Vices & Virtues–Ethan Van Sice

By Ethan Van Sice

They tossed M80’s at each other’s feet. They dodged bottle rockets. They leapt over smoke bombs. The older boys laughed and played by the river’s edge, but to me it looked like a warzone.

I watched bitterly from Poppa’s front porch, trembling, my hands cupped over my ears. Judging by the dumb smiles on their Kool-Aid stained faces, I knew my cousins were having a good time. Still, the river’s edge was no place for a little kid like me.

Poppa’s porch had become my safe haven over the years. I was only 6 at the time, but wise enough to know that every, single 4th of July was going to be exactly the same for the rest of my life.

Everyone gorges themselves on hotdogs, hamburgers, and Budweisers. They dress in red, white, and blue and act real patriotic for a day. And then, undoubtedly, they shoot these loud fireballs into the air.

Fireworks. The epitomic metaphor for our addiction to overpriced foreign imports with lifespans so transient that we literally watch them go up in flames. There may be nothing more American than that…

But there’s also nothing more terrifying to a nervous six-year-old than a fireworks show, and that was me. I despised them with a fiery passion. They were LOUD, obnoxious, and confusing. Anything that reached such an alarming climax with little to no warning could not be trusted, in my book. So every year, I kept my distance…

The sun was beginning to set. With my hands still glued to the side of my head, I somehow managed to climb into Poppa’s lap using only my elbows. With every muffled “boom”, I would jump. I would wince at the sight of sparks, recoil behind every echo. Still, my eyes stayed fixed on the fun that was happening below.

Poppa must’ve noticed something was wrong, “Don’t you want to go play with your cousins?” he asked.

Hollis Curl 2

Hollis “Poppa” Curl

“It’s just too loud, Poppa,” I said with tears in my eyes, “the fah-works hurt my ee-yers.”

Truth is, I would’ve loved to play with them. I secretly wished I was brave enough to shoot fireworks with the big boys, but the fact remained that fireworks were loud. There was nothing I could do about the noise, so I decided this was just one of those things I couldn’t participate in.

We sat there quietly for a moment, Poppa in his rocking chair, and myself in his lap. I thought I could probably stay there for the rest of the day, maybe even let Poppa adopt me at some point. Then I’d never be forced into an uncomfortable situation again, but I was wrong.

Suddenly, I felt Poppa shift in his seat. He was reaching for something in his pocket. Shortly after, I heard the sound of a lighter striking right behind my worrisome head.

“No don’t!” I screamed, immediately devastated.

But Poppa didn’t have any firecrackers at all.

He had a cigarette…

He took a few drags, exhaled slowly, scratched his eyebrow and then after a moment… he did something I never could’ve anticipated: Poppa handed the cigarette to me.

“Now I want you to take this here cigarette and go stand over there by your cousins,” he said, “and don’t you be scared, because that rocket’s not gonna go anywhere until you do…”

…huh?

What did he mean by that?

I had just revealed my biggest fear to one of the most admirable men I’d ever known, and what did he offer me in return? a dang cigarette…Not some time-tempered wisdom. Not a tired cliché’ about how we “have nothing to fear,”…

but a cigarette?

One cigarette.

I looked up at him, beyond puzzled. How was this going to fix anything? Did he think I was menopausal? Or at least 18 years old? Nothing was making sense, but my endless arsenal of questions did nothing to help the fact that, on that day, I was no longer allowed in Poppa’s lap.

“Go on, now,” he said as he patted me on the butt and shoo’ed me away. My feet dragged hesitantly through the grass for a couple of yards, until I stopped, and looked back at him. He had no more words for me. He simply pointed towards the riverbank where my cousins were playing.

I had no choice. I took a deep breath, turned on me heels, and took the longest walk of my life down to the river’s edge—a faint billow of smoke, representative of my fleeting childhood, wafted only to eventually dissipate in the Summer air behind me.

“That rocket’s not gonna go anywhere until you do…”

“That rocket’s not gonna go anywhere until you do…”

The ominous scent of gunpowder grew more and more prominent, until at last I arrived at the river. Hagen, Ley, Matthew, and Tyler, each one of them at least 4 years older than I, all stopped what they were doing and turned to face me.

They were all staring, just as surprised to see me there as I was. Nobody could even think about lighting another wick. I assumed they were all distracted by the six-year-old with a cigarette in his hand. For the first time in a few hours, everything was quiet.

“That rocket’s not gonna go anywhere until you do…”

“Hey, I came down here tuh…” I paused. Even I didn’t know how to finish that sentence. My eyes skimmed around the area. I was looking for something, an interesting stick, a bullfrog, anything to get me out of the situation. I was nervous. The cigarette dangled in my fingers. I shuffled my feet where I stood to cover up how bad I was shaking…and realized something was there.

I looked down. It was just a brown, paper grocery bag with who knows what inside. There was a ring of black soot forming around the upper, inside edge.

“That rocket’s not gonna go anywhere until you do…”

I don’t even remember thinking about it. Slow as ever, I reached my hand into the bag. My cousins looked on with suspicion, nobody said a word. Then, to everyone’s amazement, I pulled out a single, Black Cat bottle rocket.

I turned it over in my hands a few times, inspecting it. It didn’t look nearly as dangerous in my own hands as it was in my cousins’. In fact, it didn’t even seem capable of making such a frightening, horrible sound as long as it was in my possession.

“That rocket’s not gonna go anywhere until you do…”

I slowly turned my head over my shoulder towards the house. I could see Poppa, he was standing now, his arms crossed expectantly over his khaki overalls. What on earth was I supposed to do?

My nose twitched. The cigarette smoke billowed into my face. My meticulous inspection switched back and forth from it, which was on fire, to the bottle rocket, which was not. And that’s when it hit me…

“That rocket’s not gonna go anywhere until you do…”

I was suddenly overtaken by the precision and dexterity of a surgeon. I slowly moved the burning cigarette closer to the bottle rocket. With one final, preparatory breath, I touched the tip of the cigarette onto the wick, and it began to spark.

“That rocket’s not gonna go anywhere until you do…”

I was the timekeeper now. I was the only thing standing in the way of that bottle rocket remaining inanimately silent, and spectacularly loud. The rocket was under the influence of me; I was not under the influence of it…

“That rocket’s not gonna go anywhere until you do…”

I watched the wick get progressively shorter. I had an omnipotent, front-row seat to that noisemaker’s timeline. When it was only ½ an inch away from the propellant, I tossed the rocket valiantly into the air.

Our eyes followed it as if it were a dove at a funeral. It hung briefly in the air, and then, at the height of its trajectory the bottle rocket zipped at lightning speed over the Alabama river, a trail of majestic sparks in its wake.

It popped with a beautiful, expected explosion about halfway across.

And only because I allowed it to.

“That rocket’s not gonna go anywhere until you do…”

Poppa gave me more than a Vantage Ultra Light that day; he gave me a sense of control. He gave me a power over my fear. Without even saying a word, Poppa showed me how to respond to stressful situations, that it was okay to be afraid, that there were a lot of scary things in this world, but I was not to avoid them. All I was expected to do was “go there”, and be as much of an influence as I could before things were out of my hands.

I was looking at the fireworks all wrong. No, I had no say-so in how loud they were, but I did have a say-so in WHEN they were going to be loud.

Funny thing about a fear is, it’s still just as scary whether you engage with it or not. It’s always going to be on your mind, dominating you, holding you back from awesome opportunities. Until you take that first step, that fear is not going anywhere. It’s not gonna go anywhere until you do…

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