I believe in America. I love our country and am happy to celebrate Independence Day. Now that that’s out of the way, this story is about how much I hate fireworks. Not because I don’t get the symbolism of the bombs bursting in air, or have something against potato salad, but because for me personally, fireworks have always been short on fuse and long on drama. Either my dogs are jumping fences and running for the hills; or I’m sunburned and hungover trying to find another match. If I could find a deal on a sensory depravation chamber for the big day, I would gladly hold my breath until the last of the little sulphur demons were spent. Here’s a couple tales from my past that explain my aversion to them in a bit more detail …
In 1969, the small East Bay town I grew-up in, housed only about 9,000 people. The Big City just a bridge away, yet still rural enough for a welfare kid like me to run wild. Running into trouble wasn’t hard, especially when trouble came rolling up to you in the form of a smokey black Cadillac. The stranger came to sell us firecrackers out of his trunk. He called it a brick. The mysterious cargo was wrapped in brown paper like the most boring looking Christmas gift, yet nice and properly folded at all corners. A very curious looking package, that tugged at me to open it more than any decoratively wrapped thing could. He peeled back a flap on one end to reveal a stoic Zebra standing alone on the label of each package of 16-crackers.
I want to say the entire thing was worth twenty bucks. I can’t recall. I was nine. My friend, also named David, was fourteen, so he held the cash–probably less than forty bucks worth in small bills. The Police Firework Stand was a summer job David had locked down, largely due to the fact that the officer in charge of the stand was also quite fond of David’s mother. David’s mother was also friends with my mom, and well, that’s how two brats had full control of an official Police firework stand without any adult supervision.
An arsenal of pyrotechnic glory was at my fingertips. All the sparklers, smoke bombs, cones, rockets, and assorted sulphur-belching concoctions a kid could hope for, stacked in perfect rows. All these eye-melting beauties to be transfixed by, and yet, it was what was behind curtain number two–or more like under the spare tire in the scary man’s haunted trunk–which called to us. What the man offered us was more than just some ‘works … these were ‘crackers! Holy crap, we could blow up a pop bottle. Ant hills would tremble. Cats would scurry. Mom’s would smack our backsides and it would probably be worth it. We’d heard stories about kids across the bay who’d had fingers blown off, and those with ears that would never work properly again. All of which should have kept us resigned to simply reading comics under the covers and pinning baseball cards in our spokes for a kick. But instead, we happily placed our vulnerable little mittens on the brick of taboo fireworks.
The plan was to take a $20 from the firework stand’s till, break up the 80-pack brick and sell each pack of 16-firecrackers for a buck. Quadruple our money. Of course pay-back the advance from the cops, and bam, capitalism just that simple.
When the dark Cadillac pulled away, it kicked a bucket of gravel at us, and the dust cloud that appeared and hung for what felt like a bit too long in the sticky hot summer air, formed what might have been a mocking, cackling skull before it faded completely. We had work to do.
Having an older buddy is a quick way to test waters that might otherwise take a few more years to dip one’s toe in. David and his 4-plus years on me, understood more about what we were doing than I did, but I got a sense of the risk we were taking. It was our secret. Soon we’d share this secret with every kid we came in contact with and the whole town would promise not to tell a soul.
When a pimply teen who normally wanted to drive his knuckles into my back until I relented my orange juice bar to him on the Junior High playground, asked what the loudest, best bang for his buck might be, we’d point to the Block Party Extravaganza assortment; or the Colossal Cone Party package; give’m one of everything. But after the normal sale was had, all we had to do was just open the untucked tail of our shirt and give’m a peek at that Zebra, nonchalantly poking its snout out of the pocket of our bluejeans. Before long, the secret spread like a windy ditch burn, and we were having a blast.
Halfway through the Brick, we heard the sirens. Firetrucks? Some dope with a wayward sparkler causing a smokey fuss somewhere? That was just part of the friendly fire to be expected on this holiday. Poor fools who didn’t read directions, or thought they could safely toss a smoldering Black Cobra coil bomb in a garbage can filled with the Sunday paper and not expect to scare their neighbor.
The sirens seemed to grow louder with each second. Once we could see the police cars cresting over the hill on East Military where our stand stood, we realized this wasn’t an ambulance or firetruck but our good friend the Lieutenant, coming our way. Then it hit me: the Lieutenant and his backup squad car were simply here to pull off a Blue Angels type of stunt. Slide up to their fireworks stand and maybe pop a cap or two in the air. Drum up some firework sales!
The crowd surrounding our booth dispersed, instead of cheering with excitement. The two patrol cars plowed into the dirt parking lot in front of the stand and sent yet another thunderous cloud of dirt into the already soiled air. I was ecstatic. I didn’t notice David’s eye-popping alternate assessment of the situation, but I couldn’t wait to see what was next. Then suddenly, no one else was around but David and I, and his mom’s secret friend with a badge, running towards us with blue steel flashing and lights in full red, white, and blue mode. Within seconds we were folded up against the canvas tent like common thugs, cuffed and told to quit sniveling while the Lieutenant threw the book at us, thankfully in word only.
Of course, I don’t know if the Lieutenant was in mid-sip with a hot cup of java at Foster’s Freeze when he got the call; or pulling up his britches and cussing Dixie at David’s house; but he wasn’t happy when he showed up. Before I understood what it was we broke, we were busted. My mind popped like an entire brick of them Zebras going off all at once–a mushroom cloud of soupy smoke taking place after the flash, morphing from shrieking skull to a flock of crows dispersing into the approaching near dusk. I cried like a little baby and was sent home without a single sparkler to wave for my efforts. I can’t actually remember how much trouble we got into at home, but I know I never got my hands on another pack of firecrackers for many years to come.
Nine years later, and I’m about to experience my first, true day of independence. Two months after the class of ’78 had its big night, I was ready to set out on my own. Mother was sad to see me go, packing my graduation gift–a leather suitcase plump with fresh underwear-and admonishing me at last to be careful, brush my teeth, call, visit, read my bible, and many other things that didn’t get done often enough.
My 350 Honda carried me out of the Bay Area, en-route to my girlfriend’s 500 acre ranch. Once there, I’d be skinny dipping with her and the half-dozen or more lesbian women who lived there in harmony with the cows, pigs and on occasion, even me. It was truly a magic piece of property in the foothills of Lake County. My first 4th of July as an adult, and I’d come a long way from that naive little kid who had no idea how a box of Zebras could stomp on his parade.
I saw the firework stand on the side of the highway near the ranch, and decided to pull in and browse the array that the little resort town was peddling to its tourists, reminiscing all the way. A lot had changed in the last decade with the latest firework creations. In general, they’d all gone to hell. Nothing with a real bang. Just a lot of flash and very little wham factor. Probably because of kids like me back then that the laws had to change. My generation tested all the fun stuff: the empaling Lawn Darts; the head bashing Clicker Clackers; and the many explosive fireworks that men in mysterious cars seemed to peddle.
Then I met little Pete. Whistling Pete that is. He was a stilted single firework that stood fixed on a plastic red base and simply whistled enough to make dogs howl two counties over, and that was it. A little smoke and some silly, screeching sound. Big deal. But the anonymous looking fellow, backlit in the dusty parking lot, suggested an interesting way to modify it–a way to make the thing fly. My mind went back to that lone shadow of a man in the Caddy all them years ago and figured the Lieutenant wouldn’t like what this man was about to tell me.
Seems you simply tape a popsicle stick to Pete, remove the little red base and stick the thing in a soda bottle. Once lit, it’ll shoot a hundred yards straight up. No pop, no problem. What could go wrong?
On the ranch, the women were finishing up for the day, mostly shirtless and sweaty from bailing hay. I had arrived a bit too late to help, but not too late to surprise my girlfriend with a little holiday jubilee. I took one of the two, modified Whistling Petes out of my pocket, taped up with a stick just like the man said, and stuck it down the neck of a Dr. Pepper bottle. Jenny didn’t seem to think it was all that bad of an idea, although she had no idea what would happen anymore than I did. No one said STOP. Mostly because the ladies were now cooling off in the bass pond.
I lit the fuse of the first Whistling Pete, and just like the shadowy man said, it shot straight up, maybe 200-feet. Then, it simply lost momentum and fell, anticlimactically back to earth. It hit the gravel parking area, spent, smokey, but without any consequence. Why I didn’t just trash the other bastard firework and join the rest for a swim, is something I’ll always ponder. But I put the second popsicle clad Pete in the cloudy bottle, and lit its fuse. This time, a distinct breeze kicked up–that, and maybe the popsicle stick not being exactly straight–had old Petey flying out at a 45-degree angle, beyond the gravel we were standing on, and into the middle of the dry field grass. Within seconds, the breeze pushed the ensuing flames into wider concentric waves of red. Six naked women were now slapping soaking wet burlap sacks down on the circle of fire they surrounded.The flames splat outside their barrier in all directions. For one, maybe two-seconds, it was the most fascinating thing I’d ever seen. But when I heard the sirens, the red trucks screaming up the ranch road and engaging the spectacle, I realized I was still a delinquent.
In about an hour, all was clear and the smoke jumper plane was circling back home. They still wanted me to pay for the man-hours, fuel, etc., and all the cost of what went into tending to the fire I’d caused, but somehow, once again, I’d had some sort of freakish, undeserved good luck. Every oak tree, fence post, animal and human the fire surrounded was untouched. The fire simply burned fast and went out right at the edges of the field, avoiding damage to anything else. It was in affect, a very serendipitous control burn, and no charges were ever pressed. Still, I was scolded by some very angry, naked women, and told to go find a place of my own. Although that’s something I’d continue to hear throughout my life, on this day at least, I learned the value of true independence.