Bombs Away

It’s the Fourth of July, people. Let’s have bombs!

Ye gods. I am not exactly sure precisely what those Italians were up to, but I do know that George Plimpton would approve. Because, until his death in 2003, Plimpton was known, among other things, as the most avid amateur fireworks enthusiast of all the Americans. Except, as I once saw him confess on a television, what Plimpton most enjoyed were not really “fireworks”: “they’re more, frankly, bombs.”

As a young man, Plimpton was plucked out of life, and forced into the United States military, where he was eventually sent to Italy as a tank driver. Fortunately for him, the tanks stopped rolling soon after he arrived. He then trained as a demolitions expert. And never thereafter did he lose his taste for things that go Boom. Except he didn’t want to Boom to hurt anybody. His aim, with his Booms, was to wow. Those Italians in the video above, they are Plimpton’s spiritual children. And maybe—who knows?—his biological ones.

In 1975, after half a lifetime of fun bombs, Plimpton announced he would seek to establish a world record for the largest-ever “firework.” He assembled a 720-pound roman candle he dubbed “Fat Man”; the behemoth was expected to rise some 1000 feet in the air, and then produce a massive starburst.

Instead, Plimpton more or less recreated the infamous Battle Of The Crater of July 30, 1864, when Union forces, attempting to break the siege at Petersburg, set off “mines” beneath Confederate positions; these exploded with such force they opened up a yawning hole in the ground, into which many Union troops charged, never to come out again, as the irredeemable blood-sucking slave-owning traitors simply fired down upon them, as they attempted to scrabble out.

Similarly, Plimpton’s 1975 “Fat Man” didn’t make it into the air, but instead blasted a crater 35 feet wide and 10 feet deep; it subsequently entered the Guinness Book of World Records as a record-setting “lowest firework.” Plimpton’s next attempt at the record, fired at Cape Canaveral, did make it 50 feet into the air, but meanwhile shattered more than 700 windows in nearby Titusville, Florida.

Plimpton was in constant tension with the local constabulary in the Hamptons, as he believed just about any occasion festive enough for him to get into his bottomless bomb stash and start firing the things off in and around his Wainscott beach house. Any old excuse would do. Whether it be his annual Bastille Day celebration, or the fact that Teddy Kennedy had lumbered over for a quick drink or nine. When the bombs started going off, inevitably the police would arrive. Plimpton would claim to the gendarmes that he possessed the required permits—whether he did or not—and also note, correctly, that he had been proclaimed Fireworks Commissioner by New York Mayor John Lindsay. This was a purely unofficial post, but Plimpton clung to it proudly, and insisted it was Real.

Sometimes people would get snitty: one guy claimed an “ember” from a Plimpton bomb-bash had “singed” his arm, and so sued Plimpton for $11 million. Plimpton replied that “anyone who has an arm valued at $11 million should be pitching for the Chicago White Sox.” According to Plimpton, this lawsuit went away after “I got a call from Frank Sinatra’s lawyer, who had heard about the case and asked me who was handling it. I said my father’s firm was, and he said ‘Well, you’ve got the wrong people. You should get a tough lawyer to countersue and suggest he is causing you psychological damage. And if that doesn’t work, I will make some phone calls to people in Chicago.'”

The pyromaniacial Plimpton inevitably hooked up with the Gruccis, a Long Island-based family of inveterate arsonists that has been building aerial bombs since 1850. When you see fireworks going off at an Olympics, or at a presidential inauguration, or at a World’s Fair, chances are there are Gruccis involved.

Plimpton hosted an A&E documentary on the Gruccis in the 1990s that is somewhat startling for the occasional and quite sudden disappearance of various Gruccis from the proceedings. This is because the abruptly-exited Gruccis needed to be rolled into some surgery somewhere, to have a Falk-orb implanted in an empty eye-hole, or to see if something could be done to reconstruct what was once a hand. For in the really big shows, those in which the Gruccis specialize, the “fireworks” are shot out of what are basically cannons, and cannons of any type are not real conducive to bodily integrity. Various Gruccis—some living, some now dead—may be seen in the photo above, fondling one of their “fireworks.” It is clear that they are all insane. The eyes don’t lie.

Plimpton decided that when he died he wanted to be melted down and his ashes mixed with the gunpowder in his favorite bomb and then he wanted to be shot into the air and exploded. This, it was done. “We shot Dad up into the sky, finally, some two and a half years after he died. These were his wishes: for his ashes to be packed into his favorite firework, the Kamuro—also known as the Boy’s Haircut, or Japanese Willow—a golden cascade of light that hangs there for a moment, shimmering, before winking off into the darkness. I was charged with packing my father’s remains into the fireworks myself.” So begins son Taylor’s touching tribute to blowing up his dad.

Plimpton was friends with fellow pyromaniac Hunter S. Thompson, and the two enjoyed a good-natured rivalry in setting off bombs, one that extended even unto death. For Thompson too wanted to become one with gunpowder and then explode in the sky, and he preceded Plimpton in blowing up in his own bomb, when he died of decidedly unnatural causes—he blew his brains out—and compadre Johnny Depp then took charge of firing Thompson off this planet. From a cannon. The booming airlift of Thompson’s ashes was accompanied by red, white, blue, and green fireworks, and the strains of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” followed by Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The cannon was placed atop a 153-foot tower constructed in the shape of a double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button, a symbol originally used in Thompson’s 1970 campaign for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, on a platform that included digging up the streets and replacing them with grass, and supplying free mescaline to all who wished to partake. Celebrants at Thompson’s pyrotechnic funeral ranged from George McGovern and John Kerry to people wanted under several names for extremely serious crimes on up to five continents.

In the video below, Thompson may be seen planning this event, decades in advance, and then, finally, experiencing it.

Thompson “beat my dad to it by getting shot into the air in some fireworks first,” Taylor Plimpton wrote glumly. However, he rallies, “I doubt Johnny Depp packed those fireworks himself.” Taylor did. Assisted by one of the Gruccis. This process was no big deal to the Grucci, although if you are not careful when ladling ashes and gunpowder into a “firework,” you can be blown entirely out of your body. “Old mariners have their ashes scattered at sea when they die, and people in the pyrotechnics business sometimes ask to have their ashes shot up into the sky in fireworks when they pass away,” Phil Grucci shrugged to an inquiring reporter.

Grucci liked doing bombs with Plimpton, because Plimpton was such a kid.

“I think that part of what George loved about fireworks was the danger and the thrill of it, not just the majesty of the fireworks themselves. He often liked to be right there as we were firing them off. And his excitement was always so boyish.

“I’ll never forget how he’d be sitting in a chair next to me as we used to fire the shows at Boy’s Beach—he used to call me ‘Philly,’ not just Phil—and he’d get so excited he’d be looking up in the sky and grabbing my knee and saying in that distinctive voice of his, ‘Go go go go go, Philly! C’MON! Go go GOGO GO GO!‘ As if I somehow could speed up the electrical charges for the finale even faster than it was already going, you know?”

Grucci laughs again. “Ohhh, how George is still missed.”

I have never really been an aficionado of the big bomb “fireworks” . . . though I understand the impulse. And all of my attempts to view such shows fairly up close and personal have been abortive. In San Francisco, for a Fourth, the cohort would settle into some free perch on somebody’s deck, or along the various staircases that trail through the hills . . . but inevitably the fog would roll in, obscuring our view of any Sky Fun. And so we would retire to somebody’s house, and there ingest Medicine and perhaps engage in sexual congress.

Later, I once dutifully tried to take my daughter to a fireworks show in the flat of the valley. But after the fireworks-people had sent up but two of the things, they determined that the wind that had sprung up would so billow away the show it would probably set fire to the town. So they shut it down. This caused several large inebriated white men in our vicinity to attempt a riot. But fortunately they didn’t really know how, and also it was 135 degrees. So they just sat there glumly, melting into their beer.

Finally, I lived for many years in a place up in the mountains, from the deck of which I could watch the annual Fourth fireworks show sponsored by another town, which shot their bombs out over a lake, on the wise theory that water is less likely to burn than land. We were many miles away, but the colors were pretty, and we also didn’t have to hear the noise, much, which was good for the cats, who do not believe in fireworks, and for my partner, who believed in fireworks even less than cats. But then after a couple years that town went into the poorhouse and so cancelled its annual Fourth show. And that was that, for that.

My brother, he’s the one who got the Plimpton-bomb gene. He and I were raised in the “safe and sane fireworks” state of California, but in his travels he came upon some other state that sold all manner of really loud and limb-detaching firework-bombs. He would purchase vast quantities and put them in his car and then drive back to California and periodically explode them in his compound. I think he also went on several bomb-foraging trips to Mexico. I know he additionally located some state where one could purchase liquor at something called a “drive-through bar”: you just pulled up to the window, like at a Wendy’s or something, and then, in exchange for some money, they would hand you a drink, or sixteen, and off you’d go. This is one of the essential pictures of my brother: driving smoothly through the night, the backseat of his vehicle packed with bombs, one hand on the wheel, the other holding some intoxicating beverage.

His compound at the time was located about a half-mile from a police station, and so, when he would set off his bombs, sometimes the police would come. Sometimes they would come too when he fired his shotgun over the head of some dog that had come around to menace his cats and chickens. A dog is not real smart, and is real stubborn when he’s after killing something, but generally he will respect a shotgun roaring over his head.

I pulled into my brother’s driveway once very shortly after he had let go a blast to drive off a dog. It was like coming onto the battle of Antietam. The air was heavy with the smell of cordite, and wisps of smoke still curled thickly in the breeze. About a minute or so after I arrived, so did a policeman. My brother brazenly claimed he knew nothing about any gunfire, though he had to gaze at the policeman through a hazy cloud of gunsmoke to say this. My brother had an uncanny knack for not getting arrested, and so the police person actually appeared to believe my brother was blameless in the loud gunshot incident that had caused someone to ring up the cop shop and weep beseechingly. My brother offered the policeman a beer—generally a beer or some other form of alcoholic beverage was grafted to one or more of my brother’s hands—but the policeman declined, and got back in his car, and drove away.

The only time my brother did actually get arrested was when he was nine sheets to the wind and rolled a little Morris. He demanded to go to jury trial, and there actually won. This was no small feat: not even his lawyer could understand it. It was particularly impressive to me because at the time my brother physically resembled a cross between Buffalo Bill, Long John Silver, and Rasputin. His very appearance screamed: criminal.

When he returned from the state that sold the bombs, he wanted to explode them for my daughter. But I vetoed this. I knew it was inevitable that she would eventually turn to Crime, but I wanted her to do it on her own, and not be lured into it by family members. Besides, at the time we were already having real problems trying to meld our world, with the world of the Other People.

For instance, I was recurrently having to go to my daughter’s school for Meetings. My brother always had a lot of fascinating work-man stuff around, and once my daughter picked up something and asked him what it was, and he said “a fuse.” The fuse, on its own, was of course completely harmless, which he explained to her, but he also explained the various uses to which a fuse could be put. She was spellbound, and said she wanted to take the fuse to school for show-and-tell. I thought nothing of it, and said “sure.” Then came the Phone Call. I had to go down to the school for a Meeting, and there state on the record that neither my daughter nor myself harbored any terrorist tendencies. This was before 9/11. If it had occurred after, no doubt she and I would both today be in Pelican Bay.

There had to be another Meeting when, during some current-events thing, she persisted in referring to “General Colon Bowel.” I had to troop down there and explain that she did not at all mean to be “willfully and repeatedly obscene and disrespectful”—the offense with which she was charged—but that she honestly believed that was the man’s name, because my brother and I had never referred to the hideous serial killer Colin Powell by any name other than “Colon Bowel.”

No names were ever safe, particularly from my brother. If you worked with my brother, and you annoyed him, and your name was Shelly White, you would become Smelly Wipes. There is just no recovering from something like that, not once it gets into wide circulation. She eventually moved far from our town: there was nothing else she could do.

Once I was watching a videotape of Mary Poppins with my daughter, and my brother dropped by, and he gazed at the chimney-sweeps frolicking on the screen, and then he soberly intoned: “And there he is. Penis Van Lesbian.” He next proceeded to explain to my daughter how Dick Van Dyke was actually Penis Van Lesbian. Me, I needed Medicine. I was sure this would result in another Meeting.

It didn’t. But there did occur a Meeting when my daughter informed her classmates, nearly tearfully, that “you have to vote against Bush so Uncle S——— can get a job.” My brother had told her, accurately, that he hadn’t really been able to secure full-time employment during the entirety of the George I presidency. He was therefore hoping the man would get tossed out on his ass, there in 1992, so he could get back to work. My daughter really loved her Uncle S——— , and in her young mind it was George I that was preventing him from working. And who knows? Maybe it was. After all, my brother worked steadily throughout the Clinton administration, but as soon as George II got in there, things started going to hell again. In fact, he didn’t make it out of the George II administration alive.

Among the items I inherited from him were about 500 boxes of ground bombs. These are actually called Ground Blooms, but we always called them ground bombs, and so fixed was that moniker in my mind that I absolutely could not remember what they were “really” called until I found them yesterday on a tube. These are little cylinders with a fuse at one end that you light and then toss on the ground and then they leap and jump around while spinning in a circle and spitting fire. Below one may witness a crazed arsonist detonating ground bombs in a forest.

These became such a great favorite that my daughter wanted to set them off all during the year. She has never really believed in cabining holidays; the Christmas tree should remain up until April, and Easter eggs should be retained, for periodic re-hiding, until they become so pungent they blow a hole in the side of the refrigerator. So ground bombs came to always be on hand, in case they needed to be lit. I have a stash of them in that drawer right over there, as we speak. But not 500 freaking boxes. Those—my brother’s—are down there in the basement.

My brother was cremated, and the ashes are still around: maybe I should stuff some of him in some ground bombs, and then spin him around for the Fourth. But I don’t think it would work. Me stuffing him into the ground bombs. I think I would succeed only in blowing off both my hands. And then I would have to type with my nose. He was the handy one, who might succeed in such endeavors. Not me.

One Fourth he decided to discover whether ground bombs would dance on water. So he tossed some in a plastic kiddie pool he kept around for his ducks. And they did dance delightfully, there in the dark. He and I and my daughter enjoyed this tremendously. Until the morning after. When we awoke to find the kiddie pool flattened, deflated, empty of water. The ground bombs had sizzled holes in the thing.

Even more upsetting was the crucified tree. The night before, he had pounded a nail into a tree to accommodate those fireworks that, when pinioned at center, madly spin round and round. It was fun at the time, but the next morning the tree was visibly bleeding. The tree—Outraged—continued to daily leak sap, to remind us of our Wrongness, for more than a year. It was not pleasant. It was like having Jesus Christ Crucified out in your front yard, all day, every day. I think that was the last time we did the Fourth at his house. After that, we moved it up to my place. Where we crucified no more trees.

It’s coming back to me now that there also had to be Meetings with the in-laws. Many of these concerned music. I like music, and in those days I played it, out loud, a lot. My daughter would pick out what lyrics she liked, entirely on her own, as the songs washed over her, and then later sing her favorite verses in the bathtub, sometimes within hearing of her 83-year-old maternal great-grandmother. My daughter, you understand, is like 3 or 4 at the time. The first Meeting occurred when my daughter started scrubbing and singing “whiskey river/take my mind.” But that was as nothing compared to the true smelling-salts incident, when my daughter in the bath sang: “half of my life/I spent doin’ time/for some other fucker’s crime.” It was not like she was mimicking something she had heard me sing; my daughter had plucked those verses out all on her own. But there was no making the great-grandmother believe that. The great-grandmother already believed I belonged in a Dungeon, because I allowed my daughter to wear whatever clothes she wished, rather than forcibly imprisoning her always in pink.

He also left me several boxes of snakes. My brother. When my daughter was young, these snakes, the fireworks version that is, were as exotic and foreign and remote to her as some extinct animal. This is because they had, since the days of my youth, been banned in California. She had never seen these strange and wondrous snakes, of which we did speak.

As can be seen in the video below, snakes are little black pellets that, when lit, rise disgustingly in writhing ashy tubes. I believe they were banned because the filthy tubelets are so lightweight they blow all over hither and yon and there sometimes Start Fires. Though why these would be banned, and not ground bombs, which intentionally and deliberately run all over the place spitting fire, beats me.

As can also be seen in that video, lit snakes leave behind ugly foul permanent black stains. The first time we had snakes, when I was a kid, they caused a real crisis in the relationship between my father and his driveway. We lived in a single-family house, with a front lawn and yard, and an accompanying cement driveway. In the world of my father, the driveway needed to remain clean at all times. And there is just no way to clean up a snake-stain. It is Forever. When the planet is no longer, has ceased all physical existence—then, still left behind, floating in space, will be the snake-stains. My father tried everything, up to and including, I think, a flamethrower, in his efforts to cleanse the driveway of the blackened snake-splats. It didn’t happen. It’s the next millennia now, and still those stains are there. They will never be gone. They are eternal.

The next year, for the Fourth, my father had constructed a special snake-board. He pounded some wood together, and atop it would be burnt the snakes. It was made known to us that if anyone tried to burn a snake on the driveway, rather than on the special snake board, that person would go into the orphanage.

The snake-board, like most things my father built, was actually pretty cool. We ended up lighting all the fireworks on the thing. The rest of the year, when it was not the Fourth of July, the snake-board occupied a corner of the garage next to the tin bucket that for the Fourth my father would fill with water and then use to drown the expended fireworks. When a fireworks-fountain or what-have-you was done spraying fire, he would dunk it head first into the bucket, where it would bubble and sizzle for a while. I always felt badly for them then, because it was clear to me, from the sizzling and bubbling, that the fireworks were still alive. I was then having a hard time distinguishing the inanimate from the animate. I filled up a big drawer in my bedroom with discarded matchbooks that I found in the gutter, when walking home from school; I picked them up and took them home because I felt sorry for them. This is also, of course, how our household accumulated various animals.

Fourth of July was for me as a kid as fun as Christmas. It was different, obviously. The Fourth fun came when the sun went down, and we could all go out and light our fires, rather than the early morning of Christmas, after Santa has been by in the night with the goods. But with both there was the anticipation, the waiting. Another difference: for the Fourth one could go out and actually participate in the purchasing of the presents, instead of having to wait to Know until the very day, as with Christmas. Every year my father would take us to one of the fireworks stands that suddenly sprung up like rickety wooden mushrooms every year in late June, located at the edge of parking, or wholly vacant, lots. And there we all collaborated in picking out the wonderments. Those stands were also part of the charm of the Fourth, which is its impermanence. Christmas stuff, in the presents, would and could linger for years; a firework is gone in less than a minute, and even the stands that sell them are there for but three weeks, maximum. Then they are gone. Until the next year.

Anyway. When I found that my deceased brother had bequeathed to me his snakes, I was pleased that I could pass them onto my daughter, who then could at last have snakes in her life.

But then I learned, somewhat to my surprise, that she had already long wrestled with snakes. For she had yoked herself to a young man who, it developed, also frequented the same bomb-state that had once enchanted my brother. And there periodically loaded up the car with various boxes of Forbidden Fireworks, including snakes. And he and she then set about merrily burning snakes and bursting bombs across various hamlets of southern Pennsylvania.

And so, as I knew was inevitable, my daughter had indeed found Crime. But she got there on her own.

Well. Maybe there was a genetic component . . . .

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2 Responses to “Bombs Away”


  1. 1 Elva July 13, 2017 at 8:28 am

    Many memories are in this piece for me. We, as a family, had many laughs each 4th of July. I remember when our oldest first got to light his first fire work. He stood way back, for fear he would catch fire, but he became an expert. One time their father put a spinner on a tree trunk and lite it,It came off the tree and rolled across the street. We laughed for a long time.


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