Bad Decisions Make Good Stories – My Animal House Deathmobile Decision

Number 10 on a list of 32 Truths For Mature Humans is, “Bad decisions make good stories.” So, Here’s a story about one of many decisions I made growing up …that went horribly wrong. I was 10 years old.

The Year: 1978
Age: 10
Setting: July 4th Hometown Parade
Inspiration: National Lampoon’s Animal House

The 4th of July has always been my favorite holiday. When I was a child, my mother and I would drive a long way to celebrate Independence Day with family. We joined many relatives for an annual 4th of July event that included a 5k run, a canoe race and a typical celebration parade through their local streets.

This summer was special. This 4th of July my family would be participating in the parade by driving a large parade float that I’d get to ride on as well. Exciting.

I remember the day in pristine detail these 35 years later. So, yes, you will likely remember your bad decisions… for the rest of your life. Following the moment I am about to share, no one ever spoke of what I did again. So, what you read here is from the memory of a 10-year old boy, recalled these 35 years later.

Our very own parade float was hand-constructed by special needs children at summer camp. Atop the highly decorated float was an centuries-old band, set up with borrowed antique instruments. Riders on the float wore period clothing, someone had Benjamin Franklin’s relative’s coat, or something like that, a 200 year old heirloom anyway.

I rode in the cab of the truck. Behind us was the long trailer, multi-level and covered in white. I sat in the middle of the cab, between the driver and passenger side. We made it through the town streets, folks cheering, spirits high. What a beautiful day. Nearing the end of the parade route, we pulled into a parking lot behind the high school. There was little chance to act on my plan so I seized the opportunity. (I distinctly remember declaring what I was about to do and getting a “That’s not a good idea, don’t do it” from the driver but I did it anyway.)

As a ten year old boy, I loved the parade scene in Animal House. The movie scene is madness at it’s finest.. Enter the Animal House Deathmobile, the box of marbles, crashing parade floats, Giant cloud of ghastly smoke.. awesome!

What 10 year old doesn’t have an full bag of smoke-bombs in his pocket as the 4th nears? By the time I was 10.. I was already a pro with a punk stick. ..so guess what happened.

I lit the entire bag of smoke-bombs at once and tossed the package under the truck. Soon we would look just like the Deathmobile emerging from a horrendous cloud of smoke. To my immediate dismay, things didn’t go exactly like the movie.

Floats are often made of flowers stuffed into a wire cloth, or something like that. This float was made, by special needs children, from a long hay trailer wrapped in chicken wire just like the professional ones. It looked perfect. However, instead of white carnations, those kids used tissue paper. They carefully tucked thousands upon thousands of tissues into the wire frame, all the way around until it looked exactly like the real thing. This float was ‘the real thing’. It looked perfect.

When I was 10, I learned tissues burn quickly.

Within 30 seconds I knew I was in big trouble. The float immediately caught fire. There wasn’t even the smoke cloud… no moment of coolness… just fire. I ran to the school but the first three fire extinguishers were dead. Someone disconnected the truck from enflamed trailer and moved it while I searched desperately for a working fire extinguisher. I wanted very badly to run far away. I only remember one person helping. I think the others were scrambling off the burning structure. The float was completely ablaze. Great-great-great grandfather’s suit was burning fast, along with the borrowed drum set and string instruments… even the planks on the trailer were ablaze, then the tires… It was a 40-foot long and 40-foot tall serious fire within minutes. A crowd gathered.. I realized I was going to be in so damn much trouble for this one.

One good thing about starting a fire during a 4th of July parade. All the firetrucks are right there. An old Jeep came to my rescue. By the time they hooked up a hose from the little Jeep to a big tanker, I went to hide in a drainage ditch behind the school. I remember who came and got me and how he consoled me supportively: “you’re going to have to face the consequences on this one.” I remember crying.. and then I remember darkness.

I crawled into the way back of my mom’s wagon and hid under a blanket for hours while we drove the 200 miles home, that 4th of July night. It would be the only year of my life that I did not see fireworks. I hid for good reason.
What a shameful kid. Oh the trouble.. you burned up the impossibly hard work of special needs kids ..you burned up irreplaceable antiques.. you burned up great-great benjamin franklins clothes. I vaguely remember my mother stopping at some RR crossing. She was mad. She said, “Listen closely and you’ll hear fireworks going off. That’s as close as you’re going to get.”

Well, there you go. I thought I would recreate an awesome scene from a movie when I was 10 years old. It was a bad decision. Nothing stopped me from enjoying fireworks through my teens but I stuck with melting plastic army men in my own backyard from then on.

Today, I am thankful no one was injured as a result of my stupidity.
I’ve considered this event over and over because it’s impact on me was profound and I’ve wondered so many things… but no one ever spoke of it again and I’m way to embarrassed to bring it up – still.

A year later I spoiled a year’s supply of hay and broke my cousin’s leg.

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