Grandma and the Fireball

Grandma and the Fireball

Michael Hemphill

December 22, 2011

In 1976, I was just 14 years old when our proud country was celebrating its 200th birthday.  As a tribute to the upcoming event, Ray and Mildred Thilmont decided to host a family gathering.  In 1976, they lived in Griffith, Indiana.  Millie, as most called her, was my grandmother.  And her house in Griffith became one of my favorite homes that she lived in.  She had a habit of moving frequently, enough to draw attention to even a fourteen year old.  Anyway, this house in Griffith was, in my humble opinion, the perfect grandmother house.  It had all the right grandmother-ish qualities, the big rooms with long creaky floor boards, smells of clean linen and lavender around every corner.   There was coffee in the kitchen that percolated its aroma into my nose as I ran through.   She had old furniture, comfortable to look at and even better to nap in; windows, tastefully decorated with vases on doilies, filled to the rim with plastic replicas of purple wine grapes in bunches on vines.  My sister and I would sneak over to the grapes and squeeze one off the bunch and attach it to our tongue where it would stick until pulled off.  “Pop!!!”  Down the stairs to the basement we would go.  Down here you could find tables and chairs for card games and a bar in the side room that had a stool for every uncle in the family.  They would sit and drink beer from cans that a cartoon-bear claimed, “…came from the land of sky blue waters…”

Outside, Grandma’s yard was an adventure in the waiting.  The property was lined by shrubs running the whole border.   Ancient trees that reached to the sky dotted the property.  Laundry poles faced off each other waiting to be filled again with sheets and table cloths, but not today.  It was July 4th, 1976 and the big birthday had finally arrived.  The yard was decorated with patriotic streamers and balloons of red, white and blue.  A good run around the yard made it clear that an event was planned of major proportion.  Chairs and tables were scattered about in groups of six and eight, enough to accommodate our large family and friends.

Did I ever mention that my father and his five brothers were competitive?  Oh yes, indeed!  I learned my earliest lessons from the “School of Hard Knocks” by playing too close to an uncle in a softball or a volleyball game.  Later on, it would be horseshoes and still later a rousing game of poker as they grew older, never losing their love for each other and this unique way of showing it.  Well this occasion was no different than any other.  The competition this time however, took the form of firework purchasing.  It seemed that each uncle arrived with a larger bag than the last, filled with legal (and suspicious) bombs, rockets, screeching whistles and high flying displays in all the colors of the rainbow to celebrate the grand occasion.  There were smoke bombs and sparklers, sulphor-smelling snakes that grew magically on the sidewalk, leaving black marks that could be seen well into the winter.  One by one, my uncles appeared with boxes in hand.  An arsenal of fireworks was placed on one outdoor table for the evening’s light show performance.  Anticipation was written all over my face and the army of cousins around me.

The food bell rang!  Without a moment lost, we raced into the house to fill our plates until they failed from the weight of the food, or at least worried our mothers as much.  There was mostaccioli, fried chicken, casseroles and salads of every kind.  There were fruits and vegetables with dipping sauces surrounded by chips and crackers.  Cakes and pies!  Cakes and pies!

After a full meal and a drowsy nap in the living room, I awoke with a start.  Except for a blaring black and white television set, no one else was there.  So I wandered through the house and then outside to find a party in full force.  My mother and aunts were circled in groups and talking about whatever it is that mothers and aunts talk about.  My uncles were playing horseshoes with my father and taunting each other in their usual way.  The children were running to and fro playing a game with some variation of tag-you’re-it and girls-got-cuties.  Then it happened…

I would later find out that it was in fact my father who was the culprit, but my memory still struggles with putting a face to perpetrator.  It started out as a harmless prank; my father extracted a single roman candle from the table of fireworks.  Perhaps it was nothing more than an attempt to scare one of his brothers, I don’t know.  He proceeded to the rear of the yard, obviously for safety reasons, and then ignited the wick.  He quietly aimed the barrel into the air, another example of exercising “Safety First”.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with a Roman candle firework; it is simply a cardboard pipe used as chamber to house approximately eight reports of fireballs.  One by one, they exit the pipe and soar high into the sky making a bright spectacle and loud bang as well.  Somewhere along the fourth or fifth report to leave the barrel of this successful firework prank, something terribly went wrong.  The next fire ball that should have went high into the sky, did not!  In fact, it made an unprecedented 90 degree turn and shot like a bee across the back yard and landed on the table, right smack in the middle of the arsenal of fireworks!!!

For some reason I always recall this part of the story in slow-motion.  I had a perfect view of the whole scene, standing at the back door of Grandma’s house.  I could see children scatter about the yard in all directions and Aunts and uncles diving behind trees and over shrubs.  My uncle Johnny got hit in the behind with a bottle rocket that whizzed off the table toward him.  Smoke filled the area and sulfur filled the air.  Our country’s birthday celebration was doomed to fail before our eyes as Grandma’s back yard turned into a war zone.  And then, slow at first and gaining momentum, from the corner of my eye I seen someone moving through the smoke and fire.  It was my Grandmother, all five foot-two inches, moving in a serpentine direction toward the fiery fury exploding on the table.  With a paper plate high in the air, she tore it in half creating two make-shift shovels and drove them into the center of the table.  She wore the face of a brain surgeon depicting calm concentration and resolve.  In an instant, she located the fireball, lifting it up and flinging it to the ground where it could no longer threaten the celebration that THIS GRANDMA was going to have.

Then there was all-quiet, nothing but stillness.  Grandma raised her head and simply said like a thousand times before, “Now you boys quit screwing around!!!”