Tales of Young Entrepreneurship Run Amok...

I offer the following true tale of young entrepreneurship run amok with the reasonable belief that there does exist some relevant statute of limitations that has surely run its course…

The quintessential “latchkey” kid, growing up in a small apartment complex in Connecticut, I enjoyed nearly everything a kid could want—my own apartment key, friends more akin to siblings, a playground with a limited but more than adequate number of instruments of torture, a bike, a neighborhood bully and even a local “bogeyman”, oh… and no parents ‘till dinner. Nonetheless, we all considered ourselves desperately deprived as, in Connecticut, that consummate brass ring of every borderline-delinquent child remained illegal and nearly impossible to come by—the Firework.

We had all seen them with their brightly colored paper wrapping, bizarrely translated instructions always ending in, “Get away!”, and ever present, precariously, protruding fuse sticking out the side. Some of us had even been lucky enough to light one to cheers and delight. Like fish, however, everyone told stories of deafening booms! and other clandestine pyrotechnic plans and plunders. No doubt, few were true but nobody ever seemed to care.

I would be lying to say I set out to altruistically meet the demand of this particularly “starved” gang of younglings more than willing to blow off their fingers—the impetus behind this, my first true venture, began purely selfishly.

One day, while perusing the classifieds of an old Popular Mechanics magazine—daydreaming of constructing some sort of flying machine—I came across a very small ad for fireworks. I’m sure I’d seen the ad many time before but for reasons unknown, this time I noticed some very small type across the bottom of the ad, “Free catalog.” Now in those days, catalog sales were far less common and were always accompanied by those dreaded words, “Please allow 4-6 weeks for delivery.”—a deal-breaking eternity for anyone under twelve year old.

In a fleeting moment of maturity, I sent for the catalog.

Fifty-two and one-half years later—or at least what seemed that long—and after I had long-forgotten ever requesting that catalog, it arrived. I tell you today, its arrival was almost as good as getting the actual fireworks. I memorized every one of that catalog’s 12 pages of brightly colored contraband. I snuck it into school and shared it with a few select friends like it was a magazine filled with, well… I digress.

One fall afternoon, after school, I got up the nerve to call the “order number” on the catalog. I’m not even sure why. I knew I couldn’t order anything if for no other reason that I hadn’t any money. They answered and, in my most adult voice, I began to learn. That 5-minute call changed everything.

Without going into the details of my first lesson in logistics, FOB costs and DOT Hazmat regulations, I will share with you the single most important and amazing fact I learned throughout my entire 6th grade… fireworks were illegal to “set off” in Connecticut but LEGAL to order and own.

Enlisting the help of a friend, we spend the next week putting the incredible resources of my father’s architectural firm to good use as we literally cut and pasted that fireworks catalog into a new (slightly higher priced) one.

{Disclaimer: We did consider well the potential dangers associated with selling small explosive devices to young children and decided, at this point, that it was probably not a good idea.}

This did present a slight problem. As 12-years-olds, we simply didn’t know very many “old” people. You know, people over twenty. The solution we finally came upon was to “visit” our parent’s offices and “sell” to their employees and colleagues. This was a bit tricky, as we still had not informed our parents of the “master plan.” As it turns out, at least from a business perspective, this was a fantastic idea. We very quickly realized that the appeal (and demand) for the forbidden firework spanned multiple generations.

Breaking bad, we had become true dealers. We collected more cash than we had ever even seen and walked the halls of our parent’s companies like we owned them. So far, so good. All we had to do was place an industrial sized order for enough fireworks to power the next Macy’s fireworks display and have them delivered to, ur… this turned out to be our first seemingly insurmountable problem.

Not only were hundreds of pounds of fireworks going to be delivered by truck, at a time we were supposed to be in school, to a facility we did not have BUT… the freight company required an ADULT SIGNATURE!

Would we finally have to come clean? We were in uncharted waters and the sheer scale of the project, even at 12 years old, weighed heavily upon us. After much debate and destruction of most of the ancillary “evidence”, we informed my father that we were having a large delivery sent to his office, that it was for a project, that he should sign for it and call me at school when it arrived. To this day, I’m not exactly sure why my father didn’t ask too many questions.

My father’s architectural firm was small but frenetic with a constant stream of clients and officials meeting in the large conference room just across from the main entrance to the office. This seemingly innocuous floor plan was not only about to become significant but near about resulted in a nexus of events that could have brought down not only our fledgling dealership but my father’s firm as well.

{I relay the following account as shared with me by my father.}

About a week after we placed our order, a large 18-wheeled truck pulled up in front of my father’s firm. The gruff driver came up to the office with clipboard in hand and said he had a large delivery. The secretary, knowing nothing of this misadventure, peeked her head into the conference room where my father had just begun a meeting seeking approval for new construction from the city Fire Marshal. Still not knowing what was in the shipment, my father signed for the delivery.

Apparently, what happened next, was nothing less than a scene taken right from John Cleese’s character, Basil, in Fawlty Towers. You see, each of the 6 giant boxes—brought awkwardly into the front door of the office, next to the conference room, one by one—was marked in huge, red, stenciled letters, “FLAMMABLE EXPLOSIVES.”

With his back to the open conference room door, the Fire Marshal did not notice that first box before my father (and his nearly panicked partner) managed to get the door closed and offer some thinly veiled excuse for all the commotion. My father eventually told me all he could think about for the rest of the meeting was what message he was going to leave with the school secretary when he called to inform me, my “shipment” had arrived.

In the end, after we had covertly distributed, in plain brown grocery bags, each and every order, we made absolutely no profit but had fireworks that would last us years into the future.

A few years later, in high school, we were still reaping the rewards of that bounty. After a particularly “celebratory” summer evening, a local policeman pulled up in his car beside us and, in a very stern and accusatory voice, asked, “Any of you guys ever been busted for fireworks?”

To this day, I clearly remember my response. “No, sir. We have never been busted.”


Cleaning out my garage, yesterday, I came across a single item of that childhood contraband. Not exactly an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle but, then, I’d probably have shot my eye out. No, this item was, perhaps, even more likely to permanently physically maim—a firework. As I carefully considered what to immediately do with this item, whether it could be put to some creative use or disarmed, and whether the “use by” date had any real meaning in this context, my eyes (remember no BB gun), once again, fell upon the instructions…

“Light fuse and get away.”

More than a mere display, it seems to me the firework—a paradigm for life—is not like a box of chocolates. With chocolates, you may never know what your going to get but if your chocolate is vomitus, you can simply spit it out and return it to the box. Personally, I stick my finger in the bottom so that when returned, the confectionary at least looks unsampled (terrible, I know).

Likewise with fireworks, you never really know what your going to get… but whether or not you are successful in ‘getting away’, once that fuse is lit, something is going to happen. With fireworks, there is no directly obvious way to return them ‘to the box’ once you’ve chosen to sample. That is their beauty. That is life’s.

We light fuses every day, in ourselves and others, intentionally and unintentionally. Ultimately, it may be more risky to stick around but whether you do or don’t, look out!


To all the adventures yet to come!

~Mark Evan Strauss
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