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Things that go boom

July 4th, 2012 at 10:14 am

This week’s Flyover People column as seen in the Emporia Gazette:



As I write this, firecrackers are popping, several at a time. A whole pack has been set off at once.

I step outside to look and half a block away I see flashes of fire dancing above the sidewalk. Smoke hangs in the air for a moment until the explosions cease. Quiet returns to the neighborhood (after the dogs stop howling).

It’s firecracker season – which is a fun time for kids. But it’s not such a good time for dogs and cats, and for people like me who no longer thrilled about the jarring and headache-inducing non-stop popping of fireworks.

But a long time ago, in that land called childhood, I loved firecrackers. I especially loved those well-dressed Black Cats.

As kids, my brother and I would take a few weeks’ worth of our nickel-every-Saturday allowances and head for the fireworks stand in Pawnee Rock. The good thing is, back in the ‘60s, if you paced yourself, you could get a whole afternoon’s worth of firecrackers for a dime.

I don’t know that it was a wise location to sell fireworks, but the first stand that I remember visiting was set up in the shady parking area of the Vickers station, with the explosives not all that far from the gas pumps. It was a small stand, a few tables of firecrackers, bottle rockets, sparklers, and some of the nighttime up-in-the-air fireworks.

On a cool summer morning, I’d walk with my brother the three blocks to the fireworks stand and carry home a small bag of delight: several packages of Black Cats, a dozen bottle rockets, and a couple of punks.

Of course, there are so many things that could go wrong when you mix together kids and explosives, but luckily, we remained intact every year.

Leon, who was two years older than me, served as my firecracker mentor. He’s always been a stable, intelligent and grounded guy, even at age 8. He kept me safe.

Big brothers are also very instructive. As a little girl, I never would have thought to pull an empty tin can from the trash, place it on the ground with a few firecrackers under the rim to see how high it would jump.

And I probably got the idea from him, too, that I could put a firecracker into the un-gripped handlebar of my tricycle, light it, and it would zoom through the inside of that handlebar and confetti would shoot out the other end.

Without knowing it at the time, we learned physics by setting off those fireworks. We applied force, a reaction occurred.

Bottle rockets were great fun – a firecracker on a stick.  They were legal back then, plus we had actual pop bottles from which to launch them. Placed with the fuse hanging over the thick lip of the Pepsi bottle, we sent them on their way with a touch of the punk. They made such a pleasing zzzzzzip sound as they sailed upward, exploding with the backdrop of a clear blue sky.

When setting off fireworks, there’s the satisfaction of making something happen, of being the cause of an effect, of getting a reaction. There was an emotional reward in simply applying fire to fuse, in turning a tightly-wrapped bunch of paper into a puff of smoke.

The Fourth of July was all about flame and fragments, explosions, the scattering of tiny pieces of paper. This was exhilarating stuff for a kid.

By the end of the day our hands were covered with the gray slickness of flash powder because we had unrolled a handful of duds, created a tiny hill of gray dust on a flat rock and then set the powder ablaze for a short-lived flash.

At night, it was sparkler time. My parents and brother and I waited for dark to gather around the backyard fire pit, a place where we burned twigs for wiener roasts. There we’d light the sparklers. I’d spell my name with fire and smoke. And, half-a-lifetime later, I can still smell the metallic fumes of those gray sparklers.

It was all great fun back then, but my fire-cracking days are over. Now I’m obliged to sit back and listen as today’s young ones learn their noisy lessons in physics.

Copyright 2012 ~ Cheryl Unruh

columns, life on the ground, nostalgia

  1. Kris
    July 4th, 2012 at 10:24 | #1

    What a lot of memories this brought up. My dad loved fireworks so we had our own front yard display, where we gathered for an evening’s entertainment after chasing around blowing up tin cans and dirt clods all day. One incident in my mind this morning was when the pinwheel that had been nailed to a post came loose and zinged across the yard toward us. I remember the sound, and the whirling fire, and I remembered I could run, that evening. 😀

    Though I can take a pass on everything to do with firecrackers or fireworks now, I did love them back then too. Thanks for the memories.

  2. heineken160
    July 4th, 2012 at 15:27 | #2

    Happy Independence Day everyone.