Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Laughing at the Stupid People

A memory resurfaced this morning, an old one, like a dream rising from the haze of my past.  It's an imperfect memory, stuttering and pixelated.  It's so old I'm not even sure it wasn't a dream.

It was decades ago, and I was a young man, as young as my own sons are now.

It was the Fourth of July.  I was in Utah, sitting out in a park in Salt Lake City as twilight fell.  I had just recovered from strep, and was sitting with my girlfriend and her family, waiting for the cool night to be filled with thunder and fire.

Around me, America, in the earnest way that Utah was and is American.  Families picnicking, children running and playing...really rather a whole lot of children, now that I think about it.   It felt wholesome, perfect, just so.

But then there was that one family, a family settling in near us.  A mom, bony and angular and clumsy of feature.  A group of boys, equally clumsy.  All awkwardly dressed, their clothes mismatched.  Their hair, poorly cut, clearly done at home by someone without the skill or inclination to do it well.

They'd brought their own fireworks, bottle rockets of an array of sizes.  Though the gentle slope was crowded with other families, they were clearly going to set them off.    It was the wrong place, and the wrong thing to be doing, a reality that was self-evident to everyone else there.  But not to them.   There was murmuring.  There were disapproving glares, a word or two of questioning and rebuke.

The boys did not notice, oblivious to the disapproval, eager about their project.  The mother noticed, snarling back, profane and defiant.  No-one was going to tell them what to do.   The grumbling around them deepened.

The boys set the rockets into the ground, pointing the rockets skyward, the sticks sunk into the dirt.  Deep in the dirt.   Which is not how you launch a bottle rocket.  You need a bottle.  Or a pipe.  That is where the stick goes, before it provides flight stability.  Because if you root that rocket's stick into the earth, it will not fly.

It will explode, right there next to you, the thrust blackening earth as it strains screaming and helpless against the anchor you have created.

Which is what happened with the first attempt with their smallest rocket.  Then again, with the second, the lesson unlearned.  And then a third time, with their largest rocket, which detonated with such force that it panicked that sad, broken, angry family.

Around them rose laughter, the laughter of the gathered righteous at the harm these stupid people had inflicted on themselves.  Laughing at their ignorance, at their incompetence, at their thoughtless, foolish plans for the most American of American holidays, so blind to those around them, so selfish.

I remember it.  I also remember not laughing.

Because there was nothing whatsoever funny about it.   It just felt irredeemably sad.

Strange, how memories rise, unbidden.