In the end, Evel Knievel and Arthur Fonzarelli are partially responsible, though perhaps not in the legal sense.
These daredevils were a fixture of my youth. It seemed every few months, Evel was performing another hold-your-breath stunt. There was a strange fascination with driving over things. Motorcycles and cars were airborne with surprising frequency, jumping over cars, people, and, when that grew routine, canyons.
Another fixture of my youth was Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars. My friends and I each had our own curated collections. When combined, we could craft a narrative worthy of a great bank heist flick, complete with getaway cars, police in hot pursuit, firetrucks to tame the inevitable fiery crash, and ambulances to take care of the wounded.
Deeply in tune with the zeitgeist, Happy Days had the perfect daredevil in Fonzi and long before the incident with the shark, he was seen wreaking havoc in demolition derbies (it was an odd time) and jumping over barrels on his motorcycle.
With stunts, real and fictional, continuously escalating, our boyhood storylines were missing a certain something. We needed some flair.
What we needed was fire.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to catapult our cars through actual flames? Yes, it most certainly would!
So, we began preparing for the big event. We picked the cars that would work well in the scene, but wouldn’t be ruined by a little damage. We found a suitable shoebox. (At the time, 90% of all childhood play involved shoeboxes. I’m pretty sure our Death Star was a shoebox.) We gathered newspaper and matches, made a tunnel out of the shoebox, and set out.
Knowing my mother wouldn’t approve, we decided to set the scene inside my large garage, which was really more like a barn. We sat looking nervously at each other, the materials spread out in front of us, our bare knees on the cold concrete. That was the peak, actually. It was an idea best left unrealized.
The shoebox was much harder to light than expected and when it did begin to burn, it was more subtle than flames should be. There was a lot of smoke, certainly, but the cartoon inferno was nowhere to be seen. I went first and flung my car through the smokey tunnel. Instead of bursting through the other side, flames nipping at its plastic wheels, it hit the wall half-way through the shoebox with a dull, cardboard thud.
The next car, of course, just hit the first car.
We stared at the slow-burning fiasco, unsure of whether to put it out or fan the flames, until we heard pounding on the garage door.
The doors had a row of glass you could look through. Pressed up against the glass was the furious, mustached, vaguely familiar face of a shouting man. The word "burning" was mentioned multiple times.
Like the Cunningham family before us, our garage also had an outside staircase that led to a second floor. That’s where there was a small one-bedroom apartment that we rented out now and then, most recently, to the shouting man.
It seems the smoke from our Hush Puppie’s bonfire had begun to fill the apartment above us.
He left to find my mother while we poured water on our little piece of performance art. When she entered, we were staring motionless at a pile of soggy cardboard, newspaper ashes, blackened cars, and puddles of water that had nowhere to go.
It was the angriest I had seen my mom, spurred by the potential danger (did I mention the gas furnace and water heater located a few feet away?) more than anything else I suspect. I tried to shift her allegiances by revealing the shocking news that the man had sworn during his tirade, something I’d never heard my mom do.
“I’d swear, too, if I found a bunch of kids burning things underneath my apartment.”
It wasn’t too long before our Matchbox cars and Star Wars figures were replaced by basketballs and baseball gloves. We were ready for new storylines.