The Glorious Unsafe Fourth
It was a day when all the rules were off, and danger was part of the fun.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
When laws against the use of fireworks became prevalent, there came an end to an American institution that once was firmly built into every boy’s life, making patriotism seem a joyous and understandable thing. Youngsters today do not even know the phrase, yet it was not so many years ago that a “Glorious Fourth” was as much a part of the calendar as a Happy New Year or a Merry Christmas.
The Fourth I remember best took place in 1920. I was eleven; security had returned forever to a world that had recently finished the war to end wars; the country was conscious of its strength and proud of the tradition the Fourth stood for. Everything was ripe for a Glorious Fourth.
Early in June we had begun to make our plans, because fireworks cost money and money therefore had to be earned. There was a good deal of lawn-mowing and errand-running, and the movies had to get along for a while without our eleven-cent admission fees. Then, a few days ahead, temporary shacks of corrugated sheet metal began to go up in empty downtown lots, and paper signs with bold red letters saying FIREWORKS were pasted to their sides.
As we lined up to buy, most of us had lists to follow. We wanted the largest possible amount of noise for our money, so as a rule we invested heavily in the biggest salutes the law would allow. Then we bought Chinese firecrackers, the kind that came in red tissue-wrapped packages with a bright label containing a fierce dragon and exotic Chinese characters. These firecrackers ranged in size from two or three inches clown to little inch-long ones not much thicker than a pencil lead, which we usually set off a whole package at a time.
We also bought torpedoes, snakes, pieces for night use, and the items inconsiderately known as “niggerchasers”; the latter, when lighted, sizzled on a zigzag course as it in pursuit of a victim. Torpedoes were caps screwed tightly together with a bunch of pebbles into a piece of tissue paper. When you threw them against a wall or sidewalk they went off—usually.
We bought snakes because, amidst much noise that left nothing to the imagination, they were silent and something of a mystery. They looked like small white pills, yet when you lighted one it would begin to disgorge a pencil-thin snake that sometimes grew to be a yard long. If you touched it, it crumbled to a powdery ash.
Caps were available in rolls for automatics, but at eleven my friends and I, having grown too old for cops and robbers, left this item to our younger brothers.
The Fourth of July was a male celebration. Women were not expected to have any part in it—except perhaps when mothers were called to bind up burned hands. There was, to be sure, a contraption for girls that shot off caps at the end of a cane, but this was scarcely worth considering. On this one day in the year a boy could satisfy the urge to live dangerously and to make all the noise he could. There was a tacit understanding that, within limits, a boy could work off the pent-up aggressions and energies that were ordinarily suppressed by the joyless adult rules hemming him in. It was permissible, for instance, to toss a firecracker into the Methodist minister’s study window, but not to haul off the church pews for a bonfire. Distinctions like that had to be learned.
When we went to bed on the night before the Fourth, the explosions had already begun. We went to sleep listening to them, and they were sweeter music than any we knew, with their promise of the day to come.
We were up at dawn—there was always competition among us to see who could wake up his friends with the first salute—and from then until bedtime we lived in a world of danger, activity, loud noises, brass bands, runaway horses, and continuous excitement.
The weather was expected to be hot and sunny, and I cannot remember that it ever failed. Even at dawn you could feel the hint of what was to come. It used to get so hot that the tar sidewalks on Main Street often softened, taking the imprint of the watchers who stood there to see the parade.
Our first task was to visit a neighbor marked for our special attention—the school principal. We each lit a firecracker and tossed it at his bedroom window, and then scattered to the nearest trees. Although our attack produced no visible result, we assured ourselves that every cracker had landed squarely on his bed and that we had repaid him for all his restrictions upon our liberties. We also paid our compliments to the old maid who insisted on chasing us out of her apple tree and to a man who had kept our baseball when it had shattered his parlor window.
It was this beautifully simple balancing of accounts that made the Fourth not only a playday, but a way of getting back at the adult world, a way of restoring equilibrium between the waning worlds of men and of boys—the men having the advantage all the year except at Halloween. In this sense every explosion we created had curative value, and every adult expression of annoyance, every headache, every startled movement to get out of the way of our artillery satisfied our deep need of rebelling against the authority that kept us in bondage. Our wounds of war in the shape of burned and blistered fingers were badges of courage in this struggle, and we were very proud of them.