Friday, July 4, 2008


The great thing was to do it yourself — just the nudge of a lighted punk to a fuse, a small commitment that seemed such an insignificant act, and yet the result was so decisive and visible…the sudden puff of a colored ball emerging from the long tube of a Roman candle, the quick rush and fading hiss of a rocket, the popping busyness of lawn fountains that smoked and sputtered and sent the family cat scurrying under the upstairs bed. Anyone could do it. Even "the snake in the grass," that curious pellet that elongated and convoluted into a length of gray black ash, had its quality of mystery. Whoever lit it suddenly had that extraordinary alchemist's gift of turning an inert object into something else.

And fireworks provided a sort of equalizer, especially for those kids who were not good at sports, and were taken last on the pickup teams, and knew they were doomed to spend most of the long summer afternoons in the far reaches of right field when they were not stepping up to the plate and striking out. They too on the Fourth of July had the capacity to create something just as satisfactory as a ball caught up against the fence, or a base hit — and make a big racket about it besides…with only the requirement of nerve enough to reach forward with the punk to the brightly papered device on the lawn and touch it to the fuse to set the thing off.

I always thought it was the best day of the year. It was in the middle of the summer, to begin with, and when you got up in the morning someone would almost surely say, as they did in those times, that it was going to be a "true Fourth of July scorcher." School had been out long enough so that one was conditioned for the great day. One's feet were already leather-hard so that striding barefoot across a gravel driveway could be done without wincing, and yet not so insensitive as to be unable to feel against one's soles the luxurious wet wash of a dew-soaked lawn in the early morning. Of course, the best thing about the day was the anticipation of the fireworks — both from the paper bag of one's own assortment, carefully picked from the catalogues, and then after a day's worth of excitement of setting them off, there was always the tradition of getting in the car with the family and going off to the municipal show, or perhaps, a Beach Club's display…the barge out in the harbor, a dark hulk as evening fell, and the heart-pounding excitement of seeing the first glow of a flare out there across the water and knowing that the first shell was about to soar up into the sky.

Christmas was all right, but it was over too quickly, and was almost inevitably fraught with dashed hopes. Rather than the Savage .475 Special rifle (complete with barrel scope) that one had specifically asked for, the "big present" turned out (the heart sank as one noticed the conformation of the package under the Christmas tree) to be a dartboard. Grandmother — one had counted on her — inevitably turned up at the house with a Norwegian sweater she had bought "especially" on a cruise that summer through the fjords.

The Fourth of July had none of these disappointments…unless it rained, which I do not ever remember happening until fireworks were banned and when it did not make any difference. The day was always bright.

A big part of it when I was growing up were what rightfully became the bane of the fireworks industry — the cherry bombs and silver salutes. They were the first objects, after a scout knife, matches, and one's first BB-gun, that a youngster was truly lectured about — vociferously, the admonishing tone, the dire warnings about what the cherry bomb could do to fingers or eyes. I can remember the helter-skelter flight after nervously lighting my first cherry bomb off a stick of punk, peering around the corner of the tree at the steam-like smoke in the grass, and starting at the violent report.

There were various accessories that could be used with a cherry bomb. I remember an iron device like a football kicking-tee on which one blanced a tennis ball; when the cherry bomb went off underneath, it knocked the ball straight up, far above the elm trees and the roof tops, finally just a speck in the sky; the great thing was to circle under the ball with a baseball glove as it began to rematerialize; there was time enough to construct an entire mental scenario — the last out of the World Series, a "loud" foul as they used to say, and a lot depended on its being caught because the bases were loaded, and there was the business of waving everyone off that responsibility, shouting out to one's five-year-old sister, standing by on the lawn, wide-eyed, with a lollipop in her mouth, "I've got it! I've got it!"

There were other uses for the cherry bomb that I heard about among school chums but never had the nerve to try: with its lacquered and thus waterproof fuse, the cherry bomb was a favorite for lighting and flushing down a toilet at school to see what would happen; the inevitable was a pipe bursting a floor or two below with devastating effect, particularly if a class happened to be in session. Fortunately, the bulk of those devices were around in the mid summer when schools were not in session. It was obviously not an an experiment one wanted to try in one's own house.
On the Fourth, there were other, more refined items that also utilized a sharp bang. One of my favorites was the SOS Ship — a squat, cardboard ocean liner, about five inches long, with people painted standing along the rail; belowdecks their faces peered out of round portholes; it was a craft quite suitable for launching in a pond or a swimming pool; it had a single funnel with a fuse sticking out of the top which, when lit, caused (according to the catalogue) "A Shrill Siren Whistle Followed by Several Loud Reports Ending in Complete Destruction of Ship." For a young boy, there was something agreeably satanic to hold the destiny of these painted people in his hand and to launch them on their last journey — one could see their immobile passive faces staring imperturbably out of the portholes as the liner bobbed out into the pool while above them the ship's funnel began to send out its last despairing shriek.

There was a whole series of self-destruct items — a "Gothic Castle," among them and perhaps the most bizarre — "A Wild Elephant — A Ferocious Beast That Belches Fire, Goes Mad and Destroys Itself!" The prices were within a youngster's fiduciary parameters.

For example, for five dollasrs in 1935, from the American Fireworks Distributing Co. in Franklin's Park, a suburb of Chicago, one could order a "Children's Assortment," which included four boxes of sparklers, twelve Python Black Snakes, twelve pounds of various-sized firecrackers, a Catherine Wheel, firepots, and Roman candles — a total of fifty-six listed items!

What one chose was carefully culled from brightly colored pamphlets printed on cheap straw-colored paper with illustrations that could hold the attention of a boy for the better part of a day. Once again, they were at least as exciting as those that arrived in the weeks before Christmas. The Christmas catalogues were geared for adults and they seemed to emphasize kitchen appliances and chinaware, all at enormous expense, whereas the items in the Fourth of July catalogues were not only mostly within one's own means but they were absolutely consistent and to the point: everything in there was calculated to terrify mothers.

- From "Fireworks: A History And Celebration" by George Plimpton, which was published in 1984. [Plimpton holds the lifetime ceremonial title of New York City's Fireworks Commissioner.]

That excerpt from his book can be found on the PBS page for "Boomtown", an episode of 'P.O.V.' which was a look at the Native Americans of Washington State and how they feel about the Fourth Of July and their place in America.... even when they make most of their living from selling fireworks.

Toby OB

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