Rubin: Human Firecracker finds his family – and peace

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

In honor of his newfound family Saturday, John Fletcher will not blow himself up.

For 17 years, he performed as Ghengis John the Human Firecracker, attaching as many as 16,280 firecrackers to his body and setting them off.

For twice that long, he has searched for his roots, trying to discover who he was born to be.

Now he knows. Now he has an Aunt Mary, his birth mother’s sister, who said, “Johnny, I waited 50 years for you to come home. Please don’t do that again.”

Truth is, the 53-year-old Fletcher was already leery of Ghengis John, he of the slightly misspelled name and ringing ears. His last show, at a motorcycle rally in 2014, left him with a concussion and a brief blackout on the drive home.

But the fireworks were a flickering expression of joy and a way to feel like he belonged in a chilly world. Now he’s incandescent every day, awash in the acceptance and affection of more than 120 assorted relatives who will show up along the riverfront in St. Clair where he will say thank you in the best way he knows:

Wearing makeup and rocking Alice Cooper songs as the lead vocalist in a tribute band.

6 p.m., Palmer Park. Planet D opens, Malice Cooper follows, “without any of the really macabre stuff so it’ll be okay for kids.” Public welcome, no charge; it’s a true labor of love.

St. Clair, 10 miles south of Sarnia, is where Fletcher, his older sister and his kid brother were born.

It’s where the children were taken from their parents for what extended-family lore insists were trivial reasons: their mother worked, and an inattentive babysitter once let the daughter escape the front yard and wander into the street.

Maybe there was more to it, but what’s indisputable is that Melina, almost 3; John, 2; and David, 9 months, were whisked to Wayne County, placed in foster care, and adopted into three scattered families.

The world being an absurdly tiny place sometimes, it turned out that Fletcher met both of them over the years without knowing it.

What he did know was that “I wanted to find where I came from. I wanted to know who I was looking at in the mirror every day.”

Like father, like sons

Unraveling his past was a frustrating and expensive process that involved countless hours on the Internet, several useless private detectives and one lawsuit.

He first connected in August with Melina Stanny, raised in South Lyon and now living in Livonia. Fletcher sometimes makes and sells what might best be described as rectangular leather dream-catchers, and seven years ago, she bought a pair from him for $20 at a craft show.

Then in September, he spoke on the phone for the first time – for five hours – with David Kelso, raised in Roseville and now living in St. Clair. Four decades ago, they had played together when their adoptive families happened to rent sites at the same campground.

Except for the tattoos and the earring, Fletcher looks like their dad, David Murray, who died of cancer in 2009, decades after the passing of their mother. Father and son each took up the accordion and developed a taste for cups of sugar with just enough coffee to make them legitimate.

Kelso is a machinist and a hunter, like Murray, and is told he has his father’s eyes. His sister has a daughter “who could pass as my Mini-Me,” he says, and then he laughs. “Poor kid.”

Finally, living together

The three of them are doing a lot of laughing together, and a lot of long-suppressed bonding.

Two hours after he first dialed Stanny, says Fletcher, she pulled into his driveway in Pinckney. But he doesn’t live there anymore:

He has since quit his job at a gravel pit, taken another as a cook in Algonac, and moved in with Kelso and his wife.

“He gets super-excited over things. I don’t get as worked up,” Kelso says, but it’s still been a smooth transition with the brother he didn’t even know he had.

Fletcher has begun the process of changing his last name to Murray, the one he was born with. Having parachuted into large families on both sides, he concedes that “I’m still working on keeping the names straight.”

He does a lot of joyful crying and has curbed some of the reckless behavior of his past. The Human Firecracker wasn’t trying to die, he says, but he couldn’t list a lot of reasons to live.

Now he can, by the dozens, and he has some advice for people on the same sort of quest.

Stick with it, he says, because the truth is out there. And be careful with matches.