I hunkered down behind the mango tree, quivering with anticipation, knowing that, if we pulled this off, we would most certainly be grounded, but we’d have a story to tell for the rest of our lives. I glanced over at JohnMark who was hiding behind a tree of his own. He shot back an impish grin, his eyes twinkling with the mischief that was no doubt reflected in my own. I was unaware of the danger we had just put ourselves into, but even if I had, it wasn’t something that would keep us from our pranks. Besides, I was nearly 10 months older than JohnMark, and with my 7-and-a-half years came a wealth of understanding of How Things Worked. Or so I thought. Despite my authority on the subject I was not prepared for the imminent explosion waiting to rip our little bodies into smithereens.
My long brown hair was sticky against my neck, the Philippine humidity grabbing up the messy waves and scribbling them into unkempt curls. I stole a glance at the mound of bricks we had piled over our catch of toads. We had been collecting masses of slimy amphibians all morning, and had loaded them into a five-gallon bucket, the common exploits of adventurous children in the jungle before the internet began brainwashing imagination. The life of a missionary kid in the 90’s was a thrilling adventure, which granted opportunities for well-intended mischief far more than the typical American suburb.
As I snuck a peek around the tree, giggling in the rush of adrenaline over our exploits that afternoon, JohnMark hissed at me and I ducked back to my hiding spot. That one movement may have saved my life.
But that’s where my story ends. Let me explain how I came to be sheltering from a pile of bricks.
JohnMark was my closest neighbor friend, as his parents housed 16 teenage boys and my folks were missionary parents to 16 teen girls, just a half mile from Faith Academy. Even as young children we had gotten to know each of the teens fairly well. We knew which ones were more likely to break household rules, who had crushes on whom, which kids woke up crying in the night, and which had uncontrollable, irrational fears.
In our blend of innocence and love of fun, we had also learned much about pranks from our adopted Missionary Kid siblings, due to the friendly rivalry between houses. We observed the fallout from kids breaking into the rival dorms and pouring a hundred pounds of dry milk powder over the flights of stairs, making animal noises in the bushes at 2am, stringing up underwear in the mango trees, and stealing prized desserts.
Armed with that dangerous knowledge and a five gallon bucket full of toads, JohnMark and I had concocted a plan. A terrible, mean, hilarious plan.
With the knowledge that all the dorm boys were on the school campus for the morning JohnMark and I capped our bucket, and wrangled it up the hill and into the house. As everyone but the ates* had left the building, we easily snuck past the kitchen, down the hallways (off limits to us kids) and into a smaller bedroom--an offense we were sure would be overlooked in light of how amazing this prank would turn out.
Giggling softly, we lugged the bucket to the center of the room and pulled up a corner of the lid. Reaching in we each grabbed a couple of the wriggling, slimy toads and looked around at our victim’s room. He was fifteen, so his room was only as neat as was necessary to follow house rules. There were little piles of clothing here and there, the bed was only partially made, and the shoes in the stand-up wardrobe were in a pile. I hadn’t fully considered how the boy would respond to our plan to redecorate his space, but I figured he wouldn’t really mind. After all, he had given me my first swirly, so I knew we were friends. That friendship was about to be annihilated, however, as the poor boy was deathly afraid of toads, and I was about to rob his haven of anything that resembled peace.
JohnMark pulled open the wardrobe and we placed toads into each shoe, and into every jacket pocket we could reach. I pulled up the top layer of a pile by the bed and we placed a little handful of amphibians between articles of clothing. Having just learned how to apple pie, JohnMark and I shortsheeted and toad-filled the bed, and stuffed a few animals into the pillowcase. After running out of places to hide our hopping hoard, we dumped the rest of our clamoring collection onto the floor, closed the door, and snuck back out of the house.
“Hey, Christin, check these out!” As I was thwacking the bucket against a tree JohnMark showed me two red cylinders with strings hanging out the ends. They were about the width of a coke bottle’s neck, and about as long as my pointer finger.
“What are those?” I peered at the unassuming rolls. Across the side was written ‘M-80’ and several Indonesian words I didn’t know.
“I found them. They’re like firecrackers or something.” He looked at the bucket in my hand, over at the bricks and said with excitement, “Let’s blow something up!”
I felt my grin grow as my ears lifted, and my raised eyebrows accented my wide, excited eyes. “What should we explode?”
We looked at the bucket, then at each other, and I am sorry to say we spent the next twenty minutes collecting another five gallons of toads, fully intending to splatter them across the jungle.
Once our collection was complete we lugged our prize over to the gargantuan pile of bricks, concrete chunks, and stones in the far corner of the yard. After carefully balancing the bucket on a flat-ish slab at the base of the mound we started covering the plastic with the rocks and debris. Once we were satisfied that our cache of amphibians would not rocket into space (because that’s what would have inevitably happened, per the assumptions of our young minds), JohnMark pulled the M80s from his pocket and shooed me over towards the mango trees.
“You stand over there and I’ll light this.”
“Oh, no! You don’t get to do the cool stuff after I lifted all the rocks!”
“I lifted as many rocks as you did!”
“That doesn’t even matter! You don’t get to do fire without me!”
I peered over my friend’s shoulder as he attempted to ignite the M80, struggling with the lighter that had also been stashed in his pocket. Click. Click. Click. Fssssssshhh!
“Aaahh! It’s lit!” I screamed and booked it over to the tree JohnMark had pointed out earlier.
“This is gonna be awesome!” JohnMark scurried behind a second tree a few paces to my left.
We plugged our ears and cowered behind the towering foliage. After a few moments I started counting down from ten. JohnMark joined in and we yelled out the last few numbers. “Three! Two! One!”
Nothing. We dropped our hands from our ears and shrugged at each other.
It was hot and I was incredibly impatient, needing to know why the bucket hadn’t exploded yet. I peered around the tree for a look.
“Ssssttt!” At JohnMark’s hiss I whirled around to look at him.
We both screamed, clapping our hands over our ears once again. I felt my tree shudder, and heard “Fvzz! Fvzz! Fvzz!” as white shards of bucket, chunks of rock and random assortments of plant and animal life went whizzing by my head.
Wide-eyed and terrified JohnMark and I looked at each other and then turned to examine the destruction. The pile was flattened, the bucket was gone, and the outer side of our green shields were bespeckled with splintered shrapnel.
I knew then that I was lucky to be alive.
I wish I could tell you that this single event cured me of all future ridiculous deathly adventure. But alas, the fringes of the Philippines would invite me to wander through python-infested drainage pipes, not quite learn how to juggle knives, join teenages hanging off cliffs, and other excursions that are not conducive to long life and wellness. Not even volunteering to be given a second swirly would dampen my desire for daring do. And though my exploits never arose from wisdom, they sure made for good stories.
*Ate [ah-tay] is the Tagalog word for ‘older sister,’ used as a term of respect for those who worked as cooks and housekeepers in the dorms.
(Author’s note: this piece was written from my memories as a seven-year-old and many observances may not be accurate to real events.)