The Glorious Unsafe Fourth

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At breakfast my father told us tales of six-inch salutes and of gunpowder packed into small cannons with paper wads and stones, but such evidences of the unrestricted right of Americans to blow themselves to kingdom come had been ruled out by my time. We had to do the best we could with three-inchers. As a matter of fact, a higher form of explosive than mere gunpowder was used in them, so perhaps they were not far from those of my father’s youth.

There was drama in every explosion, There was always the chance that no matter how carefully you ignited the fuse, the fire would run to the powder faster than you could run away. Part of the fun, indeed, was in seeing how close you could come in a race of this sort and still win. One way to do it was to hold the firecracker in one hand while you lit it with the other, and then, just as the fizzing red line of fire reached the fuse’s end, to throw it as far as you could. Meanwhile your heart would be pounding so hard that it affected your hearing, and sometimes the firecracker would explode in your hand. As a result of my mother’s predictions, I always expected to lose a finger doing this. But I still have them all.

After breakfast we began experimenting with ways of increasing the noise or using the impact of the explosion. The wonderfully stimulating, acrid smell of gunpowder was by now well worked into our clothes. Sometimes, as we bent over a firecracker, the stinging smoke from a stick of punk would get in our eyes. Punk was indispensable. It came in thin sticks, and once lighted would burn slowly and always be at hand for touching off a fuse.

One of our favorite ways of testing the power of our salutes was to set one on a stone or slate, light the fuse, quickly drop a tin can or lard pail on it, and then get out of the way. Then we would try two or three salutes, until we had pails sailing higher than the tallest elms, with a muffled report that shook the heart inside your ribs and set your blood pumping with delight.

My father, who enjoyed the Fourth as much as we did, was especially fond of these can-lifting operations. I can see him now, coming out of the cellar with a small bucket and saying, “Here you are, boys. Let’s see what we can do with this.” We knew he wanted to shoot a few himself, so with that willingness to indulge a childish parent which is one of childhood’s endearing traits, we provided the materials.

He made careful preparations, lighted the fuse, and stepped back. The bucket rose gracefully above the roof, lost momentum, then turned and fell with an aimed precision into the chimney. It later cost him several dollars to get the obstruction removed.

“You’ll probably need this for more fireworks,” he said, handing me fifty cents. “And I wouldn’t say anything to your mother about that bucket. You know how women are about the Fourth.”

My mother, as a matter of fact, had bandages and ointments ready for the accidents she had predicted. But my brother and I made it a point of honor never to take our Fourth of July wounds to her. Sometimes we would rub a little butter on a burn, but burns that would have demanded maternal care on other days never seemed to hurt much on the Fourth. No psychologists, we assumed that the reason lay in some healing power the gunpowder possessed, and never questioned it further.

By mid-morning we were down on Main Street waiting for the parade. On this particular Fourth we also had a human fly who was going to climb up the outside of our local skyscraper—a six-story building with a fancy cornice on which he proposed to ride a bicycle.

The human fly came every year, but this was the first time he had come on the Fourth. For weeks after his performances, we would imitate his methods on house and barn until a sprained ankle or a turned wrist ended our enthusiasm. But the bicycle stunt was new, and it drew a large crowd.

The ease with which he got up the face of the building was amazing, but when he balanced his bicycle on that swooping cornice, we were in an ecstasy of excitement, not quite sure whether we wanted him to succeed or preferred to be present at his gruesome demise. How he managed to mount and get momentum without tumbling off I still do not know. There was in it that element of danger that belonged to the Fourth.

Shortly after his act was over, we could hear the tentative drumbeats and horn-warmings of the band assembling at the monument square. Then, after a long wait, the first line of the parade came down the hill. It consisted, as always, of our four biggest cops, dressed in long coats that they filled out in a magnificent parabola from chin to thigh. Then the flags, then the Civil War veterans, still more than a dozen of them, dressed in their blue uniforms and campaign hats with the golden cords.

They got a big hand, but when the young men from the recent war (we were not quite sure what to call it then, though many favored “the European War” or “the Great War”) came stepping along in their high-collared uniforms with knee breeches and rolled puttees, they got a rousing welcome. To us they were the ones who had licked the Huns and put the Kaiser in his place and shown Europe what stuff Americans were made of.