Firecrackers and Wine Kegs
It was the Fourth of July and sporadic pops of firecrackers and the occasional loud boom of a cherry bomb filled the morning air. That year I was ten years old and my brother, Howard, was eight. We were not permitted to buy or use firecrackers, but the temptation to light a few was great when we saw the neighbor kids enjoying them so much.
Our only permitted participation in the holiday festivities was to light sparklers and hold Roman candles as they launched brilliant balls of various colors into the evening sky. Sometimes father would light a few skyrockets for our entertainment. He would partially fill a wine bottle with sand to stabilize it and use it for a launching pad.
Father had a particularly discriminating taste for the wines of his making. Every step was done with great precision. After the wine was bottled and the kegs were emptied, he placed the kegs outside on a rack where they remained until next season. They were then “sweetened” by burning sulfur sticks in them before a new vintage was stored in the kegs.
As the morning wore on we continued watching neighbor kids having their fun. The temptation to light a firecracker was too much for Howard. He found an unexploded one on the sidewalk in front of our house and picked it up.
“Put it down.” I said.
He held it for a long time smiling as If he had some mischief in mind. He turned and ran toward the back yard, with me in hot pursuit. What was he planning to do? I had no idea, but I wasn’t going to allow him to light it. Unexploded firecrackers have had the fuse burned short, and might explode almost immediately, if re-lighted.
This time of year the kegs were in their racks outside. As we ran I yelled that he not light it because it could explode immediately. He ran to the kegs, lit it and dropped it down the bunghole. My heart stopped. I knew we both were in big trouble; Howard for contaminating the keg and me for letting him do it.
We waited, and waited with breathless anticipation. There was no explosion. I was delighted. Perhaps it wouldn’t go off and we could roll the keg over and retrieve it. Father would be none the wiser for our mischief. Howard ran over to the keg and peeked in the bunghole.
“No, no,” I cried “Not yet”… Too late. The firecracker exploded.
Howard jerked back his head screaming, “I can’t see. I can’t see”.
I prayed it was only a temporary blindness caused by the concussion. He wouldn’t let me look at his eye, and he kept screaming. After more crying and screaming, I finally calmed him down enough to let me look.
Great Caesar’s ghost! He had no eye! Well, there was no whole eye.
There was no pupil and no color. Most of the eye was a light tan, and all around this tan crater was a black burnt edge. I was too frightened, and Howard was in too much pain for me to inspect it again. I had never seen the inside of an eyeball, but I assumed what I saw was a blown-out and burnt crater in the center of his eye.
The worry over father’s concern about his keg faded to nothing compared to what had happened to Howard.
I was scared that he had lost his eye, and scared too of what would happen to me when father learned of this. Howard now was crying profusely, as was I, and he wouldn’t let me look anymore. It hurt too much.
I decided we should run to the house and tell Mother what had happened. Perhaps some quick medical help could save his eye, but I couldn’t imagine anything that could be done to an eye that had the center blown out.
I grabbed his arm to lead the way as we ran as fast as we could. Howard stumbled along beside me, crying in great pain. When we got to the house I insisted that he let me look at the eye one more time. As I opened his lid I could see that all the tears from crying had moved the tan spot. Upon further examination I could see a portion of it was on his lower lid. I pinched the edge of it with my fingernails. It came off onto my finger.
“I can see!” Howard exclaimed.
I looked carefully at what I had removed. It was the inner layer of tan paper from the firecracker, burnt around the edge. It had been blown flush against his eyeball by the force of the explosion. The flooding of his tears had finally floated the paper toward the lid.
We immediately retreated from the house and walked a block or so down the street. We waited there until we regained our composure, and Howard’s eye stopped tearing. It didn’t hurt any more, just irritated.
We returned home and never spoke a word to anyone about that day’s event. After that we had a greater appreciation of father’s admonition not to play with firecrackers. As for the wine keg, we never knew whether there were bits of paper in one of father’s wines, or whether later cleaning had removed the contamination before sweetening the keg. We have always believed it was the latter.
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