Bad Dad: Kids should endure the duds to truly enjoy fireworks

The Fourth of July is right around the corner, and I've been requested to secure tickets for the family to go watch "professional" fireworks. And I don't like it.

Growing up in Southern California in the 1970s, the Fourth of July was a special time of year. For one night a year, I was allowed to stay up late so I could watch my dad nearly blow off his hand lighting "safe and sane" fireworks.

Our house, in the middle of the block, was the natural meeting place for our neighbors. My mom would position our Hi-Fi stereo speakers so she could blast John Philip Sousa records out the windows.

My dad would barbecue early in the evening, so we could have food ready to go by show time. Out came the old aluminum chaise chairs, old blankets and ice coolers. When it was dark enough, we would settle in for a fireworks display that was "better than last year."

The "better than last year" bit became a running gag in our house because the show rarely lived up to the buildup Dad would give at the fireworks stand.

Every year I'd go with him to the fireworks stand the day it opened, so we didn't miss out on the "good stuff." Even though my mother would tell him not to get carried away, she always relented because the Fourth was Dad's holiday.

Every year, there were always new pyrotechnics that would catch my old man's eye. Like the one year he bought a "killer bee" fountain, which I found is still available at some firework stands.

He described a display that seemed intriguing. After lighting the fuse, a titanic tornado of sparks would explode into the sky, then a dozen excited killer bees would be released, one by one.

I was convinced that I was going to be attacked by these bees, which apparently lived in hibernation in their cardboard cocoons all around this miniature explosive. I remember tapping on the tubes, trying to see if I could hear them. My dad came behind me and scared me in his big, booming voice, telling me not to tap on the firework, because it might explode. That was enough to set my nerves on edge.

When the time came to light off fireworks, the Killer Bee fountain was first up. I remember being scared enough to hide behind some lawn chairs. I tried to convince my mother to move my younger sister who was mere yards away, but she said it would be fine. I wasn't taking any chances. So I plotted my path from my current position in the front yard to inside the house, just in case those crazed bees headed my way.

I remember my dad leaning over, lighting the fuse in the exact way you weren't supposed to — with his cigarette. After three seconds of the fizzing fuse, it went quiet. Then a "titanic tornado" of sparks, almost two feet high, started to emit from the fountain. Then, one by one, the "bees" were awakened, feebly shooting out of their cocoons and landed a foot away, bouncing harmlessly across the asphalt. Then smoke and silence.

What the...

He laughed as he picked it up and dropped it in a bucket of water.

"Maybe that one was a dud," he replied in what become a common refrain over the years.

Not all the fireworks he described were duds, however. I remember him telling me what a ground bloom flower was, and I was amazed to see it do exactly what he said. Piccolo Petes were always a favorite, but I'm convinced they caused damage to my ears in my formative years. And names like Purple Rain, Old Glory and the Cuckoo Fountain are burned in my memory forever.

But every year we'd finish the annual pyrotechnics with "the big one," always a giant fountain that my dad probably spent more money on than he'd tell my mother. By that time, my disappointment in his "latest and greatest" firework had always subsided and my attention was undivided. He'd light it off and run over to sit with us. "The big one" was always glorious.

So now I'm being asked to go buy tickets to watch "professional" fireworks, the kind that I imagined when my dad described what would come out of those brightly colored toilet paper tubes back in the late '70s. And honestly, I'm feeling a little left out. Already in their short lives, my kids have seen massive firework displays with huge aerial displays, often synchronized to music.

They never had to suffer through countless duds. Or marveled at a ground bloom flower. Or plugged their ears because of a Piccolo Pete. Or recoil in disgust from stinky black snakes. I don't even think they've held a sparkler.

They don't deserve such extravagance, they haven't "earned" the right. But I'll eventually buy the tickets because I know I've earned a good show.

MATT MURRAY is a designer-copy editor at the Daily Pilot, as well as an established blogger-videographer-podcaster. Pile on him at matthew.murray@latimes.com.

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