As we sit in our family room watching the movie, Independence Day, the loud blasts of exploding fireworks from all the nearby neighborhoods come through the windows. It is almost eleven o’clock, and the celebrations are still going strong. I can imagine the dads trying to shoot off all the stuff they bought before the magic hour arrives. Looking out the front and back doors, I see a thick haze all around the houses on our street. I’m not sure if it’s the smoke from the fireworks, fog from the creek nearby, or a combination of the two. Since the explosions have been going continuously since seven o’clock, my guess is the fireworks.
In the 1960’s, firework stands weren’t set up until just a few days prior to the 4th. When they began to pop up in area parking lots, my brother and I could sense our dad’s excitement. He was a stern, no-nonsense kind of father, but he loved holidays. Especially July 4th. And I am pretty sure it had everything to do with blowing up stuff.
On the evening of July 3rd, our family would pile into the car to make the trip to the stand closest to our house. It stood in the parking lot outside the Black Hat, a questionable drinking establishment that had a humongous black top hat sign on the building. Great anticipation overtook us as we gazed upon the iconic black and yellow Black Cat looming at the peak of the huge tent. One could only guess what sort of treasure waited inside for eager children and their pyromaniac fathers to discover.
Dad’s list always included several gross (yes, that’s 144 each) bottle rockets, a dozen or so 100 count firecracker packs, several fountains, a couple boxes of sparklers, several packs of whizzers, a couple boxes of black snakes, and a bunch of smoke bombs. The punks (the things you light the fuses with) were free back then, and dad made sure to have plenty.
As soon as we got in the car to go home, we were relentlessly begging our dad to let us shoot some stuff. Thankfully, he didn’t let us because we would have gone through the entire paper grocery sack in one night. No, he made us save it all for the next day. Sleep didn’t come easily for us that night, no sir. All we could think about were those glorious fireworks.
There was a rule in our household regarding fireworks. We had to wait until at least 9am to start blowing off anything that made a lot of noise. Well, gee, that included just about everything in our sack. So we had to settle for burning those black snake tablets. They were fun for a short while, but became a little boring pretty quick. And they stunk. I wonder what sort of permanent lung damage came from hanging our heads over the curling black ash, the fumes swirling into our noses. Anything that leaves permanent black residue on concrete can’t be good for you to inhale. We would light a few smoke bombs, too. They were fun to light and roll down the street. Twisting the fuses of two or three different colors resulted in a multicolored wave of sulfur-laden fog. Smoke bombs lasted a long time, too. It seems that the ones sold today burn out after only a few seconds.
When nine o’clock finally rolled around, we pulled out the good stuff. Until we were a little older dad wouldn’t let us light firecrackers without him watching. He always read (still does) the newspaper from front to back, word for word. Getting him out of the house to supervise our firecracker shooting at newspaper time was no easy task. I suppose he got sick of us whining and would give up. Out he came carrying his folding lawn chair with the green and white webbing. As he set it up midway down the driveway we were instructed to take our firecrackers to the end of the driveway to light them. One at a time. When we got older and didn’t have to be watched, we would twist the fuses of several together and light them. Or if we got really bored, we would light up a whole pack. Then we would realize what a waste that was and not do that again.
Of course, the boys found ways to make firecrackers more exciting. Plastic green Army men would come out of the toy box and become victim to the boys’ deranged schemes. They would shout with delight as the Army men’s heads were blown off, their bodies melted, or were completely obliterated. Anthills were another experiment. The boys found that a firecracker shoved down into the anthill and lit would blow a big hole in the ground, ants scurrying with panic afterward.
July 4th evenings were spent with mom’s side of the family. The ice cream maker, a huge blackberry cobbler, lawn chairs, and our fireworks bag would be loaded into the car for the drive to our aunt’s house in Carthage. After feasting on grilled hot dogs, all of the cousins would shoot off some more daytime fireworks. Whizzers were the sort of firework that could be daytime or nighttime. The whizzers were always fun, but they were kind of dangerous. One never knew which direction they would go, and more than once an aunt or grandma had one land in her teased bouffant heavily sprayed with Aqua Net. It’s a wonder that no one’s hair was set on fire.
Once it got dark enough, dad would proudly bring out his bulk load of bottle rockets and his trusty glass Pepsi bottle. Soda didn’t come in plastic two litre bottles back then. For some foolish reason, everyone sat their lawn chairs in a circle, with the launcher in the middle. On one particular July 4th, we were nearing the eleven o’clock hour when all fireworks must cease. Dad still had a couple gross bottle rockets left. Duh, we were allowed to only light one at a time! Since there was no wasting of money in our family, the bottle rockets would have to be shot off before we went home. He and the uncles got the bright idea to twist as many as possible of the fuses together in one whole gross, then light ’em. Mind you, the circle of aunts, mothers, grandmas, and grandpas was still there, patiently waiting for the finale. Dad and the uncles worked on those fuses, and when satisfied, tried to stick the bottle rockets into the Pepsi bottle. Only they didn’t fit. Too many of them. So one uncle ran to his garage to get something with a wider opening. The bottle rockets were shoved into the container and lit. Dad and the uncles ran, to the outside of the circle, holding their breath. One by one, the bottle rockets lit up and flew out of the container, going in all directions. They whizzed sideways, up into the air, down to the ground, every which way. Everyone in the circle jumped out of their chairs and ran for cover. Lawn chairs turned over, aunts tripped over them, grandmas ran, children cheered with delight at the sight and the sound of the crazy bottle rockets. When the last one had exploded and the wives had recovered enough to start yelling at their husbands for doing something so stupid, several arguments ensued. It was the dumbest thing I had seen my dad do up until that point. But it was hilariously fun, and I will remember that July 4th forever.
There were a couple of July 4th celebrations that took place at our house. Probably the biggest reason for that was the “big” fireworks display at the local drive-in. We could set up lawn chairs in our back yard and have an unobstructed view of each and every explosion. Since we didn’t have anything else to compare it to, we thought our drive-in’s fireworks display was really something special. Today’s families would be disappointed and bored with it though. The fireworks were shot up one at a time, and very slowly. Whoever was lighting them took at least three or so minutes between each firework. There was no computer program, music, or anything else thrilling about it.
The display began with a big “BOOM!!!” We would drop whatever it was we were doing and run to the line of lawn chairs already set up out back. Ooohs and ahhhhs followed each exploding sparkly starburst. Everyone dreaded the final “BOOM!!!” signaling the end of the display.
The morning after each July 4th, two very sad children in our house got out our Radio Flyer wagon and began walking around the block, looking for the ever-possible unused firework. Our hearts full of hope, we would return home to examine each blown up, burnt, shredded piece of leftover firework. Our parents would burst our bubble immediately, and tell us to throw that junk away. Alas, with a big sigh, we would drag our little red wagon out to the garbage can at the alley and, one by one, tenderly toss each lifeless firework away.
As it always is with children, something new comes along to occupy their minds. I’m sure it wasn’t long before we recovered and began resuming regular summertime play. Baseball, swimming, and bike riding would very quickly ease our broken hearts, and July 4th would soon become a distant memory. After all, Christmas was only a few months away!