Happy Fourth of July to all American friends!
When I was a kid, this was my favorite holiday, next to Halloween. Because we lived outside of town, we could shoot off as many fireworks as we liked. For days before the holiday, my siblings and I scraped bits of our allowances together and visited fireworks stands, thoughtfully shopping so as to make our meager money stretch as far as we could.
A large variety of crackers ensured we’d be active throughout the day. In the morning there were snakes. We carefully lit the black tablet and watched black, ashy coils unfurl in a welter of poisonous-looking greenish smoke. We also bought snakes that glowed a fiery red for use after dark.
You could use a punk to light the fireworks, which the vendors gave free with a purchase, or matches. I preferred the matches. Punks often went out. They looked like incense sticks only with no scent. I would use them until I got disgusted with them and then switch to matches.
Snappers, tiny sacks of powder that exploded when flung hard onto the concrete patio, left a mess of tissue and not much excitement. Better were champagne poppers. You held the plastic bottle with the end pointed away from you or anyone else and pulled the string, releasing a loud bang and a cascade of tiny colored streamers. I liked these because I could take the streamers and decorate my Barbie house with them. We made so many things for our dolls it was only natural.
Smoke bombs were a great favorite. They hissed and spit, their colors wafting over the lawn. It was fun to put two or three different ones together and watch the colors combine in the breeze. Sometimes one would fizzle and sit inert on the gravel driveway; after careful observation, it was concluded that it was a dud. We consigned the poor bomb to the depths of a metal washtub full of water. All dud crackers, the spent remains of sparklers and burnt-out matches and punks went into this washtub, no exceptions.
I don’t remember our parents being out there much with us but the rules were absolute. Always have the tub of water handy. Never EVER hold a cracker in your hand; light it on the ground and get away. Don’t point anything at anyone, especially bottle rockets. If we violated these rules, the fun was over until next year.
Nowadays, kids aren’t allowed to touch anything. We probably courted death every year, but none of us ever got hurt save a burn or two from a hot sparkler, which we quickly learned not to touch. The bottle rockets were usually shot from a soda bottle angled against a pile of gravel. Occasionally we held the stick when Mom wasn’t looking, but I didn’t like that because it was too scary and sometimes left a pink splinter when it zoomed out of my hand.
Thunder Bombs or Black Cats made a deafening noise. I always loved to light a string of them and let them all go off at once, so I got a packet just for that. We liked better to light them one at a time.
We did demolition: little piles of gravel in a cone shape with a cracker in the top like a stick of dynamite. Crouch over it, excitement fluttering in the chest, and touch the flaming match to the fuse. It sparks, hissing and crackling. Scramble up and away, always with the terrible fear that one might slip and fall and remain in dangerous proximity to the impending explosion or running, miss it. When far enough away, the breath held while the little fuse burns itself out. Finally, the crack and boom of the tiny blast, gravel scattering everywhere, up and out. A dance of laughter and elation, and back to the driveway to start again.
As the day wore on, lunchtime came. We retreated to the cool house to eat. There was always a lull in the afternoon. Sometimes we had guests who usually arrived close to evening. In the summer it usually didn’t get dark until nine o’clock. My parents’ friends would bring their kids and we would run around outside, stuffing ourselves with hot dogs, potato salad and other goodies. Homemade ice cream followed. Someone would have to turn the crank, and another sit on the top of the freezer because the ice cream container liked to migrate up as the crank turned. A folded pad of newspaper served to shield shorts-clad bottoms from the ice packed around the container.
My mother often made a juice and ginger ale punch. It tasted orangey and fizzy and delicious. One time someone brought beer, and my dad let me taste a tiny sip. It was terribly bitter and the grownups laughed at the face I made. I’m still not a fan of beer, although I like a good dark ale now and then.
I would break out the parachutes, cardboard tubes with a plastic bottom that shot a wadded-up missile into the air. It unfurled as it fell into a tiny pink or yellow parachute with a little ball of sawdust as a weight. Though they made sparks, I shot them during the day so I could find the parachute after they were spent and play with it later, prolonging the holiday.
When evening fell, fireflies made their own fireworks around the yard. They flashed greenish-white in the deep shadows over the rose beds close to the house. Out came the sparklers, long metal sticks coated with combustible solids. They looked like long gray punks. A match flame held to the tip and they burst into a shower of light. The sparks hurt like hell if they fell on skin, so we were careful to keep them at arms’ length as we waved them around in the dusk.
Flowers spun on the ground with a buzzing hum and changed from pink to yellow to green. They were so energetic! We lit Catherine wheels. We hung mysterious flat packets on the branch of a tree that whirled madly and dropped a paper lantern that could be kept (unless it caught on fire). Cone fountains sparkled orange and white on the driveway.
Dark came and time for the Roman candles. This was the only firework I held in my hand. I would light the fuse and point it up into the sky, angled slightly. I could feel the thumping burst in my palm as the ball moved up through the tube. It arced up into the sky but I scarcely saw it, absorbed as I was in the sense of power pulsing in the flimsy tube. If I had kids now, there’s no way I would let them do that. Thinking about what might have happened if the candle blew up makes me shudder. It never did, though.
The night wore on and finally it was time for the big guns, the large rockets. Again the soda bottle came out, this time jammed into a shallow hole in the ground some distance from the house. My father and I usually lit these. The guests would sit on lawn chairs with their littlest kids drowsing on their laps, oohing and ahhing over the chrysanthemum bursts and chasers and waterfalls. After the last one had gone, they cheerfully packed up their chairs and leftovers and drove away in a flurry of thanks and good nights. Time for bed for us.
The next day we always had to pick up our trash, bottle rocket sticks, torn paper, stray parachutes and dud firecrackers. We played Fourth of July for days afterwards with rocks and the stems of weeds standing in for actual fireworks. For some reason it usually rained the day after the Fourth. My mother told us the fireworks shook up the clouds. We liked that. We controlled the weather!
The significance of the holiday was lost on us. We never really thought about the fact that we were celebrating our freedom from British rule, that without a posse of brave and ragtag soldiers we still would have been oppressed and controlled by another country. Our history is far removed from most of us and we feel entitled to the freedoms that were paid for with blood and pain, frostbite and starvation. A fitting legacy to this would not be fireworks, but a continued search for peace among all men, regardless of race or creed. We don’t need any more wars.
Start in your community. Promote tolerance and understanding. Get to know your neighbor, your enemy. Stand in his shoes and see what he sees. You might be surprised to find you’re not so different after all.