Fire in the Whole Parking LotOpinion
OPINION — Fireworks have been part of our Independence Day celebrations for a long time, ever since they were invented by Chinese railroad workers in Utah. When I was a kid my friends and I used to see how brave we were by lighting a firecracker, and then holding it until the fuse had burned down pretty short before throwing it at someone. The idea was to see if we could make it go off just about the time it hit one of the other guys, who were all trying to dodge out of the way. Bonus points for lobbing the firecracker into someone’s shirt collar. Good times.
Of course, firecrackers were a lot more potent in those days. The Surgeon General, who is appointed on the basis of how much he hates people having fun, has since regulated the amount of powder firecrackers can legally contain down to the point where you can’t even scare Grandma with one, because she won’t hear it go off. It’s kind of pathetic.
Above: U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, M.D.
But when I was a kid, Black Cats were strong enough to knock an empty Coke can about a foot. So when you held onto one a little too long, and it blew up in your hand, there was a possibility of getting a pretty good whupping from your dad. Because if he’s told you once he’s told you forty-seven times not to light those things in your hand, you knothead.
As much fun as firecrackers were, bottle rockets were even better. They were like long-distance firecrackers. When I was in high school we would drive around town shooting them at one another, which is kind of hard to do when you’re driving a car with a manual transmission. Drop a bottle rocket in your lap after lighting it, and life gets real exciting real quick.
So fireworks are woven into the fabric of our lives. Zoey Hanrahan recently wrote a column for San Angelo LIVE! and included a quote from John Adams, who once got a pretty good whupping from his dad for shooting bottle rockets at the Liberty Bell. John evidently wrote a letter to his wife on 3 July 1776 which stated, in part, “I am apt to believe that (Independence Day) will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” The Surgeon General probably didn’t like John Adams much.
Being as how I’m a tightwad, I’ve never indulged in the really impressive fireworks, the ones that shoot multiple rockets that explode at a suitable altitude. Typically, when I decide to turn money into smoke and noise, I use guns, as Adams suggested. But this year I was invited to help my friend, Keith English, set off an impressive batch of rockets, mortars, bombs, and missiles for an Independence Day celebration at Highway Church of Christ in Judsonia, Arkansas. Keith determined my qualifications for inclusion in this august endeavor were adequate, and decided I was a suitable candidate for the task. In other words, I own a lighter.
There were actually four of us with lighters, and we had about 75 huge fireworks pods to ignite. We were set up at one end of a parking lot, with around 200 spectators in lawn chairs at the other end, maybe 50 yards away. Which was nowhere near far enough, as it turned out.
The four of us would simultaneously ignite one or two of the pods each, and then we would all trot about ten yards toward the crowd to watch the rockets. About the third time we did this, one of the pods fell over onto its side and started shooting its rockets, not vertically, as the Surgeon General recommends, but horizontally. As soon as I saw the pod fall over I shouted, “Run!” and turned to escape. Everyone else was already running, of course. It was Every Man For Himself.
Each time a rocket fired, the pod would spin, and the next rocket would shoot in a different direction. There was no way to know which way we should run, and an empty parking lot provides very little cover. I ran toward the crowd, thinking I might be able to hide behind a plastic lawn chair, or something. A rocket whizzed past my shoulder, spewing sparks and hissing fire, and flew straight at a fellow running a few yards in front of me. It exploded about the time it hit him square in the back. I remember thinking, “God bless the Surgeon General.” If this fiasco had occurred in 1968 the guy probably wouldn’t have made it.
Luckily, no one was hurt, although our credibility as Fireworks Technicians took a pretty big hit. We were allowed to finish the celebration, which was viewed with considerably more trepidation by the crowd than before.
To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, the tree of Independence will be refreshed from time to time with the smell of potassium nitrate and burnt skin . . .