By Malcolm Nall Carmichael
The belligerents collected and sold cast-off bottles to buy their bomb material. On July third they biked to Loco Joe’s Fireworks on Cahaba Road and bought the principal component: 134 boxes of Miss Liberty Gold No. 8 sparklers.
“How can we light 800 sparklers and live to tell it?” asked Tyler.
“We’ll mangle all the sparklers, so the gray thermite coating breaks off for collecting in one big paper bag. “Then I’ll light the bag and pop goes the weasel.”
“What if I want to do it?” asked Lance.
TJ shook his head. “This isn’t a job we can leave to the Beaver.”
TJ had turned fourteen during the summer of ’61 and was ready to fight the Russians, to do his part to defeat the communist menace. He recruited his classmate, Tyler, and his younger brother, Lance, to support his warfare preparations.
“‘Better Dead than Red,’” he told them. “They’ve got their bomb. We need ours.”
“The Commie Killing Sparkler Bomb, that’s what. We need a heap of sparklers for the payload. Then leave the rest to me.”
The inside of TJ’s garage, where they gathered for the sparkler wire bending and twisting, stank of gasoline, dead grass, and insecticide. The family’s pride and joy, a red Sears chain saw, hung over them on the wall like a deer head. Each boy knelt by sheets of newspaper to mutilate sparklers and rack up piles of fireball debris. Their sweaty hands and arms were soon stained gray.
“This bomb sure is dirty,” said Lance.
“Killing commies is nasty business, but God knows somebody has to do it.”
By dusk, they finished assaulting the sparklers and poured the thermite chunks into a thick Purina Dog Chow bag. TJ labeled it “For Moscow” with red finger paint.
“Think it’ll work?” said Tyler.
“You’ll see. Tomorrow night, we’ll have a test blast during the neighborhood celebration at the schoolyard. The neighbors’ fireworks noise will cover our blast so the cops won’t notice. Bring your daddy’s portable barbecue grill. We’ll blend in till we light our blockbuster.”
That night, Lance was sniffling from the top bunk.
“What?” whispered Tyler.
“My hands hurt. They glow in the dark too.”
“So do mine. Don’t touch your gonads.”
“That it’ll work.”
When it grew dark on July Fourth, TJ carried the bomb satchel while Tyler and Lance hauled the three-legged grill to the playground at Coach Buford McKee Elementary. Groups of children and families gathered on the grass with lawn chairs, coolers, and sacks of low-level fireworks. Burgers, hot dogs, and other meat sizzled over charcoal fires in portable grills and hibachis.
Tyler and Lance anchored the grill near the basketball backboard a hundred feet from the fence where the other people congregated. TJ slid the bulging bomb from his satchel and settled it on the grill. Patriotic pyro revelers began shooting firecrackers, cherry bombs, Black Cats, and M80s while lobbing Roman candle stars over the grass field.
“What a piss-poor show.” TJ spat on the grass. A girl began singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and a dozen children joined her.
“We’ll give you ‘bombs bursting in air,’” yelled TJ. Two small boys turned and stared.
TJ thrust the last sparkler deep into the Dog Chow bag. He pulled several wooden kitchen matches from his satchel and struck one. The sparkler lit, then fizzled an inch down the wire.
“Oh, crap,” said Tyler.
“Keep your shorts clean.” TJ lit another match and held it under the sparkler’s center, which began burning and dropping gold sparks. “We’d better stand back.”
The sparkler flame reached the bag and almost snuffed out in a wisp of gray smoke. “Oh no,” moaned Lance.
A rising hiss from the bag swelled into a roar that shook the grill and discharged a blast of searing white light and yellow flame. The three boys screamed and stumbled backward onto the grass, covering their faces and crawling toward center field. The blast riddled their clothes and exposed skin with burn holes, and smoke rose from singed hair. Showers of sparks shot side-wise and skyward over the field and began raining onto the grass and trees. The net under the basketball goal ignited into a blazing orange web. After one leg melted, the grill collapsed, hurling a molten wave of cinders onto the grass.
The boys coughed, spit, and rolled on the ground. A halo of smoke ringed TJ’s head. People across the field yelled and ran for fire extinguishers and water buckets. Several raced home to call the fire department.
TJ staggered, shielding his left eye with his hands. “I can’t see. Or feel my eyebrows.”
“Me neither,” said Lance, stomping his feet where cinders were melting the rubber on his high tops.
Tyler pulled his T-shirt off to smite his brother’s burning buttocks. Sirens blaring in the distance grew closer.
A man lugging a bucket limped to them and began flicking water at their faces. “Say, that was quite a stunt.” He plopped the bucket down and walked away toward the fence.
“Stunt?” wheezed TJ. “Can’t you see? We’re ready for World War III.” He lowered his hands, and the roasted marshmallow in his left eye socket twitched. “By God we’ve got the Commie Killing Sparkler Bomb.”
Lance lifted the bucket, poured water on his head, and passed it to Tyler.
“We don’t have the bomb anymore.” Tyler pointed to the glowing debris by the basketball goal.
“We’ll build another one,” said TJ. Lance shivered in his wet shirt.
“We’ve already burned ourselves out with it, TJ.” Tyler sloshed water down his blistered face and neck. “Moscow’s still untouched. Let’s go home.”