Bullets in the Bonfire

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, and my father is from Vulcan. If you need a tricorder jury-rigged or a Class M planet analyzed for its ability to support life he’s your man. But if it relates to feelings his stock answer is, “That’s your mother’s business.”

“I miss you and mom. Should I come home for Christmas?

“That’s your mother’s business.”

“Okay. I love you, Dad.”

“That’s your mother’s business.”

He delegates all responsibility for emotions to my mother, which suits her fine.

He has a dignified and stoic manner, prompting many a childhood friend to ask after meeting him, “Is that your butler?” I’ve never seen him casually dressed. In fact, if you’re ever in Fayetteville, New York and you see a man in a business suit mowing the lawn, do wave hello to my dad.

Only twice in my life do I remember him getting upset. When I was eight years old I spent a Saturday afternoon gallivanting through the woods with a group of older teens. What a jolly time I had with this carefree band of hooligans—setting up a fort in an abandoned barn, blowing up roadkill with M-80s, busting soda bottles with slingshots, getting my first taste of Budweiser. Eagerly I told my parents about my new friends with the funny name for their club. “They call themselves the neato nasties or something like that.”

“The neo-Nazis?” my mother asked.

“That’s it! How did you know?”

Now here’s a tidbit about my father I didn’t know at that point in my life. In 1944 when he was twenty the Nazis wrenched him from his family in Occupied Holland and forced him into slavery in a German armaments factory, where besides enduring hellish conditions he faced the constant prospect of annihilation by Allied bombs. He nearly died there.

My father went Krakatoa. As he chased me through the house, all I heard were snippets, “You will never… that group… I forbid… off-limits… from now on!”

I may have been a whiz in math and science, but I had some major gaps in my knowledge of history.


Doug Dawson was the perfect childhood best friend. He was a loyal to a fault, he had a house full of dangerous stuff, and he made an excellent fall guy. One day when Doug and I were playing, my mom needed to take me into the village for a short errand. “Stay here, Doug, we’ll only be gone ten minutes,” I said. Plans changed and we spent the day with my grandmother in Syracuse. Twelve hours later we came home and there was Doug, patiently waiting in our front yard. He never complained.

Doug’s father was a member of the John Birch society and had an arsenal in his home. When I was ten years old I found this fascinating and pressured Doug to show me the gun collection. “Hey Steve, if you throw a bunch of bullets in a bonfire, will they pop like popcorn sending bullets flying everywhere?” Doug asked.

“I don’t know, Doug. But that sure sounds like something we better get the answer to right away,” I said. So we grabbed a box of .22s and we headed down to Bishop’s brook where most of our mischief took place. As boys Doug and I were like little cavemen—concerned about not getting into scuffles with larger predators (older teens) and obsessed with fire.

Doug’s dad quickly noticed the box of ammo missing and called my parents, who sprang into action. Just as our bonfire got roaring I heard my father’s amplified voice bellowing through the woods, “Stephen Altes and Douglas Dawson, come home at once!” He kept a bullhorn for such occasions. The bullhorn meant trouble. Doug and I kicked the bonfire into the creek and ran home.

Our parents knew about the bullets so we had to come clean. Luckily, as I mentioned, Doug was the perfect scapegoat. “Oh father, thank God you rescued me in time. It was all Doug’s idea. I had no idea he brought bullets with him. He just tossed them in the fire, cackling like a madman. I could have been killed.” As usual, Doug got grounded, spanked and possibly thumbscrewed, while I got hug from my mother and a stern warning from my father to “be careful around that dangerous Doug Dawson.”

About Steve Altes

Steve Altes is the author of several humor books, dozens of humorous adventure essays, and the comedic graphic novel Geeks & Greeks, set at MIT and inspired by MIT's culture of hacking and Steve's own experiences with hazing.
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