First degree burns and the rack


My January beer of the month is Double Happy Imperial Ale (8%) from Sunshine Brewery in Gisborne, New Zealand.

double happy label

Usually I select my beers based on the graphic design of their labels, because I know fuck all about beer, except that it’s delicious. But this one I picked for the name. The explosive artifact known as the ‘Double Happy’ was a treasured part of my childhood. Because Guy Fawkes.

Guy Fawkes – 5th November – is the day we celebrate the attempted blowing up of the British Houses of Parliament by, you guessed it, Mr. Guido (Guy) Fawkes, in 1605.  The motive – surprise, surprise – was religious differences. Happily ­– or sadly, depending on your point of view – the plot was foiled by a warning letter which fell into the hands of King James.

Guy Fawkes was caught and broken on the rack to force him to reveal his co-conspirators. In case you are not au fait with 17th century devices of torture, the rack involves the dislocation of the victim’s joints, the snapping of the cartilages and ligaments, and the destruction of the muscle fibers.

When I image searched ‘The Rack’ I got more breasts than I anticipated

Guy talked. Of course he did. He and his seven confederates were executed in 1606, by being hung, drawn, and quartered. The condemned is tied to a ‘hurdle,’ head down, and dragged, by horse, a considerable distance to a platform where they are hanged by the neck until they are nearly – but not quite – dead. Then someone cuts their cock and balls off, burns said cock and balls while the former owner watches, cuts open their abdomen, pulls out their bowels and heart through the hole, and only then, when the presumably guilty party has finally died of blood loss and shock, would their bodies be quartered – cut into four – and, in the case of Guy Fawkes and his buddies, distributed around the country to be put on display as a warning to others. Which all is excellent fodder for the imagination of growing children, as you can imagine.

a hurdle
A hurdle, apparently

So, in honor of Guy Fawkes, the countries that once comprised the British Commonwealth celebrate the 5th of November by lighting explosives and making jokes about what a pack of bastards politicians are, and isn’t it a shame Guy Fawkes isn’t around to free us from the lot of them now. (In New Zealand jokes about terrorism are tickety-boo as long as politicians are the ones hypothetically dying.)

Guy Fawkes is the best event for kids ever. In some ways it’s better than a birthday because it’s pure. There’s no cake. No party. No carefully wrapped gifts. Guy Fawkes belongs to everyone. And you get to blow shit up.¹

For the big fireworks – your rockets and your roman candles – you had to wait for actual Guy Fawkes night. The best was the Catherine Wheel,² a flat, circular piece you needed to nail to a fence before lighting. A carelessly hammered nail meant the wheel would skitter free, revolve along the concrete, and lodge itself under Mr Anderson’s prized Jaguar, setting the engine alight. Why yes, that is very specific, isn’t it? My, how we danced to the delightful and unexpected flamboyance of the red flashing fire truck light. The firemen let us take a ride around the block after they extinguished the car, too. This probably explained why we were not allowed to light these without parental supervision.

But you know what was fair game? Double happies.

A double happy is a cylinder of paper, dyed red, with a long fuse, filled with a very small quantity of gunpowder. They came in a pack of 24 under the Po Ha brand, fuses plaited together, and wrapped in vivid red waxed paper.

Screenshot 2016-01-24 19.06.04

Screenshot 2016-01-24 19.07.38

My own co-conspirators were a brother and sister duo who lived next door. Let’s call them Jack and Sarah (names have been changed to protect the guilty). And double happies were our chosen weapon of destruction.

The plaited multi-fuse gave double happies infinite possibilities. You could light the main fuse (and run) which allowed the entire 24 to explode in a cacophony of smoke and fire and a delicious wall of sound. If, by happenstance, your houses backed onto a school, and you hypothetically boosted the smallest of you *cough*Sarah*cough* onto a classroom roof and she, perhaps, inserted the lit slab of double happies into, for argument’s sake, a downspout, you could achieve excellent reverberation, an appropriate increase in noise, and, occasionally, a delightful shower of PVC confetti.

Or you could pull an individual double happy out from the mass, break it in half, hold the two ends firmly between the thumb and forefinger, apply a flame directly to the gunpowder at the broken section, and aim the resulting spray of sparks at nearby defenseless members of the Arachnida or Insecta orders,³ or alternatively, another child. These little beauties were called fizzers.

Screenshot 2016-01-24 19.08.14
Explosives. Fun for the whole family.

A rite of passage was holding a double happy on your outstretched flattened palm. Your friend would light it. Your task was to not throw it away and run. If you withstood its explosion you gained not only scorch marks and 24 hours worth of poor handwriting, but also the respect of your fellows. If you closed your hand around it, of course, you lost the ability to write forever. Along with your hand. Each year, nationally, someone did just this.

But my favorite was when you carefully prised the pack apart while watching Disney’s Adventures of Gummi Bears, shoveled the loose crackers into a highly flammable paper bag, pocketed a box of Beehive matches, and played double happy tag; the game that requires quick reflexes, a sure throwing arm, and a handy turn of speed. The rules were simple: the one who first cried from their burns, lost. (Hint: it was always Jack. Sarah and I were younger, smaller, and therefore harder to hit.)

Oh, happy childhood, the sweet, long, spring evenings, – the sun balanced right on the horizon forever ­­– the fragrance of grass flowers mixed with gunpowder tang and the succulence of singed epidermis. My legs were long like a colt’s, and no one could catch me when I ran. I was just beginning to understand that if Jack’s hand brushed mine as he hurled a lit double happy at my cheek… well, let’s just say that a terror of facial burns and a lost eye wasn’t the only thing that sent a swarm of butterflies into my belly.

This is what it felt like to be truly free.

To my infinite regret, in 1993 New Zealand banned double happies, and their cousins, tom thumbs. In 1994 we banned rockets. Whereas once our families would thrust handfuls of change at us and tell us to toddle off to the ice-cream shop to purchase pyrotechnics (and no, I am not kidding) since 2006 you have to be 18 to buy any kind of firework, and even then you can only get them for four days before the actual event. When enterprising youth learned to construct ‘sparkler bombs’ the sale of sparklers was banned unless as part of a larger pack, and no more than 50 in those. Currently there’s a groundswell to totally ban fireworks of all kinds, which our government calls “inevitable.

In most ways the 21st century is the best time to be alive that has ever existed. Only, to our infinite loss, not in its determination to keep explosives out of the hands of small children.

Oh, and the beer?

beer in glass.jpg

It had a hoppy first bite, with an aftertaste of burnt caramel popcorn. The label says, an “intense spicy grapefruit and citrus nose.” See, this is why I suck at beer tasting. There is no citrus, only Zuul caramel. Overall it was okay. Kind of bland. Sunshine Brewery call it “a broad English malt palate,” but it registers to me as meh. Would not buy again.

Would buy double happies again. Over and over. But the joy of fireworks, like youth, was frangible, and now it is gone. But all my limbs remain intact. And that’s always a win.



¹ In Britain there’s another tradition which sadly didn’t ever take off in New Zealand, where bright-eyed chattering younglings make a roughly human-shaped figure out of straw, dress him in old clothes, and wheel him from house to house soliciting ready cash. Once darkness falls they find a suitable empty lot and burn Guy Fawkes in effigy. Ah, youthful innocence.

We shall burn him and pretend he is alive! Huzzah!


² Given the origins of Guy Fawkes, it will not surprise you that the Catherine Wheel is named after Catherine of Alexander, who was sentenced to ‘the wheel.

“Firstly, the delinquent is placed belly down, bound hands and feet outstretched to a board, and thus dragged by a horse to the place of execution. The wheel is then slammed two times on each arm, one blow above the elbow, the other below. Then, each leg gets the same treatment, above and below the knees. The final ninth blow is given at the middle of the spine, so that it breaks. Then, the broken body is woven onto the wheel (i.e. between the spokes), and the wheel is then hammered onto a pole, which is then fastened upright, its other end in the ground. The criminal is then to be left dying “afloat” on the wheel, and be left to rot.”

Good stuff. (Seriously, is it any surprise I write grimdark?)

Spoiler alert: she didn’t actually go on the wheel; it went boom in a shower of sparks before they could tie her to it. Hence, the Catherine Wheel.

at the execution of peter stump
Breaking on the wheel

³ When I was a child I thought as a child, and was a dickhead. I destroyed fellow beings for nothing more than my amusement. This was wrong, and I regret it deeply. Now I carefully place all spiders outside, or welcome them into my home as free-range mosquito destroyers. I no longer kill defenseless creatures, I swear. Except cockroaches. Cockroaches are even worse than politicians. Just.

3 thoughts on “First degree burns and the rack

  1. Surprisingly educational in all sorts of directions. 🙂 Fireworks have always been pretty tightly regulated here – you couldn’t even buy fireworks in Minnesota when I was a kid, so people had to across state borders to do so. Now you can buy some things here – I’m not even sure what, exactly. Definitely Roman candles and firecrackers, but I’m not sure what else.

      1. It depends. If it’s horribly hot and humid out, then I have the air on and the windows sealed shut and they’re barely aware of it. If the windows are open, yeah, they do great freaked out/concerned. BUT – the neighborhood I moved in 2.5 years ago has a lot fewer college students and teens in it and subsequently a lot fewer stray fireworks.

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