Dan Herford

Receive, juggle, pass

The Dragon Breathes Fire


NOTE:  This one is just for fun.  It’s written from the perspective of a child in a family with several children, but I wrote it.  My children are actually budding into fine storytellers themselves, so I hope to see some of their writing on one blog or another before too long.   I wrote this after my second-oldest’s birthday.   Based on a true story!  (Some of it might not be exactly historical.)

The Dragon Breathes Fire

Papier maché is magical stuff, a goopy and inspiring mixture of newsprint, water, and flour. Add time, imagination, and some decoration, and you’ll find yourself creating all manner of creatures, real and imagined. That joy of creation fueled my Dad to make piñatas for all our birthdays, and mostly they got better with each party.

The first piñata was a simple bear head. He made it as scary as he could so we wouldn’t mind whacking it to pieces. I don’t think we would have hesitated if it was cute, but the ferocious jaws opening wide to chew the kids up added a certain thrill.

The piñatas that followed the bear were increasingly complex – there was even a pirate ship!  All of them were pretty cool, and all of them were special.  The dragon, though, was the hottest piñata of them all.

Have you ever made a piñata? The process goes something like this: You take a balloon, or a collection of balloons, and you cover it with newsprint, and then you put a layer of paper maché over the newsprint, and you let it dry. This gives the basic shape of the thing. As you build up a strong base layer, you are able to add on pretty much anything you want.

So, the dragon started out as a big balloon, something like 16” or more around. After the the big oblong body was strong enough, it grew a head, and the beginning of a tail. My oldest brother made a set of wings, and at the end of phase one the piñata had enough form to be recognizable as a dragon. At least, that seemed to be the consensus of the customers at my Dad’s bike shop, where the dragon hung for almost a year, unfinished.

I don’t know whether it was that long year of hanging out a bike shop, or something else that contributed to the dragon’s unique performance at the party, but a year is a long time for an unfinished piñata to hang out. They get to feel pretty exposed and incomplete. I would understand if some strange complex resulted from that kind of treatment.

Finally, my second oldest brother’s birthday came around, and he spoke up about the dragon.  He wanted to have a party, and he really wanted the dragon to be there. So, my Dad and some of us kids jumped on it. We mixed up batches of flour paste, we ripped newspaper into narrow strips, and we added layer after layer of paper maché to the dragon.

The tail grew longer and spikier. Forelegs and hindlegs sprouted from the body and grew long copper-wire claws. Odd concavities in the body were filled in. A hole was cut, and the goodies put inside, and the hole was patched so you couldn’t tell there had ever been a hole. On and on the process went, until finally the majestic beast was painted black and given sinister red eyes, and left to hang in the garage to await its moment of glory.

The dragon was an imposing sight. The four-foot wingspan of the creature immediately caught your attention. The head was cocked to the side as if screeching out a battle cry, the imagined sound accompanied by a blast of red paper flames. The shining copper claws jutted forward, ready to rend and destroy. This was a beast to be reckoned with.

And then the day came, the happy birth-day, the celebration of another trip around the sun by my brother. I think he was having a great day.

The big party started with pizza with our family and some friends. Three 16-inch pizzas later it was time for the grand finale – the piñata!

My Dad brought the mighty dragon from the garage, its wings spread wide, its red snake-eyes taking in the scene under the tree. Up and over the tree branch went the rope and the dragon was left to hang out and wait its fate while Dad rushed back in to the house. He came back out, smiling, with a coil of rope of some sort in his hand. “We’ll make this a real fire-breather!” he chuckled, as he cut pieces of the rope off and stuck them into the dragon’s mouth, and then I realized that it wasn’t rope – it was a fireworks fuse!

This is all what might properly be put in the category of ‘It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time’. And, it did. Even Mom was smiling.

Dad gathered us around, and jokingly asked if we all remembered ‘9-1-1’. We all smiled and nodded and got our squirt guns ready. Dad pulled out his barbeque lighter and checked to see that it was lighting properly, then he looked around and gave us the final instructions.

“Alright! I’m going to light this thing up and give it a spin, and you guys can fire away with your squirt guns. No squirting until I’m out of the way!”, he said, brandishing the lighter.

Then he lit it up and began lighting the fuses. The first fuse whetted our appetites. We were ready to start soaking the big flying snake. Then the second fuse was going, and the third! The cool thing about the fuses is that they didn’t just burn; they threw off a big spray of sparks. The dragon really looked like it was shooting fire out of it’s mouth. The shape of the mouth even seemed different, as if it were directing the flames. And then Dad lit the last fuse and gave the dragon’s tail a push to get it spinning, and ducked out of the way as we began squirting full blast!

Boy did that dragon spin! At first it just rotated around the rope attachment point, but pretty quick it widened its arc and began flying around in a wider circle! We all jumped back a few steps and kept squirting, laughing as we tried to douse the flames shooting out of the dragon’s mouth.

If we hadn’t really got it up to that point, it was coming clear to even the slowest of us that something was going a bit funny. All our squirting had not put the fire out, but it wasn’t that the piñata was burning up. It was just that the dragon would shoot fire out of his mouth for a few seconds, and then pause and shake it’s head and roar and then it would let loose with another flaming blast. The dragon was alive!

We were all a bit freaked out at this point, and most of us had drained our squirt guns. Not that they were doing anything besides make the dragon mad. Dad’s eyes were big and he looked totally on edge. Shouting at us to stay back, he grabbed the pinata whacking stick and held it up like a baseball bat. The dragon was still tethered to the tree branch above, and it flew around and around, roaring and blasting. Dad timed it as the dragon made a pass, and rushed in and took a tremendous swing at the dragon.

It’s important to note a couple of things right here. The first is that making piñata is a difficult task, and the hardest part is getting good attachment of the support hook to the body of the piñata. That’s a very typical failure location, and a bummer type of failure. What you want with a piñata is a big spray of goodies, with the mangled piñata still hanging from the rope. What you get with a support system failure is a beat-up piñata lying on the ground with all of the goodies still inside. Dad had made improvements, and was feeling pretty good about the support hook, but the proof is in the pudding, or the piñata in this case.

Anyhow, second is that Dad is not a baseball player.  He never was, and it seems likely he never will be. But he sure tried!

Dad rushed forward with the pinata whacking stick raised above his head, with a wild warrior yell pulsing from his throat, and he brought the stick down as hard as he could on the dragon. It would have been a decisive victory, I’m convinced, because he put a lot of power behind that swing. But he missed the body of the dragon entirely, and whacked the rope instead!

The stick went ‘bo-i-i-i-i-ing’ like in the cartoons and the rope vibrated for a few seconds before that support hook pulled right out of the body of the dragon. It just vibrated and then it slipped out and Dad was yelling at the rope dangling there with a bit of bent-up spoke tied to the end. No more dragon.

“Bahhhgh!”, my Dad yelled, and he looked about frantically, the stick back in the ready position and his eyes even wider than before. We all joined him in a huge yell of excitement and terror as we saw the dragon soar up out of reach and then bank hard and come swooping down. If it was freaky while he was tied to the rope, it was double infinity freaky now.

We all hit the ground as the dragon buzzed over us, and we all jumped up and looked for weapons as the dragon gained altitude again. Now squirt guns were being reloaded, and stout sticks were being picked up. Bright boy-eyes scanned the branches overhead, trying to spot the dragon. The war whoops grew in intensity as the dragon circled overhead.

I can’t say that I’ve ever understood how dragons think, especially not the paper maché type that you don’t generally hear much about. I don’t know how he knew, but somehow that dragon knew who the Birthday Boy was.

I can see it still in my mind, playing in slow motion with the funny way it sounds.

“L-l-l-o-o-o-o-o-k-k-k o-o-u-u-t-t !-!-!” someone yelled as the dragon swooped down, it’s gleaming claws outstretched and it’s mouth open in a terrible roar, with fire pouring out. I really don’t know what I did as the dragon dive-bombed us, but when the attack was over I was laying face-down in the grass with my hands over my head.

I stopped screaming as I realized that the dragon was gone, and I lifted my head up and looked around at the rest of the party-goers. It only took me a moment to realize that the Birthday Boy was gone!

Frantic, we all got up and looked to the sky, trying to catch a glimpse of the dragon and my brother. It was my littlest brother who first spotted him. He pointed up to the east and said “Me dragon go bye-bye!”, and we looked to where his finger was pointing and sure enough, there was my brother and the dragon, high above the treetops. We could hear my brother’s yells of fear and defiance, and we could still see the bursts of flame and the puffs of smoke as the dragon responded. We tried to follow, but dragons are pretty quick, and we lost them in the clouds.

My Dad sank to the ground, his head in his hands. “No no no no no no no no no!” he mumbled over and over. My Mom sobbed on Dad’s shoulder. It was a pretty bummed-out party.

That was six months ago. Dad hasn’t made any more piñatas. If he does,  I think he’ll work hard to make sure the support hook is really well attached.  And, I don’t think he’ll make any more dragons.

Piñatas are fun, and paper mache is cool, but it totally ruins the party when your dragon escapes with the Birthday Boy. Lesson learned. At least, I sure hope so. My birthday is next!


  1. Dan,
    Just read your story to the whole fam, and we were all thoroughly entertained!
    I didn’t read them the preface, so they wouldn’t know it was fictional until the dragon takes off with the birthday boy.
    Well done, bro!

  2. Carole Whitlock

    December 8, 2014 at 7:34 am

    Wonderful story. Well done, my son.

  3. Excellent!

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