Tuesday, March 8, 2011

BB Guns And Firecrackers

Growing up in the sixties in Crockett was great fun and the times were much simpler. There were no malls for kids to loiter in, any nearby arcades or amusement parks; not even a Wal-Mart. The BB gun was one of the absolute staples of entertainment, and off hand I can't think of a single one of my friends that didn't own at least one. We would practice shooting at tin cans and targets drawn on boxes, along with lots of things we weren't supposed to be shooting at. This would go on for hours on end. As a result we were all pretty fair shots. I'm pretty sure today East Texas would be overrun with killer birds if my friends and I hadn't spent so much time and energy thinning out the species with our BB guns when we were kids.
My first BB gun was given to me by my cousin, Paul Stringer. He was ten years older than me, and by the time I was old enough to be armed and dangerous, he had graduated to .22 rifles and shotguns. It was a fairly old Daisy air rifle, but I soon discovered it was superior to the newer models a lot of my friends had saved up their allowances to buy. Either by design or mistake at the factory, the spring mechanism in the barrel was twice as powerful as any other around. As a result, I could drop a bird from the top of a tree when my friend's shots would barely reach it. The cats in the neighborhood loved me.
One morning I was walking around the yard looking for dangerous fowls to kill in order to protect the innocent humans. I walked into our grocery store and got a Coke in order to give me strength and clear up my vision. After finishing my Coke and downing a Twinkie I was ready to hunt.
I made my way to the side of the store and sat down on a wooden Coke crate. A minute later two gray birds lit on a tree branch just above me. I cocked the rifle and shot one out of the tree in an instant. For some reason the second bird remained on the limb. I cocked the rifle once more and shot it. It fell to the ground next to the first one. I picked up the two birds and ran into the grocery store to show my mother. I wanted her to take a picture of me holding the two lifeless bodies. She always had a camera close by. I walked out by the tree and held up the two birds and she snapped a picture. About that time John Rials drove up. He said, "You might want to put those birds down. The game warden is across the street at the Gulf station. Those are dove you just shot, and it isn't dove season." They went into the garbage can immediately. We still have the picture somewhere.
Charlie Jackson and I spent countless hours shooting our BB guns. There were about two acres of woods behind his house where we played army, shot at everything imaginable and had loads of fun. We cut down small trees with our cheap machetes purchased at the local army surplus store and built forts. I'm sure the owner of the property appreciated our efforts to defend the acreage from Germans, Japanese and Santa Anna and his Mexican army. Our neighborhood was never successfully invaded while we were on duty.
I recall shooting a person with my BB gun only once. As a general rule we were safety conscious and would never intentionally shoot someone, with one exception on my part.
Charlie's mother had a home business as a seamstress, and later owned and operated a fabric and sewing shop downtown. At any given time she would have someone at the house during the day bringing her something to be repaired or placing an order. Most of the time Charlie and I were playing in his backyard or in the woods and never saw anyone.
One afternoon Mrs. Tunstall stopped by to see Mrs. Jackson about an order she wanted to place. Sonny Tunstall, her son, was with her. He was my age and we had been going to school together since kindergarten. Charlie and I were in his backyard shooting at cans when they arrived. Sonny came outside to see what we were doing while his mother was visiting with Mrs. Jackson.
At the time I still had the gun my cousin gave me that was much more powerful than anything my friends had. Charlie was in the midst of a personal BB gun crisis. His was just about worn out. I could shoot through the side of a tin can at a considerable distance, but he could hardly shoot through a sheet of cheap wet toilet paper a foot away.
Sonny arrived a few minutes before I had been told to be home for the day. The three of us walked to the front of the house as I was about to leave. Now, Sonny had taken a couple of turns shooting both guns and he knew Charlie's gun wouldn't kill a gnat, but he should have known I wouldn't take kindly to being shot at.
I mounted my bicycle and began riding down the street. I was ten yards down the road when I felt a sting in the middle of my back. I heard the pop of Charlie's gun an instant before, but it never occurred to me that someone would shoot in my direction. I stopped and looked back just in time to see Sonny taking aim and firing another shot. Before I could react I felt the sting as the BB hit me.
Even though I knew better, I decided to retaliate. I cocked my gun, turned and fired at Sonny before he realized what I was doing. I fired in his general direction, and I aimed well enough not to hit Charlie. As soon as my gun fired Sonny dropped Charlie's gun, his hands went to his face and he started screaming. I resumed my trip home with much haste.
About an hour later I was home watching television when my mother phoned me from our grocery store next door. Mr. Tunstall was there with Sonny and they were making some wild allegations about me shooting Sonny with my BB gun. She requested my presence immediately.
Reluctantly I trudged to the store to face the music. Sonny was standing by his dad with a "now you are in trouble" look on his face and a big red welt on his upper lip. Mother immediately asked me if I shot Sonny and why? I told my version about getting shot twice first. Apparently Sonny had left out that part when he told his dad. Mr. Tunstall was still mad that I shot Sonny, but he was glaring at Sonny for starting the whole mess. Mother dressed me down good about shooting at or near anyone while Mr. Tunstall was telling Sonny the same thing. I never shot at anyone again and never had any trouble with Sonny either.
Not long afterward my BB gun broke. It was impossible to purchase another one of equal quality. I saved my allowance and bought a new one with a scope and leather strap, but it was never as good as my first one. Eventually I was given the .22 rifle that had belonged to my dad, and the days of the BB gun were gone.
* * * * *
For as long as I can remember, my friends and I looked forward to the Fourth of July and New Year's Eve with great anticipation. The sale of fireworks was illegal in Texas except during the two weeks prior to those holidays. Today, there are lots of fireworks that are banned in Texas and other states. But when I was a kid, pretty much anything was available. The most powerful explosive around was the cherry bomb. I saw a few of them go off and it was awesome. By the time I was old enough to be allowed to buy them, they had been outlawed. Luckily a few people in Crockett were willing to cross the border into Louisiana and buy a few boxes of them. They would sell them to us at a huge profit, but the blast they produced was well worth the price.
When I was about twelve years old the fun really began. Charlie Jackson and John Harold Allen operated a firecracker stand in Crockett. The state law was and maybe still is that it is against the law to sell fireworks within the city limits of any town. That just means you have to drive to the edge of town, and along any major highway there will be one or more firecracker stands in a line starting about six inches from the city limit sign. Most towns have a city ordinance against setting off fireworks within the city limits. Having lived in several towns in two states I can testify it is an ordinance that is universally ignored.
The company that supplied the fireworks and the stands had two options available for the operators. The first option was to merely work at the stand for two weeks for a salary and small commission. The second option was to purchase the fireworks and keep all the profits while leasing the stand itself. More importantly from the kids prospective, there would always be a lot of fireworks left over after the holidays. They chose the second option. Charlie and John Harold made enough money the first time they operated a stand to each purchase a little Honda motorcycle and have a huge stash of fireworks to boot.
Since Charlie's mother operated a sewing business from home, we would go to my house when we engaged in bomb-making activities. Not that my mother would have condoned it, but she worked for an accountant and was gone during the day. We would clean up the evidence by the time she got home.
Our favorite bomb was made with a large plastic aspirin bottle. We would put a long piece of aluminum foil on the kitchen table to pour the gunpowder onto. For hours we would take razor blades and carefully slice open one firecracker at a time and scrape every last grain of powder into a pile in the middle of the foil. A single firecracker has very little powder, but after a few hundred it starts to accumulate. Every half hour the powder from the foil was emptied into the plastic bottle and tapped down in the bottom to compress it. It would take the better part of a day to fill and compress the bottle to the top, but we had an excellent charge when we finished.
Needless to say we had a pile of fuses when we finished. Charlie would carefully weave the small fuses together until we had a thick one. He always made it at least a foot long to give us time to run away before the explosion.
Next he would take a thin strip of aluminum foil and stretch it out on the table. A thin strip of paper would be placed in the middle and the foil folded over the paper, but remaining flat. This made it thicker and easier to compress and seal when placed in the bottle. The first inch of the fuse would then be rolled up in the strip of paper with a quarter of an inch sticking out the bottom to go down into the bottle. When the plug with the fuse was inserted tightly into the bottle, it would seal up like a cork, leaving the long length of fuse protruding from the top. He would then tape the plug tightly into the neck of the bottle and wrap tape around the bottle for even more compression. Our fingers would be bright silver from handling powder for so many hours.
I will never forget the first one we set off. It was the biggest one we ever made and decided to scale them down a bit afterward. We went to the woods behind Charlie's house and set it on the top of a flat stump. We had no idea how powerful the explosion was going to be. We placed it in a tin coffee can so it would be less likely to fall on the ground before going off and set the grass on fire. We wanted to watch the actual explosion, but thankfully we decided against it at the last minute.
Charlie steadied the can and I lit the fuse. A few yards behind us there was a hole we had dug a couple of years earlier when we were still playing army. It was about three feet deep and would offer excellent cover. We jumped into the hole and ducked down below the level of the surrounding ground. Thirty seconds later there was the loudest explosion either of us had ever heard in our lives. Even though our ears were ringing we were aware of the sound of pieces of debris hitting all around us.
When we looked up from our hole there was a thick cloud of smoke covering the area near the stump. There was no evidence the coffee can or the bomb had ever existed, other than the smoke. The stuff hitting around us had been microscopic slivers of the can after the bomb went off. If we had been stupid enough to look at it we would both be known for our Stevie Wonder imitations to this day.
Within a minute we became aware of people running outside of their houses to see what had blown up. We were in the small grove of trees and out of sight, but there were houses on all sides and lots of people were about to investigate. We ran down a small trail through the trees and didn't stop until we got to my house. Charlie's mother was running into the backyard as we were going the other way, but she never saw us.
We made several more over the next couple of years, but never as big as the first one. One incident stands out from the others.
For many years Crockett, like most small towns, had a large number of small, family owned grocery stores. We owned one while I was growing up. It was later leased to Max Petty and my mother took another job. Large chains with large inventories and lower prices slowly began to take their toll on the neighborhood stores. The small stores extended credit, which in the end contributed to their demise too.
One universal constant of the neighborhood grocery store was the metal Coca Cola sign out front. It was made of lightweight metal in two pieces, and was bolted together on the ends. The main part of the sign read "Drink Coca Cola." There was a small white piece bolted to the top with the name of the store printed on it. In front on our house was the sign for grocery store we had once owned which then read "Max Petty Grocery."
One afternoon Charlie and I hastily put together a small bomb and went searching for a place to put it. We were standing in my yard talking it over when at the same time we said, "Let's blow up Mr. Petty's sign!" Warped minds do in fact think alike.
The store was open at that moment and we knew Mr. Petty might take offense if his sign was destroyed while he was present, so we decided to wait until that night. My mother wasn't going to be home until late. She wouldn't see the humor in it.
After dark we placed the little bomb inside the edge of the sign and lit the fuse. We ran a few yards away and turned to watch. Since it was inside the metal sign we weren't worried about flying pieces of debris.
The noise it made was incredible! The hollow sign seemed to make the blast sound twice as loud as the small charge had been in the past. We had a couple of seconds to appreciate it, then we noticed the condition of the sign. The bolts had blown out of one entire edge and the main portion of the sign had split wide apart. The sign appeared to be totally destroyed. We knew there was a good possibility we would be considered the prime suspects.
A couple of neighbors came outside to see if a house or business in the area had exploded. Charlie and I ran behind my house and stayed for half an hour just to be safe. When we finally returned the sign looked worse than we originally thought. We pushed the two halves together, but we had no way to make them stay. Finally we found one hole on each side that hadn't had a bolt through it. The rest had been completely blown apart.
I knew there was some heavy gauge wire in our barn. We found a sturdy piece and put it through the remaining holes. We pushed both parts together and twisted the wire tightly with some pliers. It looked terrible, but it was the best we could do at the time. For some strange reason I was never even asked about it.
* * * * *
Paul Craycraft's dad was a partner in the Crockett Livestock Auction and they lived a few hundred yards from the complex. Between Paul's house and the auction barn was a small frame house that was occupied by the yard manager and his family. At the time the manager was Vernon Watson, who lived there with his wife and kids. Vernon was a tall, skinny black man with a great sense of humor. Paul and I loved to sit and talk with him and he kept us laughing all the time. Since a truckload of cattle could arrive at any moment, he had to remain at his house most of the time, day or night.
One New Year's Eve during my dangerous junior high years, I spent the night with Paul. We had a large supply of firecrackers, roman candles and bottle rockets. We went through the roman candles pretty quickly, then we started on the firecrackers. After a few minutes, we found ourselves at the barbed wire fence just behind Vernon's house. All the lights were on and the shades were open. We could see them walking around the house. The TV was on and the kids were sitting on the floor watching it. Such peace and serenity disturbed us greatly, so we each lit a string of Black Cat firecrackers and tossed them into the backyard.
It was a dark night with no moon, so we weren't going to be spotted easily. Needless to say Vernon's yard was under a cloud of smoke when the popping ceased. The entire family gathered at the windows looking out to see what was going on. We were glad to see Vernon was laughing. We took that as a sign that he wanted more. For the next hour we shot bottle rockets at his house. They went on the roof, bounced off the doors and the screens of the windows, and occasionally one would hit the propane tank and explode. At least Vernon could feel comfort in knowing his propane tank didn't have a leak. When we finally ran out of rockets Vernon came to the window and smiled. He was probably thinking "I should get a gun and shoot those little honkies," but he never acted like it bothered him in the least.
Paul and I immediately started thinking about July 4th. We decided we would buy a lot more bottle rockets and give Vernon and his family a huge Independence Day experience since they seemed to have enjoyed their New Year's Eve so much. A few weeks later Vernon quit his job and they moved out of the house. I think it was only a coincidence.
The new yard manager was a man named Booger Cook. He had more kids than Vernon, but unlike Vernon, he didn't care for Paul and I very much. We knew he would warm up to us when we unleashed the July 4th extravaganza in his backyard and on his house.
I wonder what kind of childhood incident he was involved in that resulted in him being saddled with the nickname "Booger" for the rest of his life? I guess it was no accident that he was never in a good mood. Paul and I probably reminded him of the little assholes that gave him the name in the first place.
We were well prepared when the evening of July 4th arrived. We had the distance worked out and knew where to launch the rockets from so they would explode almost on impact with the house. We also hadn't wasted our money on anything else and invested our entire savings on bottle rockets.
It was a hot July night and the Cook Manor had no air conditioning. The windows were wide open and fans were blowing air to the inside of the house. There was a fan just inside every window screen at the rear of the house, which was a bad move on Booger's part. Booger, Mrs. Booger, and all the little Boogerettes were gathered around the television enjoying a calm night together.
At 10 p.m. the attack began. We fired off several dozen rockets in the space of a couple of minutes, and most were right on target. The smoke was instantly pulled into the house and all the Boogers were running to the windows to see what was going on. We made Shock and Awe over Iraq sound like someone firing a cap pistol. Rockets were hitting the screens and more smoke was going into the house. Booger was yelling something at us, but we couldn't tell exactly what he was saying from all the explosions. We could see him run to the telephone and make a call. We were hoping he was calling some friends to tell them what a great fireworks show those nice kids next door were putting on for him and his family.
About thirty seconds later the show was over. Mrs. Craycraft was at the backdoor yelling at us to cut it out and come inside. Booger had ratted us out and put an end to our fun. That could not go unpunished!
In late August I was spending the night with Paul, and it was time for Booger to pay for being such a whiner when we tried to entertain him with our little show. We waited until dark, then, we went to work.
We got two thick paper grocery sacks and a shovel and sneaked out of the house and over to the auction barn. We were in search of some fresh cow manure, and at an auction barn there is an unlimited supply. We found a pen with some young calves in it that must have been having bowel trouble. The ground was covered with runny cow crap that was so fresh it was still smoking. In less than five minutes the doubled up sack was full. We were ready for some fun. I was in charge of manure transportation, and by the time we got to the shadows at the edge of Booger's front porch I was getting a little woozy from breathing all that methane.
The plan was to pull off a time-honored, age-old trick we had always heard about but never tried. Some kind of poop is put into a small paper sack and placed in front of someone's front door. The top of the sack is twisted together and set on fire. You knock on their door and then run away. If all goes according to plan the victim opens the door, then stomps out the flaming sack and gets crap all over him or her and great fun is had by all.
As usual, we went a little overboard. We had a huge grocery sack, and we had filled it almost to the top. We had left very little sack left to light, and it was obviously full of fresh manure. We were crouched in the dark only a couple of feet from Booger's front door when we realized our mistake. We were whispering to each other trying to decide what to do next.
Paul decided we should place the sack in front of the door and cut it in a few spots around the bottom. When Booger picked it up the sack would come apart at the bottom and fresh manure would run all over Booger and the porch. Then he would be sorry he crossed us!
I took out my knife and started cutting around the bottom. The sack was getting soaked through and was making a huge mess already. I had only stuck the knife through in a couple of spots when Booger opened the screen door to see what was going on. I'm sure he heard us whispering and shuffling around. My new knife was still in the sack when the door opened. In one quick motion I grabbed the top edge of the sack and tossed it in the direction of the door. Just as the screen door opened the sack landed and broke completely apart. Fresh manure splattered all over the porch and inside the living room. Paul and I ran away at a speed we never knew we were capable of. Mr. Craycraft was on the phone when we got back to the house. We denied everything. If Booger bothered to carefully examine the pile he at least got a very good pocketknife out of the deal.
* * * * *
That same week Stephen Satterwhite had come by the house with a few packs of firecrackers. We started lighting them and tossing them into a five gallon bucket. When we stood in front of the bucket we realized the sound of the blast was greatly magnified. It was something we felt the need to share with the neighbors. The Parkers next door were the lucky recipients.
We made our way to the back of the Parker house and stood within a foot of the big glass window of their sunroom. I held the bucket while Stephen tossed in several firecrackers. The bucket was pointed at the glass and the blast was vibrating it with each explosion. In a few seconds we could see Mrs. Parker coming through the house to investigate. We ran around to the front of the house just as she arrived at the back. Stephen held the bucket at the front door and I tossed in the firecrackers. After a few blasts Mrs. Parker was on her way to the front.
This was fun! We were getting to harass a nice neighbor and give an old lady some much needed exercise. We went to the back and set off a few more shots. When we were pretty sure Mrs. Parker was on her way to the back of the house we returned to the front. Stephen was holding the bucket and I had just lit a firecracker when she opened the door. She looked me right in the eye and said, "Jimmy Beasley, what do you think you are doing?"
"Just popping firecrackers," I said innocently.
I was still holding the firecracker I had just lit. It went off just after I spoke. The pain in my hand was terrible. My ears were ringing and I was seeing stars from the flash in my face. I yelled and ran back to my house as fast as I could. Stephen was right behind me, laughing as hard as he could. The pain went away in about half an hour. I had lost the urge to celebrate for the rest of the night.
* * * * *
The last great fireworks incident occurred on New Year's Eve when I was a junior in high school. A group of us were gathered at the Dairy Queen with nothing to do. At some point someone suggested we buy a bunch of bottle rockets and go shoot them at something. It sounded like a great plan.
Bruce Bennett's grandfather had a farm and ranch about five miles west of Crockett. Bruce suggested we go out there to shoot the fireworks. We piled into a couple of cars, and after a trip to the fireworks stand, we all gathered at the ranch.
After each of us fired a few rockets it began to sink in that we were getting a little too old to be thrilled by fireworks. Someone suggested we divide into two groups and shoot them at each other. What a great idea!
We spent the next hour shooting at each other and having a great time. Given the inaccuracy of a bottle rocket, nobody knew where any given shot would end up. I never got tagged, but John Mattox, always the unlucky one, got hit several times. We finally ran out of rockets, and for a few moments talked about driving back to town and buying some more. Reality finally set in and we faced the fact that we were a little too old be playing in a pasture on New Year's Eve. Miraculously we didn't start any fires in the dry field and burn up the western part of Houston County. That would have been a real sight!

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