American Pyro

12 Jun

My family always went over board on holidays– like the Christmas my electrician father installed 200 red and green 100 watt light bulbs around our front porch. He thought it lent that special holiday magic. My mother said it made the house look like a sleazy tavern. The Fourth of July, however ,was a time when things really got out of control. One year my older brother constructed a working carbide cannon out of 6 foot length of sewer pipe. Dressed like a revolutionary war soldier, he pulled the cannon down main street to advertise his new barbeque stand, which specialized in pig snouts. This was the same brother who had once fashioned a hot tub out of a cattle feeding trough.
The fourth was a major event in the small town where I grew up. People would cross state lines just to buy illegal fireworks, even though the local cops were highly skilled at confiscating them. These fireworks would turn up at the town hall where city employees would take them home for their kids. I didn’t mind– my dad was a volunteer fireman. I occasionally regained possession of my own contraband fireworks this way. As in prohibition times, there was no way to quench the public’s thirst for bootlegged fireworks. There were black cat and atomic firecrackers, cherry bombs, Roman Candles, fountains, pinwheels, helicopters and the dreaded M-80s (advertised as an eighth of a stick of dynamite). There were even tiny firecrackers called ladyfingers that kids would dare you to hold in your hand while they exploded. I wasn’t that stupid, even then.
Like today, parents encouraged younger kids to play with sparklers. For some reason these molten metal spewing flares, that exceed 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, were considered harmless. When they burn out you’re stuck with a red-hot piece of wire– the perfect plaything for a barefoot five year old. I personally managed to eliminated the spent sparkler disposal problem by inventing the exploding sparkler when I was 9 years old. You simply attach a M-80 to the bottom of the sparkler and shove it in the ground. A few minutes later there is an immense explosion and the white-hot wire is hurled into the stratosphere. My mother didn’t think much of the invention.
One year I threw a cherry bomb in the middle of the street. It appeared to be a dud, but before I could do anything a state police cruiser came screaming up and parked right on top of the still-glowing explosive device. The surly patrolman said, “Hey kid, you see any punks around here playing with fireworks?” A fleeting vision of a police car engulfed in a ball of flames, a 10-25 year stretch in Statesville, and possibly a boyfriend named Buster raced through my mind. I must have sweated enough to extinguish the water proof cherry bomb.
The highlight of every Fourth of July, however, was the city fireworks display. This always took place at the fairgrounds where they held the carnival and fish fry. Every year I’d drop a bundle on the pan game. The local Catholic church ran this roulette-like concession. It was played with deceptively innocent looking, multi-colored muffin pans and a volley ball. One year I devised a fool-proof betting system that cost me 6 month’s allowance, but greatly advanced my knowledge of statistics and probability.
At nine o’clock I would take my prized seat to watch the show. Since my father was a fireman, I got to sit in the emergency fire truck, which was parked about 50 yards ahead of the police line that held back the rabble and lowly civilians. While the fire chief was distracted by a side of barbecued ribs, my father and the other firemen would fill up the truck’s huge hubcaps with Falstaff beer and ice. These would come in handy later.
I always preferred the ear-piercing aerial bombs, but the crowd went wild when glowing debris would fall to earth. One year to almost everyone’s delight, a burning chunk actually fell on the roof of a nearby house. Fortunately it was early enough in the evening that the firemen were still sober enough to put it out. There’s nothing like a little old fashion pyromania to make you feel patriotic and proud to be an American.

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