It was the summer of 1996. I was twelve. It was a good year. My summers were unending, my parents had regular poker night at their house on Sundays where they filled the main area with cigarette smoke, and I was just starting to shave my legs. I had dyed purple streaks into my hair, Baz Luhrman had released his masterpiece of Romeo+Juliet on the big screen, and consequently, it was the year my dad unintentionally turned our Maytag Washer into a home-made bomb.
I could pile a list of complaints about my childhood into this letter to try to explain my home life. That’s the current trend of my generation, anyway. But the truth is, my childhood wasn’t bad. In fact, it was pretty damned awesome. It was just unlike most normal suburban upbringings in the mid 90’s. Most misadventures were met with my sister’s soon to be infamous whine of “NORMAL PEOPLE DON’T DO THIS,” before storming away from whatever odd chore my entrepreneur father had his wife and two daughters working on that particular weekend. Chores like hand painting minuscule trim on every cabinet in a kitchen the size of most one-bedroom apartments. Or hauling lumber across our property with Radio Flyer wagons.(For a three story tree house, which most normal children did not have either.) Or picking rocks out of the dirt prepping for new grass seed in our front lawn in the aftermath of a Septic dig-up (a total DIY project for my industrious father as well, thanks to my sister’s habit of flushing maxi-pads down the toilet. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter how much you deny you did it, the septic system doesn’t lie when your mother has gone through menopause and your younger sister hasn’t become a woman yet.)
If you looked at all the projects my father insisted on doing himself or assigning us to, you might assume we were not financially sound. I know I said “Entrepreneurial,” when describing my father. But before you have visions of the guy in a tie behind a projector trying to sell you into some Pyramid Scheme, I’m going to set you straight.
If you took Harrison Ford, Sam Elliott, and Tom Selleck and had them make a love child, that would be my father. Six foot five inches of pure, leather, stoic, Western, Man’s man who can fix an internal combustion engine with a bobby pin and bird shit. My father was a business owner, yes. He owned and built a financially substantial contracting company that specialized in industrial coatings. Specifically chemically compounded painting of barges, bridges, oil tankers, Navy Ships, etc. We were not, by any means, poor. It wasn’t until I was much older, however, that I truly pitied what he went through being the only male in a house of three rather high-maintenance women. Septic dig-ups are the tip of the turd-burg for that poor man.
It wasn’t always that way, however. My dad grew up in poverty and built his empire from nothing. My mother barely graduated high school, yet pursued an admiral and successful career in politics, which she can’t wait to retire from now. They’d be damned to have their daughters grow up to be spoiled brats. My sister and I grew up having no idea we were “rich.” We had to work for everything we had, and sometimes this included picking weeds out of rock, or picking rocks by hand out of our front yard . . . that was full of rocks.
But back to the story at hand; On some random Saturday in the summer of 1996, my mother had noticed that the Ralph Lauren store in Pioneer Place was having a liquidation sale. Two things my mother could not (still can’t) resist; Designer on CLEARANCE. We’d all made a trip down there to take advantage of the clearance and gotten ourselves brand new jeans and shorts. I happened to put on the pair of new black shorts I’d gotten that day. I wore them for the rest of my Saturday.
The thing was, these jeans, they had the smell of what I would imagine a Taco Bell under Quarantine would smell like. Regret outside the bun. Being twelve, most things in my room smelled like that anyway, so I didn’t particularly care. Sunday morning, however, my mother couldn’t take it and gathered up all our new jeans and threw them in the Maytag washer. It was about two hours later I heard her shrieking my name from the laundry room. The kind of tone that makes you brace and clench your jaw right before Norman Bates stabs the bejeezus out of that woman in the shower. I skulked into the laundry room to find my mother holding a pair of her new jeans, with bloody splotches of red nail polish all over them. It got worse, the nail polish was all over the inside of the dryer as well.
I. Was. Screwed.
Four hundred dollars worth of brand new Ralph Lauren jeans, falling victim to The Summer of 1996; the summer I started painting my nails—and apparently felt like putting the nail polish in my pocket- because when you’re twelve, you put EVERYTHING in your pocket. Nail polish, gummi bears, M&Ms, pretty rocks, change you found on the ground, keys, tissues. Phone numbers, however, were reserved for the back of your hand.
Never fear, for my father, Marlboro MacGyver came to the rescue. Since he owned a commercial contracting business, it goes without saying that it was literally minutes before he had a barrel of industrial grade M.E.K. (Methel Ethyl Keytone— it’s illegal now) in the driveway, and was scrubbing our new jeans in it (while smoking a cigarette, if that tells you anything). If they smelled like the second round of Chalupa before, they would smell like the inside of a sterile white dwarf star from this point on. Acrylic and Oil Bases would cower upon our approach if we wore these pants anywhere near them. Craft stores would ban us, graffiti artists would weep in our presence.
After he’d melted the nail polish and the entire heritage of any bacteria or infectant that may have ever considered living in those jeans, he had them laid out across our driveway.
What is the next step in Operation: Ralph Lauren Recovery?
Break out the pressure washer.
I mean, we can’t have that stuff lingering in our linens right? The deafening loud motor blaring away, echoing throughout the quiet Northwestern Suburbs for an entire hour that my father spent pressure washing our pants, sprawled across our drive like a shameful crime scene. When he was satisfied, he had me pick them up off the driveway and put them in our Maytag washer. “Use extra fabric softener,” he said, as he dumped the rest of the Downy bottle into the load.
About twenty minutes later . . .
My mother: sitting at the kitchen counter reading a Better Homes & Gardens magazine.
My father: sitting at the kitchen counter nodding at whatever my mother was saying to him, smoking, and rebuilding the motor to an electric pencil sharpener.
My grandmother: across the street in her garden, roughly 600 feet away.
Me: sitting on my bed in the back of the house reading a book.
Birds chirped lazily in the trees. a slight breeze blew through the window and rustled my soft sheer curtains. A lawn mower started somewhere down the road, a soft buzz in the distance.
The force of the blast blew every window out of our house.
I was thrown from my bed, and my grandmother was knocked over in her garden from the boom, and from being hit by a screen from our window.
It took us a moment to come to our senses. I came running out into the kitchen.
“MOM! DAD! Are you OK?!”
I watched my parents come up from under the kitchen counter, where they’d thrown themselves in the midst of the blast. Shattered glass everywhere. Our ceilings and light fixtures hanging down and dangling on splintered cords, swinging back and forth. Dad’s cigarette—still good.
My mom stood in awe. I stood still, not wanting to cut my bare feet (with freshly painted toe nails) on the glass shards all over the floor.
Dad wandered back to the laundry room. I leaned around the corner to see the front of the washing machine blown off, the lid up, the wall across from it dented from the metal cover maim. He peeked inside the washing drum, observed for a moment, then dropped the lid to let the washer click over and seamlessly continue its cycle. It began rinsing with no problem.
Dad turned to us and said in a monotone voice, “Ok, we need to lift this lid every five minutes to let the fumes escape, otherwise they’ll ignite when the cycle switches over.”
He picked the front metal cover up, placed it back on the front of the washer, gave it a good kick, and clicked it back on to where it belonged. My mother and I looked at each other, still in shock.
My rather round and winded grandmother burst through the front door in an angry waddle carrying the screen to our laundry room window, cussing a string of words that in my reminiscent mind look like a giant line of bold grammatical symbols.
“OK, people, we have Poker Night in three hours. Let’s get it together.”
And so it came to pass—my father called a friend he knew in contracting who did windows and emergency glass replacement services, my mother and I swept up the shards, my dad fixed the ceilings and light fixtures with mud, tape, texture, and paint (doesn’t everyone have materials like that on-hand?) and come 6:00, no one believed us when we said our house exploded at 3pm.
Just another Sunday in my home.
But I felt the need to express this to you, oh Maytag Man. The commercials depicting you sitting on your duff because you have nothing to do? They couldn’t be more accurate. That load of laundry finished with no problem, and there have been many more since. I’m happy to report that I am nearly thirty now, and we still have that washer and dryer. The same set that survived a household explosion, being moved a few times, washing horse blankets and Carhartts… This dynamic duo brings back the true meaning of “Bomb Proof.” I’ve also lovingly named them “Boom Boom.”
I hope this helped you pass a bit of time at your painfully boring job. If you ever feel like not being bored, come over to my parents’ house on a weekend. You can help us pick rocks by hand out of the dirt. It’s not like we had an excavator lying around that could do that for us.