiny BBs into the toy box. I took the open shell still containing gunpowder outside and held a burning match over it. The powder burned in a flash instead of a bang I expected. I decided real firecrackers were better, so one by one, I took firecrackers from my dad’s dresser drawer. He never said a word, even after they were all gone.
We laughed about my memory of shooting a model car to pieces, with my BB gun…on my bedroom floor. I carefully picked up all the pieces, discovering that each shot left a dimple in the hardwood of my bedroom floor. Impossible to miss, yet everyone did.
Fire was a recurring fascination. My brother found a heavy black rock we were sure fell from space. Bugs made homes in the many small holes in the rock so we decided to burn them out. In the grass beside the back porch, he lit a small flame on the rock. I decided to pour gas on it to keep the fire going. From a metal sand pail, I poured gasoline which immediately ignited, going up into the pail, which I dropped. My brother was kneeling beside the rock yet he didn’t get spashed with gas, and the bucket landed upside down. We quickly put out the flames, but there was a circle of scorched grass about three feet across. I was sure we would die as soon as dad got home. No one ever said a word.
Our dad was a salesman and his work often included entertaining clients, which sometimes meant my parents were gone overnight. It was great fun for my brother and I since our little sister spent the night with our grandparents. We watched endless TV and cooked or baked whatever we wanted. One time we each made our own cake, but since I was using the oven, my brother put his in a broiler, which only made a crust on the top. He ate the crusty layer then returned it to the broiler again. I called my grandparents in the middle of the night with a terrible stomach ache.
In the restaurant, we ate, drank coffee, told stories, and laughed a lot. Probably laughed a little too loud (that was me), and what we didn’t know was that the elderly couple next to us was enjoying every minute of it. When we stood to leave, with laughter the lady said to us, “We want you to know we really have been entertained by your stories!” She looked at me and said, “And you’re lucky to be alive!” We all laughed together again.
Speaking of coffee…