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Art & Culture

various essays on, well, art and culture

Bookbinding & Conservation

lessons learned from this profession


ok, I'm not the guy from SNL,
but I still have a sense of humor

'Jim Downey' Stories

The Rocket's Red Glare
The Haunted House
The Amazing Hoopie, Part 1
The Amazing Hoopie, Part 2
The Amazing Hoopie, Part 3

Personal Essays

more "it's all about me"


Iím at -7.13/-7.33 on The Political Compass.  Where
are you?


observations on the human condition


take a trip with me

19 May 2005

Jim Downey and the Rocket's Red Glare

"Grab that blanket," Bob said to me, getting out of the driver's seat of the late-model Ford Fairlane.

I handed it to Adam, since I was still sitting in the back seat, gathering together my own supplies.  "Here."

Adam took it over the front bench seat, opened his door and got out.  I snagged my bag of rockets and the little bottle rocket "gun" I had made earlier in the evening.  This was a three-foot length of aluminum tubing, one end bent more than 90 degrees to form a crude handle.  I had carefully filed out the end of the "barrel," so that a metal burr wouldn't catch a bottle rocket at an inopportune moment.  I got out of the car.

We were in the parking lot of a Venture department store, which was closed since it was about 10:00 at night.  The lot was completely empty, except for a couple of beat up cars that probably belonged to the cleaning crew, parked up by the front entrance.  We were well away from that, at the far end of the lot near the Venture gas station.  This was also closed.  But it provided a blind spot from two of the three entrances into the large parking lot, so anyone (such as the cops) coming in wouldn't see us immediately.  The third entrance came into the gas station area, but we'd see anyone coming that way long before they could get there.

See, it was like this:  there was this four-lane road that ran beside the Venture.  But it was about 30 feet below the level of the parking lot, down a grassy slope.  So from our vantage point, we could easily keep an eye on traffic coming our way for almost a mile.  It was also the most likely route for any cops to take to get to where we were.  The other entrances were less used, coming from subdivision-type roads.

And, across the way, on the other side of the four-lane road, was our target:  a drive-in theater.  It, like the Venture store, was up on a hill.  In fact, over there the hill had been raised artificially, to create an earthen berm to shield the patrons of the theater from the lights of cars in the Venture lot.

Bob took the blue plaid blanket from Adam.  "Here, let's put this on the hood.  I don't wanna scratch the paint.  My dad'd kill me."

"Good idea," said Adam.

Bob spread out the blanket.  I dumped fireworks on it, mostly bottle rockets.  I should explain that since my birthday is the Fourth of July, I always had a supply of fireworks, no matter what time of year.  It was something of a trademark for me.

"Whoís got a lighter?" I asked, holding up a punk.

Bob smiled, reached into his pocket.  He snapped open the lighter, struck the igniter, then held out the flame.  Adam and I lit punks, then he picked up one and lit it himself.  "First one to hit the screen wins."

I dropped the stick of a bottle rocket into the aluminum tube, leaving the fuse sticking up.  Lighting the fuse, I gave the tube a shake, and the rocket dropped out of sight.  Raising the tube, rifle style, I took aim at the movie screen across the way.

Bottle rockets aren't known for their accuracy.  And my little homemade launcher barely improved the odds that I'd hit anything that far away.  But it was cool.  The rocket whizzed off in flash and smoke, and I stepped to the side to watch where it went.

"Not bad," said Adam as the rocket gave a little Pop! on the other side of the earthen berm, in the general direction of the movie screen.  "Lemme try."

His was better aimed, but exploded before it cleared the berm.  He looked at Bob.  "Wanna try?"

"No, man, I'll just do it the old fashion way," he said as he lit the fuse of a rocket and then gave it a toss.  It arced up, then ignited, zipping across the gap of the road and popped about where my first attempt did.


"Lots of practice," he grinned.

After another three or four bottle rockets each, Adam said "We've got company."

I was looking down at the fuse of another rocket I had in the launcher.  I snapped my head up, looked down at the road.  "Cops?"

"No, look."  He pointed at the figure of a man just topping the berm.  The figure stopped on the crest and was shaking a fist at us.  It looked like he was screaming, but with the sound of traffic below, I couldn't make out what he was saying.

"Looks pissed."

"Gee, some people," I said.  I lit the fuse, raised the tube, and sent the rocket flying at the man.  It arced over the berm, popped.

"Heh.  New target," said Bob.  He sent a rocket at the guy, who was now heading down the hill on his side of the road.

The rocket popped just to the guy's right.

"Cool.  He's gonna come over here and kick our asses."

Zip went another rocket, missing the man by just ten feet.

"I dunno.  He don't look like he could kick anyone's ass."

"Heh.  Watch this," I said, sticking the somewhat fatter stick of a 2 ounce rocket into the tube.  I'd brought along several of these and one big 4 ouncer that looked like a stick of dynamite.  Never know when you want a little more power.

"Holy shit!"

This somewhat larger rocket wouldn't fit down into the tube, but I was still able to effectively aim it in the general direction of the guy who was now at the bottom of the other hill, waiting for a car to pass so he could cross the road.  I lit the fuse, and the sucker took off, shooting across the valley and bouncing off the road before exploding in a couple of colored balls like you'd get from a roman candle.  As this happened right in front of the guy, he dove to the ground.

"Good shot."

Now the man's screams were discernable over the sound of the cars.

"Try it," I said, handing the tube to Bob.

He grabbed a 2 ouncer, shoved the stick in the tube, then lit the fuse.  But the man was already mostly across the road, and as Bob pointed the tube at him, the rocket started to slip out, since he was pointing down with it more than I had with my attempt.  The rocket ignited just as it fell from the tube, hit the metal railing of the parking lot in front of us, bounced back and shot alongside the car, back between the gas pumps and exploded in a shower of sparkles in the middle of the parking lot.

"Whoa, that was close," said Bob, who had jumped to get out of the way of the rocket as it passed.

"We should be thinking about gettin' out of here," said Adam, tossing off another bottle rocket at the guy, who was now starting up the hill on our side.  His cursing was now quite audible.

About then, I heard a siren start up in the distance.

"Yeah, maybe we'd better."

Bob listened to the siren for a moment.  "Ah, they're still a ways away."

I looked down the hill at the middle-aged man climbing rapidly.  Fury made up for his obvious lack of physical condition.  Having a bit of fun with the guy was one thing.  Having to get into a fight with him, with the cops on the way, was something else.  "Nonetheless . . ."

"Yeah, okay," said Bob, handing me the launcher, then digging in his pocket for his keys.

Adam grabbed the corners of the blanket, making a bundle with all the fireworks in the middle.  I started to head for the back seat of the car.

"Hey, wait," said Bob, annoyed.  He pointed at the blanket bundle.  "You see my keys in there?"

Adam stopped, thought.  "No."

"Well, they ain't in my pockets."

I stuck my head in the passenger side window.  No keys in the ignition.  I looked up, said "I don't see 'em, either."

"Don't tell me you lost the fuckin' keys."

A little panicked, Bob said "Quick, open the bundle again."

Adam dropped the bundle on the hood.  He and Bob pulled back the corners of the blanket and quickly rummaged through the fireworks.  "Shit.  Nothing."

The sirens were getting closer.  So were the ragged curses of the man climbing the hill.

"Shit."  Bob quickly opened the driver's side of the car, checked the ignition, then started digging around on the bench seat.  "Damn, here they are!  C'mon!"

Adam grabbed the blanket full of fireworks.  We both dived into the car as Bob started it.  Barely getting the doors closed, we were thrown forward as Bob put the car into reverse and stomped on the accelerator.  I bounced off the back of the front seat, grabbed the armrest as we squealed between the gas pumps.  Bob pulled the car hard to the right just past the clerk's hut, slammed on the brakes, shifted into first, then spun the steering wheel and hit the gas again, hard.  It was a perfect maneuver, and we cut across the parking lot in a flash, exiting into one of the nearby subdivisions well ahead of the cops.

"Damn!  That was fun!"

"Wanna circle around a bit, and go back and do it again?"

"Nah, thatíd be crazy."

"How 'bout some tunes?"

"Sure," Bob answered.  "Just stick a tape in."

Adam found an 8-track tape on the floor and stuffed it into the player.  Foghat blared.

"Nah, not that.  How 'bout that new ZZ Top tape?"

Adam pulled out the Foghat, tossed it at me.

"Careful with that tape, man," grumbled Bob.  "I paid eight bucks for that!"

"No you didn't.  I was with you two years ago when you stole it."

Bob cocked his head for a moment as Tres Hombres blared from the rear speakers sitting on the back deck.  "Oh yeah, I forgot.  But still, I like it, so don't fuck it up."

"So, whatíre we gonna do?"

Bob had been driving around suburbia, nice and calm, getting us well away from the Venture lot.  But we were all still pumped up with adrenaline.

I thought for a moment.  "Hey, we're not too far from that Clark station.  You know, the one where that dickhead Jones works?"

"Yeah, so?"

"Let's go pay him a visit."

"Man, he wouldn't sell us beer last time we went by there, even when we offered him an extra five bucks for a case.  And after what you called him then, I don't think heís going to be inclined to sell us any beer this time."

"That wasn't what I had in mind."  I laughed.  "Nope, not what I had in mind at all."

Adam turned to look at me.  "You're nuts.

"What?"  asked Bob.

"Let's go give 'im a scare."

Now Bob got it.  "Man, no way.  That's fuckin' crazy."

"Nah, we'll just pop off a few bottle rockets, scare the shit outta him."

Adam was shaking his head.  "I still say youíre nuts."

"Hey, that sky rocket that bounced off the railing back there?  It went right between the pumps.  Nothin' happened."

As we talked, Bob was making for the gas station.  "I dunno, man."

"We'll just give 'im a scare."  I pointed up ahead of us.  "Just make a pass by the station, we'll check things out."

Bob slowed down a bit as we went by, but not so much that we'd stand out.  The gas station was on a two-lane road overlooking the interstate near our suburban high school.  There wasn't much else near it.  We went by.  The four pumps under the canopy were dark, though the lights were still on inside the station itself.  I saw a figure behind the counter.  It was Jones.

"OK, cool.  Loop around the block, and we'll stop in front and lob a few rockets his way," I said.

"Better if we park up there on that side road, walk down the opposite side and hide behind them trees.  That way he won't have a car description to give the cops."

"Aw, screw that.  I doubt that dipshit would be able to tell my car from a pickup," said Bob.  "I don't wanna leave the car again.  We'll just stop opposite the station, hit 'im with a couple of rockets, and beat the hell out of there."

"Yeah, he'll be scared shitless and hiding.  He won't be able to tell the cops squat."

Bob went up the street, turned the car around, and pulled up opposite the station.  Meanwhile, I loaded a bottle rocket in the launcher and got Adam to light a punk on the cigarette lighter.

I lit the fuse, stuck the barrel out the window, and watched the bottle rocket shoot over, bounce off the large front window of the gas station, and pop.  The report was augmented by the metal canopy over the pumps, but still it sounded weak.  Jones didn't seem to notice.  I sent another bottle rocket, and this one popped right next to the door.  Jones looked up from his work behind the cash register, threw something down in annoyance, and started out.

"Well, he don't look too scared," said Adam.

"That was just bait," I answered.  I already had the big 4 ounce rocket I'd brought along loaded and ready, and as soon as he reached the door of the station and started coming out, I lit the fuse.

The rocket took off with a whoosh and the backwash filled the interior of the car with smoke, so I wasn't quite sure what happened next.

"Holy fuck!" shouted Bob, as I heard a very loud  BANG!   followed by a screeching whine.  Through the smoke I saw a dazzling red light coming from the gas station.  Then I saw it.  Skittering around on the ground between the pumps and the station was a brilliant red flare, spinning and screaming, making its way towards the dangling hose of one of the pumps.  Jones stood there, hands raised in front of him, frozen in fear.

Just then, sirens and flashing lights went off down on the interstate.

"Get us the hell out of here!"

Bob hit the gas.  As we sped down the street, the glare at the gas station faded and went out, and ZZ Top was once again audible on the rear speakers of the car.  "Mission accomplished, I'd say."

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all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
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