Dad Visits Fireworks Heaven for the Holiday
Fireworks! The sign on the rooftop was about the same size as the building. My grip on the steering wheel tightened and my pulse quickened. A much-smaller sign said: Fresh Roasted Peanuts.
“Anybody want some peanuts?” I asked.
The kids chorused affirmatively and my wife Betsy gave me a dubious look as I parked the car.
We were on a family road trip, showing the kids something of the history and beauty of America. I try to be that kind of dad. I try NOT to be the kind of dad who wastes grocery money on Roman candles and skyrockets, putting his loved ones in danger, setting a bad example for his children, and attracting the disapproving notice of neighbors and police. But here I was leading my daughters — ages 13, 10 and 6 — into a gaudy Aladdin’s cave crammed from floor to ceiling with explosives.
“See these little army tanks?” I asked the nearest child. “You light the fuse in the back and a rocket propels it forward. Then it fires its little cannon.”
“What are these?” asked 10-year-old Sally, pointing to a pile of items about twice the size of ice-cream cones.
“Those are just showers-of-sparks,” I said, “They don’t blow up or fly.”
I hefted a brick of firecrackers and said, “Wow.” Putting it back on the shelf, I remembered the summer I’d blown up my collection of model airplanes and an entire HO-scale village with firecrackers like those. Then I’d glued each wreck back together like a puzzle, and blown it up again, repeating the process until there wasn’t enough left to reassemble.
I’d acquired the firecrackers by sneaking away from a motel in Missouri, and spending about $12 at a nearby stand. I’d hidden the contraband under the front seat of our station wagon for transport back to our nervous-nellie no-fireworks home state. With a Visa card, I could’ve turned our Chevy into a rolling torpedo. My Dad, so law-abiding that he shaved on Saturdays, never knew I’d made him a smuggler.
Some people don’t understand the connection between fireworks and the birth of a nation. But right there in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “All men are endowed by their Creator” with the right to “the Pursuit of Happiness.” And if that doesn’t include the right to Sear our Fingers, Scare the Dog, and Burn down the Garage, then Jefferson was never a boy. (It also explains why our Mother Country didn’t think we were ready to be on our own.)
Even so, I didn’t see the sense of limiting to one day the pleasures of sizzling fuses, ear-shattering explosions and flying debris. My desire to blow things up was a 365-day thing. But national traditions are not going to change to suit one poorly supervised little boy. Each year, when the Fourth of July brought me the chance to buy black-market firecrackers from other kids, I paid whatever they asked and always squirreled some away to enliven August.
The firecrackers of my youth had all been made in China, where gunpowder had been invented. They’d had maybe 1,000 years to distill the instructions into five words that were printed on each packet: “Light fuse and retire quickly.” Such writing! It was as if Ernest Hemingway had started the sentence and Confucius had finished it. You’d have to crack open a thousand fortune cookies to find such unarguable wisdom and elegance of expression.
In the store, I picked up a handful of bottle rockets, some sparklers and a packet of firecrackers as we wandered among the explosives. Betsy said, “We’ll meet you out front when you’re done,” and took the two younger kids next door to an ice-cream stand. She left 13-year-old Marie, our responsible firstborn, to keep an eye on me.
“Do you want a smoke bomb?” I asked her. “They’ve got green, purple and red.”
“Dad, I have asthma, remember?”
“Right,” I said. Then I asked, “Did I ever tell you about the time I stuck an M-80 in a watermelon?” “Yes,” she said. (It had been great! I’d been sprayed with juice from 50 feet away and the entire back yard had been littered with pink scraps. Hunks of rind were found 100 feet away.)
“Did I ever tell you about how I used to throw balsa-wood airplanes out of my college dorm window with lighted firecrackers glued to their wings?”
“Yes,” she said primly. “Dad, are you going to BUY those things?”
I pictured Sally putting out her eye with a sparkler wire and said, “Uh, no.” I put the goods back where I’d found them.
The lady behind the counter had been watching us with patient good will. “Can I help y’all?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “Make me 10 years old again.”
She smiled and I bought a bag of peanuts.
Rick Epstein can be reached at email@example.com.