One of the great Fourth of July pleasures of my childhood was running around in the backyard (ours or that of my grandmother, at her lake house outside (well outside) of Chicago) with sparklers. I’m not sure if they were legal or not – if they were, that’s no longer the case in Massachusetts, one of less than a handful of party-pooper states that outlaw all “consumer” fireworks; Illinois, meanwhile, is a “sparkler state,” that at least allows fun with sparklers. But, legal or not, there were always a couple of boxes on hand. My father or Uncle Ted would light us up, and we’d run around swirling the sparklers and trying to see how much of our names we could write before the sparkling-ness disappeared, or the sparkler burned down to our fingers.
The grownups were always yelling at us not to drop the dead sparklers, since they didn’t want any one stepping on a wire and puncturing their bare foot. Who wants to drag a kid off to the ER for a tetanus shot on the Glorious Fourth?
I still love sparklers, right down to the sulfur-y burnt metal smell. (It reminds me of childhood.)
The only other fireworks we were allowed were cherry bombs.These must have been legal, since I seem to remember buying them. One of the prime neighborhood sound effects in early July was the retort of a cherry bomb being slam-thrown onto the sidewalk.
Both sparklers and cherry bombs could be duds, but I seem to remember more cherry bomb duds. Perhaps I just wasn’t all that adept at pegging a cherry bomb for max concussion.
Some kids did have access to more sophisticated – make that dangerous – fireworks. When I was in eighth grade, some kid my age managed to blow a finger or two off while celebrating the holiday. I didn’t really known him – Al was a “pub” (i.e., someone who went to public school), but I knew who he was, and the incident made him famous. Missing fingers and all, he made his living in the trades as an electrician. (Thank you, Google.) Bet he had a nice cautionary tale to tell his kids.
Most of us, of course, stuck with the kinder, gentler sparklers and cherry bombs. Then there were the two other items we “played” with that were sort of fireworks light. One was punk sticks, which we just called punks. Dried animal dung on a stick, which must have been doused with incense, because that’s what they smelled like, punks are used to ward off insects. But we used them to pretend that we were smoking. While sparklers were generally lit for you by adults, we lit our own punks, and all learned to strike a safety match at an early age. Punks weren’t particularly for the Fourth. They were available all summer. (Not surprisingly they’re still available at the Vermont Country Store, if you’re interested.)
And then there were caps, that year-round delight.
Who needed a cap pistol? Half the time the hammer didn’t come down hard enough to set the cap off. Mostly, we sat on the sidewalk or on our flagstone walk pounded on the caps with a rock. You could buy rolls of caps at Woolworth’s, and they were worth every penny, just to get that little whiff of gunpowder. Just don’t get that roll of caps wet. Or damp, even. Talk about duds!
Fast forward a few decades, and one year my brother-in-law got his mitts on a nice supply of real consumer fireworks. Rick and Kath were living in Hull then, and there was a little strip of beach just below their house, on Hull Gut. Rick had just deployed one of the rockets, sticking it in the sand and lighting it up. Unfortunately, it fell over and went off horizontally. So instead of having a skyrocket in flight, we had the evening delight of watching my brother-in-law crab-scramble across the beach to get out of the path of the rocket, which at first was heading straight for him.
Then there was New Year’s Eve in Berlin, 1989, the year The Wall Fell. That was the one time of year when consumer fireworks were legal, and the Germans – especially that year – went all out. As we strolled around near Brandenburg Gate, we’d hear someone holler “Achtung!” and a second later a bottle rocket or Roman candle would go whizzing by our heads. One almost went between my legs, but I was nimble enough to jump aside. Scary stuff!
And although it’s no fun to live in a nanny state where you can’t even race around waving a sparkler, fireworks really are scary stuff. Or so the Boston Globe tells us in a timely article.
Even the relatively tame sparkler has its risks; it’s the most common source of fireworks-related injuries…About two-thirds of fireworks injuries happen each year in a one-month span surrounding July 4, statistics show, though injuries caused by public display fireworks are exceedingly rare. Most accidents happen with store-bought items detonated by amateurs.(Source: Boston Globe)
Amateur-hour fireworking account for 7-plus deaths each year, not to mention 10,000 other casualties, like the famous Al R of Main South Worcester fame. Some of those killed are up for posthumous Darwin Awards, like the poor guy in Maine who died last year, on The Fourth, “after igniting a firework on top of his head.”
I will not be doing that. But I wouldn’t say no if someone put a sparkler in my hand and offered me a light.
Have a Glorious, Sparkling Fourth. And stay safe.