That's Life: Near death experiences on independence day

Tony Bender
Local Columnist

Every Independence Day I reminisce about celebrations past, the fireworks shot from a barge as viewed from Douglas Island with Juneau's mountains and cruise ships providing the backdrop, the most spectacular show I've ever seen. Then there were the fireworks in Frederick, SD, where we'd lean back on the hoods of cars at the ball field, slathered in bug spray, to watch a great small town display that drew hundreds from surrounding towns.

And there was the time at Uecker Yards when Teddy Uecker tried to burn down the City of Hettinger, ND. One of his rockets set the dry grass of the adjacent airport alight with a north wind that pushed the flames towards an unsuspecting city.

The late great Jim Howe, his daughter Maureen's boyfriend, and I immediately leaped the barbwire fence and tore off our shirts to beat the flames out. It was nip and tuck, yet while we were singeing chest hair and eyebrows, Ted cackled like Nero, because the man loves anarchy. Really, he should be locked up.

The next day, when I brought my stinky, sooty, smokey clothes to Carmel's Cleaners, Carmelo Bonomo lifted an eyebrow and shook his head. Apparently, I wasn't the first one in. He should have cleaned them for free, after all we'd saved the whole damn town.

But most prominent in my memories are the adventures I had in Frederick, driving around shooting bottle rockets into each other's car windows and the bottle rocket that went straight down a neighbor's chimney with an explosion that billowed black soot into the air.

There were the escapades with my friend Whitey, who I think got his nickname from his dad, Bob, our baseball coach, probably because he liked Whitey Ford, and also because Whitey had platinum—almost white—hair, and all of Whitey Ford's velocity and none of his control. It was always quiet in center field when Whitey pitched. There were two probable outcomes; he'd strike them out or plunk them in the ribs. Not even the most suicidal of batters,crowded the plate. Whitey always won, though. He was a switch hitter like Mickey Mantle and a pretty good stick, too.

I still don't know for sure why we were friends. He had a mean streak, although the hit batsmen were by accident. He couldn't possibly have hit them on purpose. But about that mean streak, here's an example: One day Gare Bare's dad sent us to retrieve the geese which sometimes wandered too far to down to the Maple River that cut through their property. If you know anything about geese, you know they can't be herded, and they're mean as Whitey's fastball was. You had to catch and carry the geese one at a time. One day, Whitey offered to hold my goose while I crawled over the barbwire fence, a rare moment of kindness you might imagine, but once I'd straddled the fence, he put a goose up close and it bit me right on the rear. It left a bruise. He wasn't cruel for the sake of cruelty, however. There had to be humor involved. 

Another time, when we were lighting off fireworks in the street in front of my house, I knelt down, concentrating deeply, to light a firecracker with a whole string of Black Cats hanging out of my back pocket. Whitey was standing behind me. You see where this is going don't you? Suddenly, my butt exploded. He'd lit them off! It felt like the worst spanking you could imagine, but thankfully it blew the pocket off my jeans. Afterward, my pocket flapped in the wind, attached only by the rivets at the top corners, while Whitey rolled in the grass laughing so hard he hyperventilated. 

And there was the day we were shooting off Roman candles when he decided to aim his at me, but his Roman candle didn't shoot straight. Mine did, though, and I began bouncing them off his chest until he retreated. Now, Whitey was fast, a darn fine running back and a good sprinter, but he wasn't fast enough to outrun a Roman candle, and I was merciless, so by the time the thing finally petered out, I'd pretty much burned the white T-shirt off his back. Vengeance was mine.

This is the part where I offer a somewhat sincere disclaimer: Kids, don't try this at home or at least without adult supervision, unless the adult is Whitey. All sorts of bad things could happen. But if you decide to go after Whitey, I'll understand and look the other way. With him if you don't strike first, he will.

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