On the eve of the signing of the Declaration of Independence by Congress, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, about the day the document was to be signed. It was dated July 3, 1776:
I am apt to believe that it 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 shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.
After World War II ended in 1945, the country was in a celebratory mood. A great many former soldiers were married, and this continued for another twenty years, setting up what was to become the largest baby boom the country had ever seen. By the time the first boomers were old enough to play with matches, the country was a decade past the War. As the patriotic wave that had overcome the victorious nation continued in annual celebrations, fireworks were a regular part of the festivities. Many boomers have family photos of their fathers and uncles setting off Roman candles and fireworks in parks, vacant lots and backyards. It seemed only natural then, that boomers would follow suit, setting off firecrackers of their own as soon as they could get their hands on them.
The sale of fireworks are controlled by individual states. As for Mister Boomer’s experience, fireworks of all kinds were banned in his state, but not the neighboring state. Living only 30 miles from the state border, it was a short drive to the nearest fireworks stand, which was conveniently situated a few hundred feet from the border.
Mister B recalls making the ride with his father and brother, a straight drive down what used to be the main interstate highway before the freeways were built. Mister B’s father liked to set off Roman candles and small flying rockets in the neighborhood, but only occasionally and not on every July 4th.
By the time Brother Boomer got his first car, Mister B would ride with him down to the border crossing where his brother could purchase fireworks for himself. His taste tended toward the bigger firepower that the neighborhood kids all seemed to have: strings of lady fingers, M-80s and cherry bombs. It was less about the rocket’s red glare, and more about the bang.
Sparklers, however, were not initially banned in the state and were a big holiday winner among the younger set. Once the sun went down, kids would get a sparkler in each hand and run around in a circle or down the block, trailing the sparkling flame behind them. Several kids standing together would write in the air with the lighted stick, making fading letters or shapes against the night sky.
During the day, kids opened small packages of colored balls that resembled Trix cereal, colored red, yellow or blue. Hurling one of the little spheres to the sidewalk, it would pop like a cap. A bigger bang could be elicited by laying down a grouping of the spheres and smashing them with a rock or brick.
Meanwhile, neighborhood boys were setting up increasingly elaborate ways to bring on the snap, crackle and pop. Firecrackers were never used in Mister B’s neighborhood to harm animals, as in the stories that some boomers relate. Rather, the neighborhood boys enjoyed blowing up things like model airplanes, cars and boats, or the occasional head of one of their sisters’ dolls when they felt particularly sinister.
Mister B recalls one summer when Brother Boomer and his neighbor buddies reenacted scenes of the Robert Mitchum movie, Thunder Road. Laying down trails of lighter fluid and strategically placed lady fingers half-buried in the side of a small mound of dirt, model cars ran the gauntlet, only to meet their fate amidst the explosions and flames; boomer boy play at its pinnacle!
The larger, distinct kaboom of an M-80 or cherry bomb was heard around the neighborhood for a week before the holiday, and up to two weeks after. Fortunately, the kids in Mister B’s neighborhood were smart enough not to accept dares of holding a firecracker while it exploded, thus preventing major injury. Mister B stayed away from personally setting off firecrackers, instead living vicariously through his brother’s and neighbors’ actions.
Firecrackers were a part of the July 4th holiday experience for most boomers. It’s another example of how we were allowed to do things that today would be considered far too unsafe, often within the sight of our parents, and sometimes, as was the case with firecrackers, with the help of our fathers.
Happy Fourth, boomers! What firecracker experience does the Fourth evoke for you?