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The Not-So-Good-Old Fourth

President Bush says that growing up in the Constitution State of Connecticut, the Fourth of July was the perfect holiday, with flags, parades and political speeches--introducing a small boy to the promise of America. But for millions of other small boys back then and in intervening years, the Fourth offered most an inalienable right to try to blow themselves up and set fire to random fields and houses, if not entire towns.

In many states, it was legal not just to buy sparklers, Roman candles and fountains of fire, but massive firecrackers that resembled small sticks of dynamite. These red cylinders were about 2 inches long and 1 inch wide, packed with black powder and with a fuse--always too short a fuse--protruding from the side. One favorite tactic was to light one under an empty tin can to see how far in the air the can would go. There would be a “fuh-whump” sound and the can would rocket perhaps 40 or 50 feet straight up. When it came down, all the boys would run to see how much damage was done. A solid No. 2 tomato can would wind up bulging like a mushroom. Impressive power for boys.

There were times, of course, when the fuse was lit, the can was placed on top of the ‘cracker, and nothing happened. Did it go out? Was it a dud? Or was the fuse a particularly slow-burning one, still sputtering its way toward the black powder? One of the bigger, and braver, boys would inch up to the can, front foot ready to push off in fast retreat, and tentatively tip the can back to see. Sad to say, there are many grown men today with only one eye or perhaps missing a finger or two, who discovered that, alas, the fuse was still burning.

Another favorite practice was to light an entire string of 20 or so smaller firecrackers and watch them go off in sporadic sequence, jumping about with the force of the reports. It was not unusual for one to soar unnoticed into a dry field nearby to smolder quietly and later erupt into fire. Silver-wrapped cherry bombs in the hands of bullies were used to terrorize little girls and dogs. These were the kind that were thrown on a sidewalk and exploded on impact, scattering tinfoil shrapnel about. Big boys had fun conducting duels with exploding Roman candles pointed at each other.

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Such explosives are almost universally banned now. But even the so-called safe and sane fireworks are dangerous in the wrong hands. How many small children have suffered terrible burns by picking up the wrong end of a sparkler that has just burned itself out? Perhaps it was one that an older child pitched into the air to see the sparkles arc through the Fourth of July evening sky.

There is some irony in the fact that the regulation of commerce has abridged the rights of American youth to celebrate Independence Day with such pyrotechnic abandon. Ah, for the good old days. But millions of American parents, physicians and firemen are grateful that is so. The good new days may not be quite as exciting, but they are a good deal safer.


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