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The Bottle Rocket War

by William Gill

We didn’t care much for the Culligans.  We didn’t like their guns and their trucks, or their uncountable pack of dogs that always managed to amble onto our property and mess all over our grass.  We didn’t like the sounds of their music, played loud and late, that formed a dissonant background thrum and corrupted the plain evening murmur of the surrounding woods.  We didn’t like the unmanaged state of their front yard: that it was always filled with cars in various stages of repair, or that none of the six children were ever seen engaged in any needed landscaping work.  We didn’t like the appearance of their house, with its fungus covered brick and gray cedar façade turned green with mildew.  We didn’t even like their color, being as they were darker than the rest of the families on our street, their black hair and bronze skin suggesting more than a hint of the Mediterranean cloaked beneath an Irish name.

We were glad for the five acres of undeveloped land that sat between their place and ours.  We were convinced that it would always be there to insulate us.  “Who would want to build on it?” asked my mother rhetorically.  “Who would want to be that close to them?” 

They were a source of discontent for the neighborhood.  When the hundred acre tract that came to be known as The Hideaway had been first broken up into twenty lots, it had been envisioned and marketed as exactly what the name suggested: an exclusive habitat protected from the surrounding suburban sprawl and rural trailer laden landscape.  It was a place in which one might be secluded.  No one seemed to know how the Culligans had “snuck in.”  Evidently, there had been some flaws in the screening process.  Occasionally, among the adults, a finger of blame was pointed.  Most people simply claimed to have been duped, saying that upon first inspection the Culligans had seemed to fit in just fine.  In other words, their money had been as green and fat as everyone else’s.  Who was to suspect that their manners would suffer by comparison?

So, along with the other kids on the street, my brother and I were taught to dislike them.  We didn’t associate with them at school.  We didn’t associate with them in church.  We were generally civil but aloof.  We acknowledged their existence but wished they would go away.  They made us uncomfortable because they made our parents uncomfortable.  They made our parents uncomfortable because it was feared that they were adversely affecting our property value.

 

***

 

I was fifteen when Shawn and Eric Culligan showed up in the haze of a muggy afternoon and challenged us to a bottle rocket war.  “It’s even odds,” said Shawn.  “Six against six.”  He was looking at us through oily dark bangs, head cocked to the side, his hands shoved down in the front pockets of his jeans.

My older brother, Chuck, was standing barefoot in the driveway, the closest to Shawn.  He turned to look at me and then glanced farther down the front yard at Rhett Pinkham, a neighbor who had been throwing Frisbee with me before the two Culligans marched out of the honeysuckle bushes to confound us with their mere presence.  “How are you doing the math?” asked Chuck.

“With numbers,” sneered Eric.  He was back nearer the woodline, holding his right arm out of sight behind his flank like he usually did because his right hand was missing the last two fingers.  A beagle pup was milling around at his feet.  I watched it hike its leg and sprinkle on the base of a dogwood tree as Eric maintained his idiotic grin.

            “If that dog takes a dump on our grass,” I said loudly, “you’ll have one less beagle to worry about.”

            “Don’t threaten my dogs, boy,” laughed Eric.  “I’ll skin you like a deer.”  Eric was my age and in my grade at school.  As such, unfortunately, he was the Culligan with whom I was most familiar.  He was also the Culligan I regarded with the most distaste.  He was a mocker and a scoffer.  His face was twisted to display an ever present snideness, and his tongue was a perpetual source of insults and griping commentary.

            “Shawn,” I said, looking squarely at the oldest of the Culligan spawn as I walked closer.  “Tell your brother not to be rude or I’ll cut off his other three fingers and shove them up his ass.”

            “That’s enough, Barry.”  Chuck held out a hand of warning to me.

            Shawn told Eric to shut up and then turned back to Chuck.  “There’s the six of us counting my sister.  And there’s you, Barry, Pinkham down there, and Danny Bellingham.  I already saw him today and he’s all for it.  His two cousins are visiting from Paducah, so that makes six.”

            “Puh Dookey,” muttered Eric.

            “What time?” asked Chuck.

            “Soon as it’s dark,” said Shawn.  “We’ll give you a yell when we move into the woods.”

            Rhett was up with us by now and we watched the Culligans melt through the brush, their beagle crashing noisily in front of them, yelping from time to time as they vanished into the distance.

            “What exactly is a bottle rocket war?”  Rhett was smacking the Frisbee on his thigh.  “I mean, what did we just agree to do?”

            “I’m not really sure,” admitted Chuck.

            “Call Danny,” I said.  “Evidently, he’s all for it.”

 

***     

 

“According to Clausewitz, and I’m quoting here, 'War is always a serious means for a serious object.’  Now, he also admits that war can be reasonably viewed as a game, a game with high stakes, but a game nonetheless.”  Danny Bellingham was animated, his hands casting out in all directions and moving in toward his face every few seconds to push his tortoise shell glasses up on his sweaty nose.  Danny, his identical twin cousins, Rhett, Chuck, and I were all standing on the side of a secluded dirt road in front of Firework Patch, a canvas tent filled with all manner of miniature Chinese made explosives.  A lecture had commenced during the five minute car ride to the fireworks stand, with Danny sharing at length various philosophical and historical points on military strategy from Sun Tzu, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon, and other less notables.  Judging from the numb look on the faces of his captive audience, we were all hoping that he was about to wrap things up.

“Now, a bottle rocket war is war as a game.  The object is possession of territory; in this case the five acres of woods.  We are to concentrate our explosives and our formation in such a way as to either scatter them or push them back in mass toward their end of the battlefield.  It’s like capture the flag without a flag.  The winner is the team that most successfully controls the terrain.”  He looked from person to person.  “Simple!”

“Yeah, whatever,” said Chuck.  He turned and ducked under the furled flap of the tent and we all followed. 

Being that it was the second of July, business was brisk in spite of the muddy location.  Customers snatched boxes of sparklers, Roman candles, light bombs, whistling chasers, firecrackers, and cylinders of various size and color that promised to create flowers of fire in the night sky to “dazzle the eye.” 

Chuck walked right up to a balding overweight clerk who was sitting behind a table, his hand resting over the top of a metal cash box.  An unlit cigar dangled from the man’s mouth.  “What’s your best deal on bottle rockets?” he asked.

“Thunder Bombs,” growled the man.  He jerked with his head to the left, toward a table piled to overflowing with turquoise rockets.  “Cheaper by the gross than anyone else in town.  Six gross gets you another ten percent off.”

“Sounds good.  Everybody grab a pack,” ordered Chuck.  He had a wad of dollar bills in his hand, getting ready to pay for mine and his.

“Wait a minute!” yelled Danny.  He had pushed his way up beside Chuck and clamped a hand over the money.  “You don’t wanna set us up with cheap ammo, do you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean this isn’t some low bidder gets the contract kind of deal.  Thunder Bombs will blow a dud or a short fuse about every sixth rocket, I’d say.”  Turning to the fat man, he asked, “You got any Hellcats?”

“I’m outta Hellcats,” he snarled.

“Golden Bees?”

“No Golden Bees!  I got Thunder Bombs.”

“Yeah, yeah.  You wouldn’t happen to have any Johnny Rebs?”

The man opened his mouth, then snapped his lips shut making the cigar bounce.  “Johnny Rebs are gonna cost you.”  He leaned over and opened a painted plywood chest revealing a cache of bright red bottle rockets attached to black wooden sticks.  “One fifty more per gross than Thunder Bombs.”

“We’ll take twelve gross.”  Danny was grinning at Chuck, but Chuck looked like he wanted to throttle him.  “You can pay me back later,” he said soothingly.

 

 ***

 

“You sure you know what you’re doing, Bellingham?”  It was dusk and the six of us were gathered in my father’s workshed out behind the house.  Those who didn’t already have prescription glasses had raided Dad’s supply of safety goggles.  Despite the heat, we were all in long sleeve shirts and blue jeans.  Each of us was holding a freshly lit punk. 

“Chuck, you need to hear me out.”  Danny’s face was redder than his hair.  With the strap of his tan ammo bag running diagonally across his dark green shirt, he looked more like a Girl Scout than a de facto field marshal.  “This is going to require some tactical skill.  If we stand together, then we stand victorious out there tonight.  I was hoping we could employ a classic double envelopment like Hannibal…”

“It’s night, there’s total cloud cover, and we’re going to be doing this in the woods!”

“I don’t know what we’re worried about.  One of ‘em’s just a butt-ugly skinny girl anyway,” sniggered Rhett.

“I say we go out there and set up our positions,” I said.

“We have to fight fair,” shouted Danny.  “We have to wait for…”  His sentence was cut short by the distinctive hissing zip pop of a bottle rocket landing no more than fifteen feet away.

We scrambled out into the yard to find the woodline glowing with the distinctive orange lights of burning punks and cigarettes.  The person closest to us had a fire source more substantial, some sort of high intensity lighter that spurted like a torch.  We had been caught flat footed and laughs were echoing in the dank summer air.  A lone voice let loose a shrill battle call and was joined by others until a chorus of war cries filled the neighborhood.  Then, from six different points, a wall of sparks and smoke was created that took life and came our way in the form of hundreds of exploding cartridges. 

“Scoundrels!” shouted Danny, and before he finished, he was hit three times.

“Move!” I heard Chuck order and then he grabbed my shirt and pulled me back, not letting go until we were both in a full run, circling the house in order to enter the woods nearer to the road, two hundred feet down from the current activity.  “Cup your hand over your punk, so they don’t see us,” he said before we made our dash across the driveway.  Rhett had followed us and was only a few steps behind.

Once we inserted ourselves into the brush, Chuck crouched and we huddled around him.  “Listen, we’re going to split up.”

“Did you see what they were shooting?” I whispered in amazement.

“Yeah.  They’re shooting whole packs of twelve, or at least some of them are.  We can’t really do that, because we don’t have any way to light multiple fuses, so don’t worry about it.  Just do your best and keep your goggles on.  If it gets too hairy, pull out and re-group at the shed.”  Chuck slid off to the right and was gone.

“I’m after that shithead, Eric,” said Rhett, before bolting like a cat into the inky vegetation.  “I’ll bet he’s the one with the flame.”

            From the sight of the original fusillade, the battle sounded as if it was still raging.  Bellingham must have mounted a counter attack, which no matter how feeble was hopefully keeping the entire Culligan clan tied up.  Moving deliberately to avoid detection, I eased silently over the moist ground, wary of the occasional snap of a twig underfoot.  The sound of continued pandemonium drew closer as I worked around the low hanging wet branches of trees and through the tangled thicket of undergrowth.  As I moved, it began to hit me that I was moving uphill, both in relation to the lower part of my yard and to my house.  I realized with shock that the Culligans had been clever enough to entrench themselves in the highest possible ground overlooking our land, and then they had successfully baited a portion of us to fight from a position that was downhill and provided little natural cover.  It was as I chewed on this discovery in my mind, all the while closing in on the action that I stumbled into a small clearing.

On the ground lay an assortment of metal pipes, PVC tubes, and an ice chest.  Not believing my luck, I pulled open the lid to the Igloo cooler and found it stuffed with what the dim light revealed as at least ten gross of bottle rockets.  I had located the Culligans’ arsenal, hidden as it was in a spot they apparently hadn’t dreamed we would find.  And why should we have?  Yet, here I was. 

Still euphoric at my luck and before I could think of what to do, I found myself being driven back by the force of a boot.  The only warning had been a fast darting shadow, and then I had time to consider the blunt impact on my cheek as I was flying in the air.  My punk and the two rockets I held were lost.  Lying on my back, trying to snap out my temporary stupor, I didn’t resist as the boot was planted on my chest, pinning me to the soft earth.  By now my face was throbbing, but I didn’t think of the pain.  I only thought about how quickly things could turn from good to bad as I stared up into the simian face of Eric Culligan.

Slung on his back, he had what appeared to be a quiver chock full of bottle rocket twelve packs.  He had two such twelve packs in his mangled hand at this moment, and in the other he held what looked like a flame thrower.

“How ‘bout I stick these up your ass, Mr. Jackrabbit.,” he quipped.  The next thing I knew a bolt of fire licked out from the instrument in his hand and sparks were pouring off from the fuses.  Grabbing his foot, I spun him around as I rolled my body over, springing to my feet as he was falling to the ground face first.  Stomping on his hand, I managed to mash his weapons into the mud, extinguishing their threat.  I noticed in the struggle that he had dropped his lighter.  Lifting it off the ground, I found the button that activated the flame and wasted no time in yanking a couple of twelve packs from his quiver.  I torched the fuses and shoved the lot back into his back pack. 

Eric screamed and erupted from the ground like a man possessed.  Sparks were boiling from the quiver that was tied cross ways over his chest, much like Bellingham’s had been.  There was no way to ditch it quickly and as I stood defensively, expecting at any moment to be punching things out with him, I watched his back begin to detonate; spark after spark ignited dozens of fuses in a domino cascade that sent him blowing full speed through the woods, his voice piercing the din of battle with the terror of the wounded. 

Another form, obviously human, moved at the edge of the clearing.  Whipping two twelve packs from my own stash, I stood ready to blast any enemy.  “Chuck?”  I called.  “Rhett?”  But as the person moved away, he tripped, falling to the ground with a whimper and thud. 

Hardly conscious of my actions, I was over him in an instant, the fuses of my rockets lit, ready to make any Culligan scum pay for the mere audacity of challenging me.  My focus became clear an instant before I should have let go of the rockets, bringing to my brain an image of a girl, not unattractive in the iridescence of burning ordinance, lying supine between two trees.  This was Florence Culligan, formerly regarded by me as a wisp of a girl, but now revealed as a nocturnal bloom.  Her hair was loose, her glasses gone, her body had grown more full in mere months.  She was a new creation and as that information registered, the rockets discharged their scorching propellant over my hand.  I held them still and didn’t release even as they began to explode; my eye was so consumed by the sight of what I had not expected to see. 

Finally, the searing pain made an impact and I dropped the charred remnants on the floor of the woods, sinking with them to my knees as I grimaced.  Before I could scream, she was beside me, squeezing my injured hand between both of hers.  “Are you okay?”  I heard her whisper.  “I know that hurt.”

Someone in the distance shouted, “We need more Johnny Rebs!” and I felt her stiffen with tension.  Looking in her eyes, I saw anxiety.  “We’ve got to get out of here,” she said. 

“We?” I replied meekly, but she didn’t answer.  Instead, she pulled me to my feet and guided me through the woods away from my house to a point deep beyond the sight of warfare.  We moved, hand in hand, gliding along darkened paths that could only be seen in the imprint of memory and experience, quickly and without friction until she dragged me down in a small ravine to the banks of a trickling stream. 

“Place your hand in the water,” she said, and I obeyed, feeling at once the soothing comfort of the stream as it flowed over my burns.  For what seemed an eternity, I sat there without speaking, comforted by her touch and the coolness of the liquid.  “I know you from school,” she said eventually.  “You’ve never given me the time of day.”

“You’re a year ahead of me.”  It was the only reason that came to mind, the only reason I could safely state for my arrogance.  From far away I could hear the unceasing explosions of gunpowder, but down in the ravine the crickets were chirping and my brow was feeling strangely warm.  The clouds broke open slightly and starlight glimmered above in the gap provided by the streambed.  “I’ll have to start wearing a watch,” I said. 

“What?”

“To give you the time of day.”  Only then did I notice that she was still holding my forearm, her thumb idly gliding back and forth in a comforting manner.

We leaned toward one another slowly, our mouths attracted with gentleness and a hunger made all the more intense by the knowledge that what we were doing was in so many ways unexpected and contrary to all the enmity and misunderstanding that had been stewing for more than a decade.  It was as if I had fallen to the center of the earth, to some far distant blackness filled with the smell of pine straw and the taste of salty summer sweat.  Warmth around me and moist on my face brought me comfort the cold stream could not.  The pain in my hand seemed to throb as a natural counterweight to the delicious electric pulse that buzzed up and down my spine.

“I don’t hear much back there,” I whispered finally.  With a jolt, I realized that I had completely lost track of time.

“We had better be going,” she said.  She stood and began the futile process of brushing the debris from her shirt.  Even in the low moonlight I could detect the flush of embarrassment in her darkened cheeks. 

 “I want to see you sometime,” I said, unable to mask my clumsy desire and unwilling to let go of the present.  Her eyes were like a vortex, a swirling black tunnel gleaming opalescent with the hint of endless discoveries.  How could she be one of the Culligans?

“Shhh,” she said, holding her finger to her lips.  “You’d better go buy that watch.”  She leaned to plant a kiss on my forehead and was gone.

 

***

 

 I wasn’t the last one to arrive back at the house.  Rhett came straggling into the opened garage on my heels, his cheek lacerated and bloody.  Mom had the six of us lined up next to her craft table, cleaning our wounds with soap and examining each boy from head to toe.  Bottles of peroxide and alcohol were scattered on the table.  A large aloe plant she usually kept in the kitchen was being broken up to dab on our many burns.  “Foolish, foolish children,” she kept chanting, her eyes pinched up in approbation. 

“I think Barry got the worst of it,” someone blared.  “He’s a wreck.”

I shook my head and tried to deflect attention.  Something inside my gut was feeling vacant.

“You really got popped,” said Chuck.  He hooked my chin and pushed on it, exposing the left side of my neck.  “Look at that purple mark.”

“That’s gotta hurt,” whistled Rhett.  “You look like somebody dragged you behind a car.”

“I’m going to go clean up upstairs,” I stated flatly. 

“I want all the wooden sticks out of the yard tomorrow morning!” my mother announced.

I felt the sudden urge to take a shower.  I walked to the door where Danny had cornered my father who leaned against the wall of the garage, cradling a mug of chamomile tea, his regular nighttime tonic. 

“Basically, it was guerilla warfare that broke their assault,” Danny was saying.  “The type of tight formation they were using was antiquated and inappropriate.  I dropped Rhett and your boys back in behind them while feigning frontal resistance.  I think you’ll have to agree, it was a masterstroke.”

Dad turned his wry expression from Danny to me as I reached for the doorknob.  “So, how does victory taste, son?” 

I couldn’t tell if I had been victorious or if I had been taken prisoner.  “It’s a good thing war is so terrible, Dad,” I said.  “Else we might grow too fond of it.”

“Robert E. Lee,” said Bellingham with approval.  “It does make you look at things differently.”

“What’s that?”  I asked.  I so desperately wanted to get inside and get out of my clothes.

“War.”

“Yes, it does, Danny.”  Closing the door behind me, I thought to myself that those were the truest words I had ever heard him speak.

 

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