I wrote the following for the Fourth of July, 1991, when I was considerably less of a curmudgeon and my memories of boyhood were fresher. I’m not saying it’s great, but – given the enduring male obsession with explosives – it does seem to be timeless.
Americans have some crazy ways of celebrating their holidays.
In December we fell millions of baby trees, festoon them with strings of blinking lights, then heap Ninja Turtle dolls and other gewgaws beneath them. That’s Christmas.
At Easter we hide little baskets filled with tacky plastic grass, chocolate eggs and crusty yellow marshmallow bunnies. Kids go after these like bloodhounds and wolf down enough sugar to keep the dentists busy for months.
On New Year’s Eve we get falling-down drunk, wear paper hats and act like clowns all night, then stumble into our cars and hold a great big demolition derby.
Which brings us to the Fourth of July – and fireworks.
For reasons unclear, Americans celebrate the birth of their nation by trying to recapture the ambiance of the Western Front. Explosions split the air; the skies are lit up by flares and rockets; the smell of gunpowder drifts through once-peaceful neighborhoods.
Houses are burned to the ground, limbs and lives are lost, and fire crews are run ragged trying to hold down the carnage and destruction.
For your average American boy, it is hog heaven. It is an ecstasy beyond the ken of scolding parents and sensible adults. Take it from me: I speak from experience.
At the soul of this grand holiday is the hazardous mixture of reckless boyhood and incandescent flash powder. This is the season when a young man’s fancy turns to pyromania. Fireworks stands appear on every public thoroughfare, peddling wondrous arsenals of cheap, fiery thrills.
But the legal stuff – fountains, smoke bombs, Roman candles and the like – pale next to the contraband to be had on Indian reservations. Here the aspiring Rambo can arm himself with exploding rockets, cherry bombs, M-80s – just about anything short of tactical nukes.
Let’s stick with the basic ordnance: firecrackers. For a kid with time to kill, neighbors to annoy and an illicit hoard of Zebras, these have infinite possibilities.
They can be dropped from windows at the feet of unsuspecting siblings. They can be used as hand grenades in vacant-lot war games. They can be buried in dirt – or better yet, ant hives – and set off.
They can be slit open to obtain precious incendiary powder.
They can be thrown at dogs. They can be inserted in model airplanes or ships, then lit for special effects right out of a 1940s war movie. They can be dropped on battalions of toy soldiers.
Here’s a favorite from my own misspent boyhood:
Take a BB gun and stuff a firecracker in the muzzle. Wait for some kids to walk by far enough away that they can’t see it’s a BB gun. Light the fuse, jump up and make like you’re shooting at them with a real rifle.
You can scare the living daylights out of people this way – even the big kids who normally beat you up.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a daddy and a homeowner now, and I don’t condone any of this delinquency. But we’re talking reality here. For the good of the community, I’m just describing what budding young males really do with fireworks when the grown-ups aren’t looking.
To put it in legal terms, they commit felonies and misdemeanors – arson, malicious mischief, disturbing the peace and unlawful possession of explosive devices.
I’ve got a few theories about this juvenile infatuation with things that go whiz and boom.
My Nurture Theory is that American boys, being weaned on combat flicks and G.I. Joe, are generally grief-stricken they missed out on the last world war. For them, the quasi-legal mayhem of the Fourth of July is the next best thing.
My Nature Theory is that most boys are born terrorists. For American kids, the Fourth just gives them a shot at the fun that can be had year-round in places like Lebanon and Northern Ireland.
My Entropy Theory is that children in general delight in creating chaos. (If you doubt this, watch a toddler in a high chair “eat” a bowl of spaghetti.) They are special agents of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which, I gather, holds that the entire universe is coming unraveled at the seams. With firecrackers and cherry bombs, even young boys can do their bit to speed the cosmic dissolution along.
In any case, there’s no denying the mystic connection between boyhood and pyrotechnics. It’s there, it’s real and you’d be wise to hose down your roof tonight. And please, if there’s a male in your household under the age of, say, 23, try to keep an eye on him.