Free of my parents and brothers, I had just watched one of my favorite TV shows: “Perry Mason,” a weekly drama about an attorney who defended the unjustly accused. I could relate. I had been restricted to house arrest and missed the night’s Fourth of July activities.
Earlier that evening, as my family headed out to a nearby gathering, I had peered through the kitchen window as they drove away with the saddest expression I could muster. Secretly, though, I wasn’t all that sad because I knew that although I would miss the night’s action — food, fireworks and friends — I’d still be able to view the spectacular nearby Mondavi fireworks show from our rooftop and then watch my favorite detective show, all the while not having to negotiate or argue about who watched what or sat where. The thought of all this had made me almost glad I was on restriction.
I turned off the TV and headed into the kitchen to make myself a bowl of Jiffy Pop popcorn. Keeping all the lights off, I stood over the glowing coils of the electric stove and gazed in wonder as the tinfoil-covered contraption began to expand with each pop of corn until the lid blossomed into a silvery balloon.
The warm night air drifted in from the window, bringing with it hints of that night: lingering sweet barbecue intertwined with wisps of sharp, sulfury smoke. The only sound was the occasional pop of distant firecrackers.
Although often threatened, restriction was a rarely used punishment in my home. Years later I’d learn why: A sentence of confinement is often as much a punishment for the parents as for the offender because they needed to police the captive or risk further unwanted infractions. In this special case, however, my parents had made an exception.
Earlier that week I had started a fire in our backyard.
Luckily we were able to put the blaze out with shovels and a garden hose before it spread beyond a corner of a dry-grass field. Still, the transgression had resulted in my house arrest for a week and the removal of my right to ignite fireworks without adult supervision (which, technically, had always been in effect, although I refrained from belaboring this point during the sentencing phase).
I was also prohibited from going to the fireworks display with them.
After, when I had asked my mother when my pyromania might be reinstated, she answered, “When we deem you worthy of trust with a book of matches and a box of smoke bombs,” which I came to learn might not be until age 30 — a 20-year sentence that I considered excessive.
During the trial phase of the proceedings my defense team (me) had argued that lighting fireworks in the nearby open field was more akin to an act of patriotism than to an unsanctioned act of an unruly minor. How better to celebrate the birth of America, I’d emphatically implored, than to procure and share fireworks with friends with what was, in essence, an act of remembrance?
The prosecutor’s team (my parents and strangely my brothers, too) countered with what I believed to be a rhetorical question: How does throwing a lighted smoke bomb at your friends constitute an act of patriotism?
I thought their subsequent argument leaned heavily on unnecessary technicalities and a healthy dose of hyperbole.
For example. Prosecution question 1) How did I buy said fireworks, seeing how I was only 10 years old?
Answer: From the fireworks stand in St. Helena (proudly adding that I paid for them with money I’d made mowing lawns).
They weren’t convinced, and their deluge of questioning had continued.
Prosecution question 2) Where had I obtained the matches?
Answer: I legally procured the matches from the publicly accessible collection of matchboxes found on Dad’s desk.
Still not convinced.
Prosecution question 3) Why had I thrown a lighted smoke bomb at my friends in the middle of a field of dry grass?
Answer: I had not thrown the incendiary device at them but to them, hoping to play catch while smoked poured from the small spinning sphere that left an interesting trail of smoke when catapulted skyward.
The soundness and thoroughness of my arguments seemed more than enough to exonerate anyone in my plight, but my well-considered asseveration had fallen on deaf ears. And now here I was alone on the Fourth of July.
Outside I heard a car pull into the driveway and then stop. The headlights went dark and the doors creaked open.
“Hey, Tim, come out here, we have something for you,” my brother called through the darkness.
“We brought you sparklers,” he said as he drew closer.
I eagerly headed to the door.
“Don’t forget to bring the matches,” my mom called out through the darkness, and they all laughed.
What happened next was another story.
Originally published in the St. Helena Star, June 2018