The 5th of July

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explosion.jpg When I was a kid Independence Day was a big event in our neighborhood. My mother would put up red, white and blue decorations. My father would barbeque his famous pickle relish hamburgers. But best of all, the neighbors would set off fireworks.

Note I said the neighbors. Aside from the occasional sparklers, we weren’t allowed to have fireworks. Firecrackers, M80s, rockets, and the like were out of the question. Firecrackers would blow off your fingers. Rockets would go off course and set the house on fire. My mother spent years predicting wholesale slaughter down that other end of the block. In her visions the morning of July 5th would reveal limbs hanging from telephone wires and bodies strewn cross lawns and the fenders of cars, hardly recognizable for the burns, mutilated faces, and missing limbs. The smoldering wreckage of destroyed homes would waft acrid smoke into our windows - London after the Blitz on 270th Street in Queens.

So we had to content ourselves with watching all the kids from the other end of the block tossing whole packs of crackers into the street and lighting rocket fuses. We would peer from the curb as the rockets were launched 200 feet away, arching over the trees to burst gloriously over the rooftops. My Dad would try to assuage the pain by breaking out a box of sparklers. They would be dutifully lit and we would wave them around with half-hearted enthusiasm. By 9:00 p.m., adding insult to injury, our mother would make us go to bed before the fireworks had finished.

One year, after being sentenced to bed and forced to listen to the continuing fusillade outside, Chris and I lay in our room aching to be in on the action. That’s when the idea came to us. All those full packs of firecrackers that were set off invariably resulted in some duds that didn’t go off. The occasional rocket fizzled. Tomorrow morning the streets would be littered with them. We would find them and have our own 5th of July.

The morning found us up inordinately early. Quickly scarfing down a bowl of cereal, we hit the streets. Gold rush 49ers didn’t have it so good. Every three feet there was another unexploded firecracker. Four or five dud M80s smiled up at us. Pieces of unburnt fuse waved to us. By 8:00 a.m. we’d amassed a bag full of incendiary loot - but what to do with it all?

For those who have never been on the secondhand end of firecrackers before you need to know that there was only one tried and true detonation method. First you snapped the cracker in half, keeping it hinged together by some of the paper wadding. Next you laid it on the ground and lit the exposed gunpowder. Finally, you stomped on the fizzling cracker, causing it to explode. A nice loud pop would ensue and some small satisfaction would be achieved.

There were a few problems with this. We had maybe a hundred duds. That would mean at least 100 matches. Now it wasn’t hard for us to get a match or two - both our folks smoked at the time. But 100 matches would be noticed. Also, after stomping on 100 burning duds, your sneakers would not be in good shape. Melted rubber and the stink of gunpowder smoke would give us away five minutes after returning home. A Plan B was needed.

It didn’t take us long to come up with an alternative - we would build one big bomb! It seemed logical to us at the time. Just one match, detonation at a distance to avoid gunpowder residue, and one hell of a loud noise - it was every boy’s dream.

Several hours of furtive effort ensued. A suitable rocket body was found, cut down, and one end sealed with cardboard and electrical tape. One after one, the firecrackers and M80s were meticulously opened and emptied into the vessel. The gunpowder was carefully packed down. A four inch fuse was fashioned. We were the kid equivalent of the mad anarchist, evilly chuckling over the mayhem and destruction that our creation would cause. By noon the bomb was complete.

That’s when the apprehension set in. Where do we stash this? When do we set it off? What would be the location? How do we do this without getting caught? Having considered none of these factors before we started, we began to worry. We didn’t panic, but we realized that we were now walking around with a BOMB and that could lead to serious trouble. We did what any reasonable kids our age would do - we stuck it in the bag in my bike and went home for lunch.

Over peanut butter and jelly we hatched our plan. We’d wait until after dinner, just before we had to come in for the night. The bomb would be planted at the base of a small tree over on 79th Avenue. With Chris waiting for me across the street, I’d light the fuse, dash over to meet him, and we’d enjoy the show.

All went according to plan. Dashing across the street after lighting the fuse, I joined Chris behind a tree to witness the fruits of our labor. The four inch fuse took a long time to burn down and we began to panic that it wouldn’t go off. Then what would we do? The idea of approaching an unexploded bomb sacred the crap out of us - we’d seen too many WWII movies not to know what happens when you do that. I turned to Chris. “I think we should…”

The bomb went off. The roar thundered through the neighborhood. The tree literally groaned and shook. Gray acrid smoke billowed down the street. Neighbors began to open their doors. We ran like hell.

Neither of us slept well that night. We were convinced that the FBI would be knocking on the door in the morning. We’d crack easily under the glare of their interrogation lights and the sound of the rubber hose slapping against the interrogator’s palm. Once we were released from prison, our parents would beat the crap out of us and we’d never be allowed to leave the house again.

We got up in the morning and scanned our mother’s eyes for any hint of impending doom but there was nothing. “I want you two to play outside today. The weather is beautiful and I have cleaning to do. But stay down on this end of the block. Those nuts down there are still setting off fireworks“.

3 Comments

I think all of us (the boys at least) have similar 5th of July stories. I know for years it became an annual rite to be out by 7:00am to beat the other scavengers to the choicest duds. After filling our brown paper bags, we too would set off to construct and detonate the 'ultimate blockbuster' (I probably learned this from you and Chris).

Looking back, it's amazing that we have fingers to type these comments with.

- Right Mom?

July 4 has always been the bomb! True, Mom and Dad did do their best to shelter us from harm. True to our child-nature we tried desparately to self-destruct with whatever scavanged contraband we could collect post Independence Day morning. Following my parental programming I wouldn't allow Christine to participate in the 4th of July fireworks on our block, which is at the pinnacle of a triangle. Neighbors from all over collaborated in fashioning a slam-bang display each year. We watched from our window for most of the evening, but the wistful expression on Christine's face was a flashback to my own July 4th memories. True to form, at the crack of dawn she and her friend Bonnie were busy collecting duds for their own July 5 celebration. May the circle be unbroken.

I can almost smell the acrid odor of burnt gunpowder lingering in the early morning air! The 5th always held more possibility for adventure than the 4th did.

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This page contains a single entry by published on May 12, 2004 10:51 AM.

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