Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A Pair of Independent Memories...

Whenever the Fourth of July rolls around and firework shacks start popping up in parking lots all over town, I fondly remember a pair of childhood memories from growing up in Davis County.

The first of these gems took place somewhere in my mid-teens, while still attending church with my family at the Bountiful 19th Ward. On the Sunday nearest the 4th, sacrament meeting would always feature one or two patriotic hymns like “America the Beautiful” or “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

One year Bishop Bob Carling got up halfway through the meeting and announced that he’d arranged for a special musical number for our holiday service. Seems a few weeks earlier he’d come across a little-known patriotic ditty called “The Liberty Bell March” by John Phillip Souza, and had been so inspired he’d persuaded our organist to learn it for the day’s meeting.

Our organist was Rob Nish, a kid my age who’d morphed from a head-to-toe Utah Jazz superfan into a sophisticated organ-playing classical music guru in six months time. When Rob sat down at the organ to start pumping out the march, my family thought little of the situation. Rob’s Sunday recitals had become fairly commonplace even by that time. But when he started playing, my family’s ears perked up quickly.

Something sounded familiar.

Mom, Dad, Katie and I looked back and forth at each other wide-eyed as grins gradually spread across our lucid faces. Rob was playing the Monty Python theme in sacrament meeting.

When it comes to Python, most of the general population has only seen “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. But before the grail, there was “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, a half-hour TV sketch show that started them down the road to infamy. Apparently the Python boys had used the “Liberty Bell March” as their theme song.

I sat back on my bench and beamed as Rob continued to toot and wail his way through the song, which to everyone else in the chapel just sounded like any another patriotic tune. But to four grinning Mormons on the left flank of the pulpit, visions of waving banners and patriotic powdered wigs were replaced with dead parrots, effeminate lumberjacks and giant cartoon feet. The performance was a watershed moment in my religious upbringing, a dramatic crossing of the streams reminding me that God most certainly had a sense of humor.

My second fond memory took place a few years later, the summer after I’d returned from my mission to Chicago. After spending the previous two summers pounding the pavement in Illinois, I was anxious to return to our family’s traditional Island Park retreat near Yellowstone National Park. My loyal cohort Mike and I had just finished my triumphant return trip and were making our way south through Jackson Hole, Wyoming when inspiration struck.

Back before Mike joined the ranks of the married and domesticated, he was a semi-mischievous fellow who was always up for some offbeat fun. He was also the kind of guy that liked blowing things up, so as we got ready to leave Wyoming, he suggested that we pick up some fireworks while they were still legal. Our last option before crossing into Idaho was a lonely bar off the side of Highway 89 about a quarter mile shy of the border. Unlike the Evanston superstores and lavishly-colored parking lot shacks dedicated to pyrotechnics, this sullen bar just had a small hand-painted sign reading “fireworks” in the window. But we were still in Wyoming, which meant the place was good enough for Mike.

Even though we were both legal at the time, Mike and I felt a bit odd walking into this remote bar at 2PM in the afternoon. As our eyes adjusted to the dim light, we saw that the only person inside was a squat bald bartender in his 50’s who stared at us curiously while polishing a glass.

“Can I help you boys?” he asked us in a gruff, unwelcoming voice.

“Uh, yeah”, started Mike. “We saw a sign that said you had fireworks.”

The bartender raised his hand and pointed a thick index finger over our shoulders.

“Behind you,” he rasped.

We turned and saw a vast glass case that stretched from floor to ceiling, filled with a who’s who of fireworks. Mike moved in for a closer look, peering with the purposeful inspection of a seasoned veteran.

“You looking for anything in particular?” came the voice again.

“You got any M-80’s?” asked Mike.

The bartender smirked. “Come here,” he said. “I’ve got something better.”

As we crossed the room, the barkeep secretively reached down under the bar. In the movies, such a motion usually triggered a shotgun shootout. But instead of a sawed-off shotgun, this bartender pulled up a handful of small cylinders, each the size of a roll of quarters. Far from gaudy, each cylinder was wrapped in what looked like cheap 1950’s wrapping paper, with an inch-long fuse sticking out of one end.

“$1.25 each, or four for five dollars,” the bartender said.

Mike beamed at the insider product while I tried to decide whether the bartender realized that four for five dollars wasn’t a better deal than $1.25 a piece. But five dollars later, we walked out of the bar with four quarter-sticks of dynamite, quickly forgetting any questions of economics.

Mike wound up taking three of the cylinders, leaving me one triumphant artifact of the black market explosives underground. He took his contraband up to some family property in Morgan, where he managed to blow some 12-inch holes in the ground once he’d figured out a way to safely extend the fuses. Mine rested safely in an old Los Angeles Raiders coffee mug waiting for the proper time to do its thing. It rested there partially because I thought it was more valuable as a reminder of the story itself, but mostly it rested there because I suspected that if I ever actually lit it I would be swamped by a team of undercover ATF agents and thrown in the slammer to do hard time.

It was a typically paranoid fear, augmented by memories of prison scenes in movies like “Cool Hand Luke” and “Shawshank Redemption”. For better or worse, fear is an effective motivator, and eventually my mother convinced me to chuck the thing, probably because her paranoid fear had the firecracker mysteriously self-lighting in the middle of the night and blowing her only son to unfulfilled smithereens.

Nine years later, the regular firework displays are still pretty fun, as long as there are some cute girls watching with me, but I still wonder if I should hop in the car and cruise north to see if that old bartender is still around to cut me a deal on the kind of merchandise even Wyoming dealers keep out of plain sight. I’d probably bring along a fair assortment of Simon and Garfunkel for that killer drive up Logan Canyon, but at least once, I’d have to pop in a little John Phillip Souza for good measure.

Bishop Carling would be proud.