That summer we take our first and only vacation as a complete family, except for George. He’s in the 9th grade so he stays home. My mom’s sisters vacation at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, every year. They all live near there. They’re all hillbillies. We’re hillbillies but we’re not like that. We don’t have southern accents because we lived in Japan, Newfoundland, Arizona, and now Florida while my dad was in the military. We don’t know the southern culture even though both my parents are southern.
Like at home, there’s no structure on vacation. I’m restless and bored. “Go off and play,” the adults tell my cousins and me. The twins and my sister stay close to my mom, like little ducks following their mother around, a couple of steps behind her, they’re always there. The relatives sit around inside a rented beach house and talk. I don’t know what they do inside but they don’t go out to the beach. What could be so interesting about sitting around inside, smoking and talking? For me, there’s nowhere to go except to the beach and it’s only sand and water.
I have no connection to my mom’s family at all. They say ‘hi’ but I’m a kid so I’m not allowed to be around the adults. Kids aren’t involved in adult interaction. Kids and parents are like oil and water. Parents don’t share with kids or even have conversations with us. The only conversation adults have with us starts out with, “Here’s a lesson for you.” “Here’s a lesson for you,” mom says. “Don’t drink because daddy died of drinking.”
“I want firecrackers,” I tell my dad. “We have to have firecrackers. If you don’t want the kids to hang around the adults, get us firecrackers. We don’t have anything to do. Get us firecrackers.” I’ve studied up on firecrackers in preparation for this trip. I know all about them. I’ve done research on what’s legal here in Myrtle Beach, what’s powerful, and what blows up in water, like the beach we’re stuck at.
“You can find something to do without firecrackers.”
“No,” I say. “We need firecrackers.”
“Go outside,” my mom says, so I take a kitchen knife, go outside and jump off sand dunes. I pretend I’m stabbing bad guys. My cousins all know each other so they go off and play on the beach, mostly building sandcastles. They have plastic buckets and little shovels. They must be bored, too. There’s only so long you can do that before it gets old and they’ve been doing this all week. I watch them but I can’t find anyone to play with here, either. When it’s time to eat, my mom makes me a sandwich and I eat it outside, alone with my army men.
“We need firecrackers,” I say. “We’ve got to have firecrackers. Get us firecrackers.” I say this every single day and every day my mom says go play outside and my dad says nothing. At home I wouldn’t ask twice but this place is worse than home. We’re forced to be here and they’re forced to deal with us in front of all their relatives.
“Get us firecrackers.”
“George,” my mom says. “Just go get him what he wants.”
“Fine,” my dad says. “Come on.” Really? He puts me in the car. On Myrtle Beach there’s a fireworks’ stand every mile, so he drives to the closest one, stops the car and says, “Pick out what you want.”
“I got to get a lot,” I say. “I got to get fireworks for all the cousins. They all want firecrackers, too.” I don’t know if they want to play or not. This is my idea, an excuse to get more firecrackers. I’ve never even talked to the other kids.
“Get what you want.”
“I have to get a lot,” I say again. “We have a lot of cousins.”
“I don’t care. Get what you want.”
Well. This is music to my ears. I have this whole idea to have a war game. I know the kids build sand castles and sand walls and I know M-80’s are powerful enough to blow up sand castles. Ash cans have wax fuses to blow up in water. You have to have a navy, so we need ash cans, too.
My dad has no idea. He’s standing around outside. He doesn’t look in and he doesn’t care. I walk up to the register lady and hand her two big shopping bags full of explosives, and go outside to tell my dad. “Okay, I’m ready now,” I tell him. She adds everything up and it comes to a huge amount, like $30. Everything is cheap back then, including my dad. He complains all the time, saying, “Holy crap! It’s too expensive!” What does he say this time? Nothing. I can’t figure him out. He doesn’t complain at all. He got so tired of me asking for firecrackers that he doesn’t care. Finally. After coming here for a week and playing by myself, I get to have a good day.
I come back through the sliding glass door and instantly run into a wall of smoke. There are packs of cigarettes and lighters lying all over the place. I take the first two packs of cigarettes I can see, Camels without filters and Salem menthol. There’s a lighter lying next to them, a stainless steel lighter with a flip top, the kind you refill with lighter fluid. I take that and throw all of it all into one of my bags. I don’t say a word. The old people sit around a table talking and smoking. Nobody’s looking at me until my dad comes in. “Now get out of here,” he says.
I run outside to the beach, near my army men. The cousins are out there standing around. I can tell boredom when I see it. “Okay,” I say. “We’re going to have a real war game now. Look what I got.”
“Oh my gosh!” the cousins say. “Oh my gosh! Look what he got! Fireworks! Oh my gosh!”
There’s an older cousin, I don’t know his name either. He’s like fifteen. He says, “Okay, we’re going to have to be careful with these. We’ll need a designated person to be the lighter.” He’s taking charge here. I don’t mind. I know I’m a little kid.
“I got cigarettes,” I say. “We can light the cigarettes so we don’t have to keep going to the lighter. Everybody can light a cigarette and then light their fireworks.” I’ve thought of everything.
The big kid divides us up into teams and we divide up the fireworks. I feel like I gave the biggest gift to everybody. This is the first time these kids and I have ever had any fun here. Firecrackers bring everyone together, like old people playing cards. It’s a shared activity.
We build forts out of sand. We line up the army men along the walls of the forts and put them in defensive positions. We put snipers on the rooftops of the sand mounds that represented buildings. I know a lot about the Civil War, like who the commanders were on each side, and most of the battles and their strategies. My expertise turns out to be useful for my popularity with the cousins.
We stand behind our respective forts. We’re maybe ten feet from each other, facing each other. Confederates face to face with Union soldiers, Union face to face with Confederates. We say go and everybody throws firecrackers at each other’s forts. Sometimes they land really close to where we‘re standing. “Hey,” we say. “No fair!” We blow the crap out of each other’s forts. We blow them up until the sand is level. It’s a pile of sand with army men feet sticking up.
We keep thinking of new strategies. “We need glue,” we tell the adults. “We need tape.” They don’t ask us what we’re doing with these things. We tape army men to pieces of driftwood. That would be the Navy. We’re close to the water. Sometimes we have to rebuild the fort because we can’t judge the tide. The tide comes in and wipes out the forts before the battle ensues.
The forts need to be near the water for the naval support. Naval support, in this case being pieces of driftwood with army men stuck to them. The ships come in with the waves and they don’t land right. They come in and flip over. The ships get top heavy with all the taped-on army men. They flip over and they drown. Your side gets penalized if your naval ship sinks.
We get the idea to throw firecrackers at the other team’s boats. The ash cans and the M-80s don’t go out when we throw them in the water. They make craters in the beach. They make a huge explosion. They blow the boats to pieces. The army men fly everywhere.
Tourists walk along the beach and walk by our Civil war. They stop and watch. “Now isn’t that something?” they say. Boom! Another huge explosion goes off. People smile and walk by. We may be little kids but we have a war going on here.
Tourists watch us holding cigarettes and throwing firecrackers, blowing up the beach. We’re interesting to them and they watch for a while but we don’t take our eyes off the battle. Using the unfiltered cigarettes, we learn about delayed fuses. We stick the fuse in one end and light the other end. We plant these in each other’s forts on a dry surface. We allow one in each fort. You have a good five to ten minutes before the cigarette burns off and it blows up.
We get bottle rockets and point them at each other’s forts, thinking they’ll go about ten feet. We light them off. They blow out about a hundred yards, landing right in front of tourists. “Isn’t that funny?” they say. We don’t get into trouble. We’re staying out of trouble as far as my family is concerned.
We decide the Civil War would be better if it includes dive-bombers and airplanes. We pick up balsa wood airplanes with wind-up propellers. We hold them in one hand with a firecracker in the other. With a lit cigarette, we light the firecracker and pretend it drops from the plane as if it were a bomb.
The adults stay inside, all of them talking except for my Dad. He’s in his room, taking a nap. My mom’s happy, my sisters are happy, my dad’s well rested, and for at least one day, the Civil War made me some friends.