Coopersville— Performing at a biker rally Saturday, a wisp of a man wrapped himself with 10,500 firecrackers and prepared to light the fuse.
John Fletcher, 51, injured numerous times during such stunts, vowed this would be his last.
Then again, it may not be.
He has threatened to retire more than the Rolling Stones, saying he would hang up his firecracker suit for nine years. But he always comes back.
The man can’t seem to stop blowing himself up.
“You have to be born that way,” he said. “I guess I’m a little nuts.”
Ghengis (sic) John the Human Firecracker has performed 63 times at everything from birthday and graduation parties to county fairs and haunted houses.
Over 16 years, he has blasted 600,000 firecrackers off his body. The most at one time was 16,280.
He has been bruised and burned, fractured his ribs 17 times and once was knocked unconscious.
After a performance in 2007, he was being interviewed by a radio reporter when he looked down to see his pants on fire.
“He’s getting too old,” said Sharon Warner, a longtime friend from Pinckney. “I’ve been telling him that a long time.”
Warner and other friends described Fletcher as a hambone who tends to use hyperbole to spur interest in his performances.
At the Bike Fest on the Grand in Coopersville, west of Grand Rapids, he told revelers he was from the Michigan community of Hell and his performance would set a Guinness World Record.
“I’m going to bring a little Hell to west Michigan,” he promised.
He actually lives in Pinckney, and Guinness, which has turned him down numerous times, doesn’t have a category for most fireworks blasted from one’s body.
But Fletcher knows a good shtick of dynamite when he sees it.
He never gets paid, instead asking audiences to donate to various charities.
What possesses someone to blow himself up?
Fletcher, a scale operator at a Pinckney gravel pit, said he likes helping the needy.
He also likes the attention.
“I got a little bit of ‘Hey, look at me,’ ” he said.
The adopted son of a General Motors electrician, he loved firecrackers as a kid, once allowing one to explode in his hand to see what it felt like: It stung.
A fan of macabre rocker Alice Cooper, Fletcher was a middling musician in 1998 who performed with stage props like guillotines and electric chairs.
He decided fireworks would be even more eye-catching. Strapping 100 to his body, he played bass guitar as they exploded.
He added more and more, and eventually began performing separately from the band.
“Nobody looked at me like ‘Oh, God, you’re a whack job,’ ” he said.
'This is it. I'm all done'
Fletcher, who sings in a Cooper tribute band, looks like a musician. He’s skeletal skinny with tattoos, long hair, an earring and silver necklace.
At the biker rally, he wore all black — T-shirt, jeans, head scarf, do-rag and bowler — and walked around with a silver-handled cane like the one used by Barnabas Collins, the vampire of “Dark Shadows.”
Asked why he needed the cane, the onetime alcoholic and drug addict described a litany of health woes: arthritis in both arms, 15 tumors in his right knee, three brushes with death.
“This is it. I’m all done,” he said about his upcoming finale. “I’m 51. It’s time to hang up the ol’ firecracker suit.”
When the rally emcee mentioned Fletcher’s name, however, his infirmities seemed to disappear.
He sprinted to the stage, leaped upon it and began tossing Ghengis John “Red White and Bruised” T-shirts to the crowd.
Many bikers recognized Fletcher from TV interviews promoting the event.
“Are you the guy who blows himself up?” asked Mary Bigelow of Spring Lake, calling over her son. “Hunter, here’s the dude.”
Fletcher went through his regular spiel with kids, saying he was a trained professional and the youngster shouldn’t try to copy his stunt at home.
He told Hunter to keep up his studies, always listen to his mom and never allow anyone to tell him he can’t accomplish whatever he sets out to do in life.
It wasn’t until Fletcher mentioned something else that the 12-year-old’s eyes lit up.
“Can I get a shirt?” the youngster asked.
Before the performance, Fletcher struggled to stay calm, taking several long walks through the campground.
At one point, he jumped onto a picnic table, spied a Bud Light can, kicked it as hard as he could, hopped off the table and skittered away into the darkness.
“My butterflies have turned into vampire bats,” he said.
Finally, after a bikini contest, where some contestants wore less than a bikini, it was show time.
Fletcher mounted a table in front of the stage, quickly followed by a drunk woman who began twerking with him to the loud music. A second woman tried to join them but couldn’t stay upright.
The women weren’t part of the act.
Fletcher thanked the crowd of 300 for making him feel so welcome but several onlookers grew impatient.
“Shut up and burn,” one yelled.
Standing nearby were four Crockery Township firefighters, two clutching fire extinguishers.
Lighting the fire
Helped by his nephew, Alan Marshall, Fletcher slipped on his firecracker suit, which consisted of four leather sheets hung over his stomach, back and both outstretched arms.
It took two weeks and $140 to make the suit, gluing 42-inch-long strands of firecrackers to the sheets.
He was protected by plastic safety glasses and a vest of compressed leather. He forgot to wear a cup.
“If you want to light a ... guy on fire, come on down,” said the emcee.
After a volunteer lit the wick, a flame slowly climbed Fletcher’s body. He tilted his face upward and tried to hold his breath.
The flame ignited a series of explosions that surrounded Fletcher. Thick smoke billowed from him, as if he was on fire.
He grimaced as pieces of firecrackers struck him in the face. Other remnants reached the crowd, which stood 30 feet away.
“It’s like a hundred midgets hitting you with baseball bats,” he had said beforehand.
Toward the end of the 45-second spectacle, Fletcher’s knees buckled and he dramatically wobbled back and forth as if he would fall.
He steadied himself and, after the last pop, threw off the tattered suit with a flourish and jumped off the stage.
He then collapsed to the ground.
Fletcher was covered with black powder from head to toe as the EMTs hovered over him, checking his vitals.
He gingerly stood and, hanging on Marshall, limped over to a picnic table. He clutched his stomach and coughed weakly. His nose was bleeding.
“This is why you never do this at home,” he said.
“This is why you never do it,” said an EMT.