I’m not sure at what age I finally understood that my father found casual ways to break the law on a daily basis.
Later in his life – during a period of time where we didn’t talk much – he got into numerous disputes with his various neighbors.
I remember he explained how he cut down the neighbor’s telephone pole with a chainsaw and then threw a box of nails in the driveway for the police cars sure to pay him a visit. Of course he told me this over the telephone as if it was the day-to-day behavior of every sane American citizen; in the way you or I might explain to a friend how we accidentally purchased 2-percent milk instead of skim.
His reasoning was as follows:
1. I’m mad at my neighbor.
2. Fuck him.
3. Where’s my chainsaw?
Restitution and community service was assured. Consequences and misdemeanor charges be dammed. “Whatever,” he once told me. “Let them send me back to prison. There I had a fan and a TV and everyone pretty much left me alone.”
I suppose the earliest memory of him openly explaining to me – his youngest son – how he was going to break the law came during a dry summer around the Fourth of July in the late 1980s. Each year we took a pilgrimage to West Quincy, a miserable, treeless stretch of gas stations and smoke shops on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River.
Each year, by mid-June, a series of red, white and blue firework stands began to pop up along Highway 24 in West Quincy. These makeshift firework shops were owned and operated by a handful of traveling ex-cons and brigands that I’ll forever describe as “carny-esque.” Highway 24 was prime real estate for explosives merchants because it was illegal to sell and shoot fireworks across the river in Illinois. Everyone bought their explosives in Missouri, took them back home and shot them off anyway.
The Fourth season also marked an annual great day in my life because dad parted with larger denominations of cash. George Washington might have been the Revolutionary War hero, but Alexander Hamilton always paid the kids a visit on Independence Day.
We took dad’s rusty Chevy to a fireworks stand owned by an associate. We didn’t speak a lot during the 15 minute ride. We didn’t have a heck of a lot in common. He loved shooting guns and hard partying. I liked books and the reading of those books. He leaned over and explained to me in a serious tone: “We’re going to go see this guy. And what we’re going to buy isn’t exactly legal.”
Of course, he had a guy. He always had a guy. Need some pills? He had a guy. Need a place to fence some stolen cabinets? He had a guy. Need a guy to burn down your house and make it look like an accident? He had a guy.
I wandered the dusty tent intoxicated by the color and the smell of cheap gunpowder probably born in some unsafe factory in the People’s Republic of China. Black Cats. Jumpin’ Jacks. Chickens. Tanks. Roman Candles. Yes sir, I’ll have one of each. Dad inched his way toward a greasy and surly merchant with a ponytail. Naturally the man wore a sleeveless T-shirt. I didn’t hear the entire conversation, but after a good deal of haranguing, my dad finally said, “Look, are you going to sell me these quarter-sticks or what?” The greasy man obliged. He looked around and pulled out a box of red tubes with green wicks. They were about the size of a standard tube of toothpaste. The men exchanged their money. Their illegal transaction complete, we gathered our explosives and drove away.
“What did you buy?” I asked him.
“These are quarter-sticks of dynamite. You know those M-80s you buy? They’re like 20 times louder than those fuckers.”
“Wow,” I thought. He always talked about robbing a bank. Would he finally make good on his promise? What devious plan did he have in mind?
The answer was: None in particular.
I remember the anxiety that washed over me when he laid the first stick in the neighbor’s lawn and lit the wick. He hunched and scurried away in the same manner that people without umbrellas hurry for shelter in the rain. From a safe distance we first saw the flash and a split second later came a thud that resonated throughout the small town.
He laughed. I imagine that he loved the thought of someone down the street wondering, “What the hell was that?” and the knowledge that he alone made them think that.
But the fun didn’t end.
I remember watching the fire department battle the blaze we started on the neighbor’s lawn from my step-sister’s room on our home’s second floor. “Oh hell, we’re all going to jail,” I thought to myself. The dry grass caught fire and enveloped the brittle bank on the north side of the neighbor’s house.
Surely this meant I was going to a group home where I would be beaten daily with a thick rope with a large knot tied in the end. Dad sensed my uneasiness. He knew that police and authority figures scared me because he placed that fear in me. In his wizard way he convinced me that despite breaking several city ordinances, state laws and the rules of neighborly courtesy that we’d done nothing wrong.
His reasoning was as follows:
1. Well, the neighbors are out of town.
2. Fuck them.
3. I occasionally pay taxes, I want to watch these firefighters work.
When he took his own life two years ago on July 7, I wondered why he did it in the season that legalized and celebrated his outlaw way of doing things. Just a few days earlier he laughed as he told me how he shot some bottle rockets at his neighbor’s teen-aged, drug dealing son. In almost every backyard and empty field in cities and counties across the country people were setting fire and blowing up a small part of their own world. Although he died a troubled man and sick man, I’ll always remember the child-like laughter he exhibited as he set fire to his little corner of the world.
On a day where we celebrate a handful of tax-dodging patriots telling a monarch they didn’t want to follow his rules anymore, I implore you to break a rule or two.
But please, spare your neighbors.