July 1, 2011
It’s not the Fourth of July yet, but already people in my neighborhood are setting off fireworks, because nothing goes better with hot, dry weather than open flames and explosions. Actually, to my way of thinking, fireworks are what you go to your local riverfront or other major body of water park to see, or that the Queen of England uses to celebrate her birthday. Fireworks are launched in carefully choreographed displays by pyrotechnic experts working at sophisticated keyboards at least five hundred feet away from the launch site. The things you place on a brick or piece of plywood in your backyard and run away from once the fuse is lit are firecrackers. Fireworks light up the night sky like glorious giant anemones. Firecrackers leave scorch marks and little bits of paper all over your yard. Fireworks cost hundreds of dollars and are made from carefully selected and refined chemicals. You can buy a gross of bottle rockets, which are mostly made from recycled Chinese newspapers, for a dollar. And while fireworks are only available from specialized producers there are two places you can buy firecrackers. At any time of the year you can drive down to the state line. Whenever I return home from an out of state trip it always warms the cockles of wherever my cockles are located to see the rolling green hills, the big Tennessee Welcomes You! sign, and, dwarfing all of that, a giant billboard that says, FIREWORKS! That’s why I prefer to fly, but that’s another story.
Near the state line you’ll find warehouse stores with names like Nervous Willie’s and Sad Sam’s Sack where you’ll find firecrackers and other necessities, like baseball caps that say, "It’s not a bald spot–it’s a solar panel for a sex machine", shot glasses, and flannel shirts, because nothing goes better with summer weather than flannel. But in mid-summer you only need to drive as far as the county line where you’ll find nameless tents with the same firecrackers, and guys with names like One-Eyed Jim or Billy Three-Fingers at the outdoor cash registers.
As a kid I love firecrackers. I loved the variety. My friends and I would take what little money we had and we’d buy snakes, those little black plugs that grow into curling strings of ash when lit. Then there were sparklers, because nothing goes better with small children than a metal stick that shoots sparks. We also bought bottle rockets and would launch them from metal tubes. We experimented with them, twisting the fuses together to launch two, three, four, sometimes even five at once, until the time we managed to string eleven together in a bunch and the bottle rockets went in every direction but up. We didn’t experiment with bottle rockets any more after that but instead peeled open black cats, the little firecrackers that are usually strung together and will go off in rapid succession like a machine gun. We took the gunpowder from inside the black cats and made trails of it across the driveway. In Bugs Bunny cartoons whenever a trail of gunpowder is lit it burns along slowly making a quiet hissing sound. We learned never to trust Bugs Bunny when, having lit one end of the gunpowder trail with a magnifying glass, it sparked and popped across the driveway leaving a big black streak that my parents wondered about for years. There was also that one kid down the street who’d manage to get his hands on cherry bombs and, later on, M-80’s, which are great if all you want is a really loud explosion, or if you need to destroy a small shed or rub out Sonny Corleone. There were also stink bombs, but I never could figure out the point of them. They just smelled like sulfur, but I liked the grainy, salty smell of burned gunpowder. And I preferred the more exotic fireworks. Stink bombs, snakes, black cats, and even bottle rockets were fine during the day but I liked the ones that could only be appreciated after dark, like roman candles. Long before I’d had any formal history lessons I understood why Rome burned–because every time someone lit a candle it shot big flaming multi-colored balls into the air. I also liked the big rockets that would whizz into the air and have glittery explosions and leave red wooden sticks all over the neighbors’ yards.
Then there were the even more spectacular fireworks, the ones that looked like cardboard ships or tanks or ferris wheels that would move along while shooting hot flaming balls of death in every direction. The most exciting one, though, was the one that looked like a big pill with wings, like something you’d have to force down Dumbo’s throat if he had distemper. This one had to be placed in just the right way. Positioned correctly it would soar into the air sizzling and sending out a shower of bright orange sparks. Positioned incorrectly it would lie on the ground and spit sparks, or twist around and sometimes fly into the neighbor’s window and explode. One entire side of it was covered with instructions on how to position it, because nothing goes better with darkness and high explosives than complex instructions.