Bowling introduced me to firecrackers, which, we soon found out, were sold at John D. Snow’s store on New Gower Street and at several other stores in St. John’s. They came in packages of ten, strung together. They would go off one after another when lit or you could tear them apart and light them individually.
John D. (as we called him) was about six feet tall and quite thin. His hair was thin, too, and he had a gout face. He always wore grey pants and a shirt, vest and tie. He had a gold watch on a chain in his vest pocket, which he would take nervous glances at when young people were in the store. John D. was not easily persuaded that Dickie and I wanted firecrackers for the best of purposes. Firecrackers were new on the market in St. John’s and were mostly used by adults for parties and celebrations such as New Year’s Eve. Mr. Snow was not about to sell them to young boys and have the trouble they might cause come back on him. To obtain firecrackers, he said, we either had to have an adult buy them for us or at least have someone write a note for us. We thought all was lost, but it turned out that our buddy Willie Rodden from Haggerty Street had an “uncle” who would write a note. Willie would get us a note if we agreed to give him some of the firecrackers.
Willie, Dickie, and I went to Mr. Snow’s store and, with guilt written all over our faces, we produced our note from Willie’s “uncle.” He seemed suspicious, but he let us buy the firecrackers. We watched him tuck the note in his vest pocket, for evidence in case we turned out to be troublemakers. Out we walked, after spending a few of our hard-earned dollars on a bunch of the small beauties that gave Dickie and me a day of laughter I will always remember. We gave ten of them to Willie for forging the note.
The first place we visited with our new friends was the Capitol Theatre on Henry Street. It was a Saturday afternoon and we went to see a western. At the theatre there was an usher who always gave us a hard time. Al, the usher, always fell asleep halfway through the movie, in an old chair that barely held his weight in the ticket booth. He was about ten years older than we were and liked to bully kids. Al worked part-time at the theatre and also full-time at an auto dealership, which was probably why he was so sleepy all the time.
We waited until the movie was nearly over and then we crept out to where Al was taking his nap. Dickie slowly opened the glass door and we placed a few of the firecrackers under his chair. He was snoring away in his dreams. Across from the glass booth and a few feet away was the stairway leading to the balcony. It would provide an easy escape because it was pitch-black and he wouldn’t be able to see us.
We lit the firecrackers, bounded up the first steps leading to the balcony, and crouched down, watching Al as the fuse burned. At the pop, pop, pop of all of them going off together as they ignited, Al bounded from his chair and banged his face square into the glass of the booth. Dickie and I bounded up the stairs. Unfortunately, all the seats in the balcony were taken. There we were, with Al downstairs screaming blue murder, and not a seat to be had. We walked back down the steps and when we got to the ticket booth, Al, still mad as hell, stopped us and asked us where we were going. We told him we were going to the bathroom. He asked if anyone had passed us on the stairway when we were coming down and we told him yes and that the guy was upstairs bragging that he had just scared the crap out of some stupid guy who was asleep downstairs. Al bounded past us and up the stairway.
We left the theatre and laughed all the way down Henry Street. Next on our agenda was Brazil Square, where we had a score to settle with a few boarding house owners who had treated us badly just because we had climbed their fences and “borrowed” pop bottles to turn in for pocket money. Our idea was to light some of our small explosives and throw them through the front doors of the boarding houses.
We started with the Brownsdale, the front door of which was on New Gower Street. I ran and opened it and Dickie lit a few firecrackers and threw them into the hallway. All we heard was pop, pop, pop as we ran up Brazil Square. We went to Eddy’s Boarding House next and did the same thing. We decided that it was just as well to get them all (about eight or ten boarding houses in a row), or at least as many as we could. We were in the process of hitting the last few when we saw that someone young and fast was running up Brazil Square behind us.
We took off over Central Street, past Walsh’s Bakery, and up McFarlane Street to Cabot Street. We bolted over fences and ran through back gardens. All the while this guy was screaming at the top of his lungs for us to stop so that he could kill us. I guess we must have startled him while he was reading the paper or using the bathroom and he wanted revenge. He must have been crazy to think we would stop. After about ten minutes of running we stopped in someone’s yard on LeMarchant Road for a breather. The guy following us was nowhere to be seen. That was good, as we were too beat to run much farther.
We had twenty of our little troublemakers left, so we decided to get bold and head for the police station at Fort Townshend. Talk about living dangerously! On our way there we came across what we called Sally Anns (Salvation Army members). There were at least a dozen of those wonderful people by a pole in front of the old fire station on Harvey Road. Being young and stupid, we wanted a laugh at someone else’s expense regardless of who they were. We lit a couple of the firecrackers, threw them in the middle of those people of God, and ran from the scene just as the first one ignited. When we looked back we were shocked to see absolutely no reaction at all on the part of the Sally Anns. Dickie and I looked at each other. We had to admit that these dedicated Christian soldiers’ love for the Man Above was far more real to them than anything that was happening around them.
We decided to go to Rice’s for some fish and chips first. All that running had made us hungry. While we ate we talked about using the firecrackers at Fort Townshend. It seems that one of the other customers overheard us: I happened to look out the window and saw two police officers with billy-knockers drawn and ready for action. They were talking to a guy across the street. Then they crossed the street, came in to Rice’s, and approached the table where Dickie and I were sitting. They asked us our names. I had already told Dickie that I’d do the talking if the policemen came in and asked us any questions.
One of them was a young officer, about twenty-five, who asked me to stand up. He began searching me. The other officer did the same thing to Dickie. In those days, if you questioned the police about their right to question and search, you’d likely get a shot to the side of your head with the billy-knocker or a hand. They didn’t find anything on Dickie or me. They asked where we were headed and we said we were on our way home. Without the firecrackers they knew they could do nothing to us—a few more questions and then they left us alone, with a stiff warning to go straight home.
We breathed a sigh of relief once they went through the door. Dickie looked at me after the officers left and said, in his low voice, “Okay, what in the hell did you do with the rest of the firecrackers?”
I looked at him and smiled. “I ate them with the fries,” I said. He laughed so hard he nearly fell off his chair. I told Dickie to look at my plate of fish and chips. I moved the fries aside: underneath were the remaining firecrackers.
By Robert Hunt
$18.95, paperback, 183 pp.
Flanker Press, January 2015