Friday, July 1, 2011

The 3rd of July

In celebration of the holiday weekend I am posting the following excerpt from The Pirates of Lobster Cove, It is the back story of Francis “Frankie” Gambino, the trusty compatriot of Tyler Bryne, the narrator.
He is one of the four teens who call themselves The Cyrkle. His friends include Sandy Womack, the resident drama queen and bookworm, Bess Duvall, a tomboy’s tomboy, and Tyler, his inquisitive and over imaginative best friend who believes he has seen a flesh and blood pirate walking the streets of Lobster Cove.
During the years it took to complete the first novel I read this passage countless times to the children of my own seaside town by the light of a campfire. Those evenings were always special to me, made me a better writer and kept me grounded in the world of the teenager. Thank you to all who listened and stayed enthusiastic as months turned into years. 
Feel free to read it aloud. Celebrate the holiday and the ensuing fireworks but remember, be careful. We are all not as lucky as Gatto Gambino.

At first, the nickname Gatto came from the uncanny way he cheated death. Like his namesake, he had nine lives. At the beginning of this summer he was on life three.
The end of his first life was a mystery to us. It had something to do with his birth, tentative first months and his mother’s tears. All we knew was that Gatto was damn lucky to be here . His mother frequently warned him of this fact whenever he was even remotely in danger. Her voice would peal through the screen door of their porch.
“For the love of St. Pete, Francis Anthony Gambino! If I told you once, I told you a million times, stop it! You know you’re damn lucky to be here, don’t push it!”
Every summer, pushing it became our favorite pastime. It was more than just the thrill of the risk; it was about testing the patience of Mama Gambino and Gatto’s guardian angel. We swam past the bobbers at the beach, cannon-balled off of the high ledge of the jetty, shot tennis balls out of a makeshift cannon, anything to set off his mom.  We’d time how long it took for her to remind Gatto of his lost life. Summers are long on the Cove, you find fun where you can.
We weren’t daring, we just liked to appear so. Every stunt was performed with the utmost regard for safety. Take the homemade rocket launcher, Gatto’s invention, it sounded dangerous as all get out but was fortified with precautions. The tennis ball can was secured on a cinder block anchored with duck tape lit with a match attached to the end of a yardstick. One of The Cyrkle stood poised with the gun nozzle of a garden hose at the ready. We weren’t stupid.
Gatto’s second life had been snuffed out just the summer before. It went out in a blaze of glory.
The Fourth of July weekend in any coastline tourist community is a celebration of everything American.  Every stoop and railing is festooned in our nation’s colors. The marches of John Phillip Sousa drift in the air intertwined with whispers of Kokomo, Hot, Hot, Hot and rump-shaking dance beats blaring from boom boxes. The lapping surf, the occasional racket of firecrackers and the laughter of the young and old join the medley. Every patio has barb-b-q; charcoal and burnt hot dogs fill the air. Everyone is at leisure; all is right with the world.
The shore slowly transforms into an American Carnivale. The sun hangs low; clouds glow in bursts of orange and red. Freedom is in the offing. At this time the illicit proceedings dial gets turned up to eleven.
 Now, fireworks are illegal in our state, but you wouldn’t know it by the evening’s proceedings. There are no fewer than six bunkers of amateur fireworks simultaneously being shot off the Cove’s beachhead alone. Sulfur taints the pleasant scents of late afternoon revelry. The gathering crowd breaks into swells of “Ooos” and “Ahhs”.
These aren’t every day, ‘look, honey, what I smuggled out of South Carolina during my last golf outing’ brand of fireworks. These are ‘You need a permit, a fire truck at the ready and at what time would you like the Boston Pops to break into the 1812 Overture type of fireworks.’
The proceedings are four straight hours of unsupervised mayhem. It is an adult recess with no fear of timeouts. Ramparts and fountains of ill-directed color shower from the trenches on the beach. Fishing boats join the fury with their own displays shooting from their top decks. Looking through the smoke you can see the distant glowing balls of bonfires littering the shoreline. More fireworks blossom in miniature in the far distance. The night is on fire.
On the last summer of Gatto’s second life, a group of us local kids decided that the view wasn’t good enough behind the safe confines of the concrete seawall. That wouldn’t do at all. We had to climb down to the rock and sand of the beach to get closer to the action, we had to push it.
To our credit we were in a group. There was safety in numbers.  The Cyrkle plays it safe, right? Wrong, not that night.
Why the following occurred is still up for debate. It could have been the beer-goggled lack of judgment of the yahoos shooting off artillery grade fireworks at high tide. It could have been a freak act of Nature like an East Coast version of the Santa Anna Winds. Perhaps Fate the Dealer was sending the message to Gatto that he’s been gambling at his table of life a bit too long. Whatever the cause, folly or fate, what went down that night still plays in my memory in slow motion.
This all occured in less than twenty seconds. One firework, instead of going skyward, burst forth in a horizontal trajectory, only inches from the sand. Its direction moved from the water’s edge toward the seawall with us, the Cyrkle, stuck in-between. We all dove from its path, that is, everyone except Gatto. As if aware of our counter move, the white-hot comet made impact against a rock that protruded from the shore like the molar of some ancient animal skull, and burst into four separate projectiles fanning across the entire perimeter of the beach.
Instinctually, I dropped flat and rolled into the safety of the sand. I would have burrowed to China if I’d had time. Others grabbed one another, forcing themselves to the ground. We were all safe; that firework had Gatto’s name on it.
I remember Gatto’s eyes­­, brown, awe-filled, and puppy dog wide. He fell to his knees as if the pearly gates themselves were opening to him. I could see the reflection of the orb growing wider until it eclipsed his pupils. I didn’t have the time to open my mouth, never mind call out.
Then there was sizzle, darkness and silence.
That accounts for the snuffing out of Gatto’s second life, but what happened in the minutes that followed astonished me more, binding Gatto and myself as friends for life. The accident called up something in him that, frankly, I had never possessed.
I thought back to when my mother would try to rattle some religion into me. Whenever I was the least bit blasphemous she say, “Who do you call when you are at your most troubled, what is the name you call out? God, that’s who”.
I would look back at her and shake my head. “No, I holler, Maaa!”
Gatto didn’t set off the Ma alarm that night. He deftly peeled the loose firework from his cheek. It fell to the ground shattering into embers. Cupping his eye like an EMT at an accident site, he stared through the haze for the first adult that came into view. He said in an unsettling rational voice, “It burns.”
The neighborhood panicked for him, grabbing him up by the arm and carrying him to safety like a fallen soldier. Once inside the nearest seaside estate, Gatto remained cool as a cucumber giving his caretakers information when asked. “Can’t open it”, he instructed, the pressure building moment by moment. “Hot.” “Blurry.” “Ice.”
Only when danger was a good distance past him, when the hysterical adults had given him a moment alone, did he cry. He never told me this, but I knew he did; he had to. If a flaming ball of consequence attempted to blind me, I surely would have.
Gatto’s coolness under fire and Angel Gabriel’s intervention scorched a badge of courage across his young face. He was Rocky Balboa in miniature; his stocky twelve-year-old Italian features highlighted with a plum of a shiner around his left eye.
They took him to his family cottage to rest. I finally battled through the distraught crowd to see him. Opening the door, I got a good, long look at his face. ‘Too close!’ my inner voice stammered.
We looked at each other… well, I looked, he half-squinted, half-winced. I held back the quiver of my concern. I hollered, “Adrianne!!” in the best Sylvester Stallone imitation I could muster, cracking a forced smile. A trembling grin replaced Gatto’s wince-squint.
At that moment our friendship was forged; a bond tested during the months ahead. This summer would take Gatto’s third life. He was the Robin to my Batman, the Poncho to my Quixote, and that summer, the Black Bart to my Captain Blood. In truth, the roles should have been reversed.
(excerpt from The Pirates of Lobster Cove by S.E. Toon)

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