I love fireworks. The pretty kind that make colors in the night sky.
But once, I loved blowing things up. It was all about the explosion. Sad but true.
My first memories of fireworks are from when I was very small. In the back yard of our home in Terra Linda, California. 531 Wisteria Way, for the curious. We set off fireworks for the 4th of July right there in the back yard. My dad held the Roman Candles in his hand and swooshed them through the air to fling the flaming balls even higher into the sky. We had sparklers we could use to draw on the night air. And ‘worms’ or ‘snakes’, little black pellets that emiited a lot of smoke when lit and long charcoaly snakes of ash! Smoke bombs! Fountains and rockets. Fire plus gunpowder equalled magic. I loved the smell of Fourth of July.
Next memory. Menlo Park. California. My cousins place. My cousins were substantially wealthier than we were, with a very large home, an orchard, and an immense ‘yard’ near their pool compound. When we went there for the fourth, there were fireworks in their back yard with all our extended family gathered for the occasion. However, we were not the ones lighting the fuses. Hired pyrotecnic experts did that. So, although these fireworks were more spectacular to watch, I very much missed the ‘hands on’ aspect of blowing things up. I remember I asked my mother if it meant that we could have ‘real’ fireworks when we went home afterwards. She had to tell me, No. Not that year.
But life always brings more opportunities.
We moved to Alaska. We bought some property there. Some trees had to come down. Chainsaw or axe work to take down the tops. But then, the stumps and roots had to come up. And that was when I discovered dynamite! I watched my Dad work his magic, using his pocket knife to cut through the fat red waxy sticks. Doesn’t take much. A quarter stick will blast a stump, with a little shiny blasting cap pushed in. Later, my dad mixed up his own explosive from fertilizer. It was not as predictable, and one of our efforts had dirt raining down on the tin roof of our log house. Very satisfying.
And in Alaska, we could buy fireworks every fourth of July from the local fireworks stands and set them off in our back yard. My brothers and I saved all our pocket money for weeks for those days in late June and early July. We bought from the Lambert boys’ stand. Their wares were definitely not ‘safe and sane’. Rockets and fountains, yes, but also cherry bombs and m-80’s. Strings of Black Cats and Ladyfingers. We put them under tin cans, heaped dirt and rocks on top, lit the fuse and ran! Ka-BOOM! Dirt flying, rocks falling. Very satisfying. 20 Ball Roman Candles. We bought them in July, and set some off for the Fourth, but saved a lot for the deep black nights of Alaskan winter when they showed so well against the sky.
Ah, but the best was yet to come.
I lived in Fairbanks, very close to several military bases. There was a tremendous amount of military surplus stuff around. Parkas, army canvas mukluks, ammunition boxes that were great for storing all sorts of stuff, and the ubiquitous C-rations. C-rations were the forerunners of MRE’s or meals ready to eat, I suppose. Lots of people bought them to use on hunting trips. So, one day, while way back in the woods, I came across a couple of cardboard boxes and I thought at first I had stumbled on a cache of C-rations. But they were just dumped there, the boxes shoved under some bushes beside a rabbit trail. It was very peculiar, and when I opened the boxes . . . WOW. There was one cardboard box that held six or eight smaller cardboard boxes. Each was FULL of m-80’s. But they didn’t look like 4th of July M-80’s. These were just cardboard colored, not red or blue at all. Hundreds of M-80’s!
And the next cardboard box was even better! Packed into individual compartments were some things that looked like cardboard tubes, sealed at the ends, with a thing you could pull.
Practice hand grenades. No shrapnel, just explosive as all get out!
(From the vantage of time, I suspect that they had been stolen from the military base. And then, for some reason, dumped in the woods.)
I took my treasure home.
My parents let me keep them.
Yes. I know.
But this was a different time and a different place. And I DID share them with my brothers. Actually, we hoarded them like misers,and carefully rationed ourselves. We learned that you could bend down a young tree, fix a practice handgrenade into the top branches, and then let go of the tree as the pin was pulled, launching the grenade high into the air for the explosion.
We did get in trouble once. We strung a trip wire attached to a grenade, at a very good distance, across the path that my sister Mary had to take on her way to hang out the laundry. She snagged her foot on it, it went off, the wet laundry went in the dirt and she was outraged with us.
Okay. Let’s not do THAT again. Having an angry big sister in pursuit of us was not fun.
Tossing lit M-80’s into the metal culverts under the gravel road . . . now that was great fun. Lots of echo. Or toss them into the river! Wow. Build a little hill of sand and rocks, put plastic army men on top, light the fuse, run and then whirl to look back. Kaboom!
But no wonderful thing lasts forever. Even though we rationed ourselves, eventually, after a couple of years, we had used them all. All done. The hoard was gone. Never again. And somehow, I had become a teenager, and blowing things up was not as exciting as it had once been.
Many Fourth of July’s have come and gone since then. We’ve had backyard fireworks some years, and on others, taken out Charmante and sat on her deck out on the Sound watching the city displays.
I’m a grown up now. Rational. Sane. Cautious, even. I would never hold an M-80 in my hand while my brother lit it for me to throw. I would never tie a practice hand grenade to a trip wire across a path. I look back now at the things I did in my reckless youth and I am shocked that I paid so little in consequence. Badly stinging fingers from Black Cats that went off sooner than expected. And there was the time I deafened myself for a day or two. I had observed how sometimes a firecracker would fizzle and sizzle instead of exploding. So I thought that if you lit a pile of loose gunpowder from inside salvaged ‘duds’, it would fizzle and sizzle a lot.
No. My little pile of fine gray powder exploded. And it stung my face and arm with the sand blasted off the concrete block I had dumped my gunpowder on and my ears rang for two days.
But you know, that was about the worst of it. My brother got worse the day he tried to get an outdoor fire going using gasoline. Billy scorched his eyebrows off.
But we all survived, with all our fingers and toes and our vision and hearing intact. Dumb luck, I suppose. Or perhaps it was due to all our experimentation.
I am very tame now. I live very safely. I haven’t even bought any fireworks this year, not even the ‘legal’ pipsqueak ones. I may go down to the public display and watch the beautiful pyrotechnics high in the air. Very pretty, but they aren’t real fireworks to me unless mine is the hand holding the punk. More likely I’ll stay home and make sure my dogs are in the basement.
I won’t complain about the kids setting off little firecrackers in the intersection. Or pop bottle rockets shrieking through the night sky to end in a shamefully small ‘pop’. Even as much as I despise Whistling Petes that do nothing but make an awful whistle, I won’t call the cops. Yes, they are dangerous. Kids will get fingers burned and some will get hurt. Some fireworks may start fires this year, despite all the rain we’ve had.
But I was once the kid with the scraggly braids and the jeans with the knees torn out, running with a lit punk and then whirling around to watch my explosion go off. It was a time of straight gravel roads cut through forest and houses spaced many acres apart. A time of endless summer days, of midnight sun nights. Unsupervised kids with fireworks and unleashed dogs and not a car seat belt or bike helmet in sight.
A gloriously dangerous and perhaps stupid time in my life. Nothing I would advocate for my grandkids or for anyone else’s grandkids.
But I wouldn’t trade those dumb and dangerous days for a pile of gold.
Happy Fourth of July, everyone!