An Old-Fashioned Fourth of July

The Fourth of July brings back my childhood to me in a way that other holidays don’t. The Fourth brings with it the pure, unadulterated joy of being a kid.

Just when the thrill of being out of school started to wear off, the fireworks stands went up. Rickety, wooden contraptions with hand-painted signs that listed the various fireworks available. Rockets! Sparklers! Poppers! Roman Candles! Black Cats! Punks!

Suddenly summer wasn’t so boring any more.At this point it became critical to earn as much money as possible to buy fireworks. My friends and sisters and I baby-sat, had lemonade stands and checked under the couch cushions every night looking for change from our fathers’ pockets.

A week before the Fourth, we collected our carefully hoarded stockpile of crumpled bills and sticky change in brown paper lunch bags, and rode our bikes to the nearest fireworks stand.
There we spent hours deciding which fireworks to buy. There were only certain ones kids our age were allowed to buy, but if necessary, older brothers and sisters could be coerced into making purchases (for a slight commission of course).

The people who owned the fireworks stands were the kind of people you see working today at those traveling carnivals that come to mall parking lots.

They told horror stories about kids who lost their fingers or their eyesight because of fooling around with fireworks improperly. We listened with our fingers tightly curled around the books of matches hidden in our damp, sweaty pockets.

The stories of maimed children just added to the thrill. We told our own stories about how great it would be if the guy who owned the fireworks stand accidentally dropped the cigarette that perpetually hung from his lower lip into the merchandise, igniting the biggest blast since WW II. It never happened to my knowledge.

Our parents were strict about not setting off any fireworks until the night of the Fourth. But there were always a few kids in the neighborhood that managed to sneak out and start a few days early.

We’d be lying in bed on the warmest night of summer and hear that first Pop! I would whisper at my sisters in their beds and we’d smile. A shiver would go down my spine. It was starting.

For the next couple of days the sounds got progressively louder and more frequent. Since sleeping was nearly impossible, we’d stay up until past midnight play game after game of Monopoly, Clue and Sorry waiting for time to pass.

We waited for twilight of the Fourth with almost as much anticipation as Christmas.

On that night it was always hot and sultry. There would be a lazy hush and a stillness at dinner time as families around the neighborhood barbecued. Then the first crack would split the still air, and we’d be off, as if to a starter’s gun, to find our stash.

First we hurled our poppers to the pavement. When you threw them really hard at the street they let off a great little explosion.

With our hands reeking of sulfur, we moved on to the sparklers. Thin, silver sticks of magic. Our dads lit the tops (they didn’t know we had our own matches), and sparks of brilliant light shot off in arcs. We twirled them in giant circles, screaming through the summer night. It was like holding electricity.

By 8:00 p.m. the smell of smoke and sulfur hung over our neighborhood like a mystical silver cloud.

When it was finally dark, the premium fireworks started. Brilliant rockets and whirligigs hurled up into the heavens, launched from every front yard. Long whistles that caused you to wait for the pop and explosion.

The oohs and ahs were a soft murmur in the summer night.

When we ran out of our good stuff, we lit the punk sticks, thin brown sticks that looked like skinny cattails. The tips glowed in the darkness, and when those were gone, it was over.

Now that such goings-on have been deemed unsafe, we seek our Fourth of July thrills in other ways. Now we head for the park to watch the city fireworks show. We spread our blankets under the stars and wait with both friends and strangers with the same anticipation. We ooh and ahh together in the dark of night. The skies light up with the most dazzling display of peaceable firepower, in a most fitting tribute to our nation. For that moment, anything is possible.

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