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The Glorious Unsafe Fourth

May 2024
13min read

It was a day when all the rules were off, and danger was part of the fun.

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.

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.

After them came George Drum’s band, a semiprofessional outfit that gave concerts in the bandstand Saturday nights. The tuba player always attracted me most. He seemed to have a note for each foot that he played as he put that foot forward—oom-pah, oom-pah—in a pattern that never varied. Under the broiling sun his round face was bathed in sweat, and drops of water ran down his cheeks to drip off the point of his chin.

Someone lit a package of small crackers and tossed it neatly into the tuba. The player seemed to be making too much noise himself to hear the explosions, but when smoke began to filter out through his drooping mustache, he stopped to investigate. The crowd was delighted.

Then came floats covered with bunting and representing various ideas of America triumphant; then the Boy Scouts—I could have marched with them but it was more fun to toss firecrackers at their feet. And then, best of all, a Scotch bagpipe band. There was something wild and primitive about their skirling that appealed to a boy’s ear, something stirring and rousing and appropriate to the Fourth. The bass drummer was an artist, a whole show in himself. He crossed his arms and tossed his sticks in the air and never missed a beat. Of the several things I would have liked to be, that drummer was first.

A line of new cars ended the parade. There was an Apperson “Jack Rabbit,” a Chalmers with a body as big as a whaleboat, a Stanley Steamer quietly hissing, an air-cooled Franklin with its comic-looking hood, and, of course, the plebeian Chevrolet and Maxwell and the indestructible T-model Ford. We knew all these cars by heart and called their names as they passed. Most of them, of course, were touring cars. The swing to sedans was just beginning.

A miscellaneous lot of cars and horse-drawn vehicles followed the parade—high, boxlike milk wagons, ice trucks covered like Conestoga wagons, a baker’s truck with rows of drawers, and open delivery wagons. None of them was streamlined, but they were built to fill the special needs they served, and they had a variety in appearance which, as you look back from an assembly-line age, was homely, familiar, and pleasing. Best of all we liked the ice truck, for there were always shards and slivers of ice when the iceman split up the big cakes with his axe. For these we would run behind the cart, calling, “Give us a piece of ice, mister?”

Best of all impromptu excitements was the runaway which invariably occurred on the Fourth. This time it happened just after the parade had passed—a thunder of hoofs, a volley of shouts, and a crowd of running men. The horse turned a sudden corner, the buggy he was pulling smashed against the granite curb and upset, the traces snapped, and the horse lit out for home. The beauty of his running, free from the load he drew—legs lifted high, mane flying, tail stuck out behind—seemed like the perfect expression of that freedom from restraint that the Fourth meant to a boy.

There was only one dark spot in the day’s program—the Fourth of July oration. This year the speaker was our school principal. As he stood up in the bandstand we knew that once he was wound up he might go on for an hour. Yet it never occurred to us to walk out. He was part of the day’s ritual. Ordinarily, the best we could hope for to break the monotony was a dog fight. But on this Fourth a special blessing occurred. Somehow—it could have been arranged—a dog and cat found themselves together under the bandstand. Between the platform and the ground was a continuous row of slats intended, no doubt, to keep out dogs and cats. However they had got in there, neither of them was able to get out. Their dispute over the territory, coming at the climax of the oration, was well timed. First a growl, then a frantic barking, then the spitting and spluttering of the cat, then a yowl, then a muffled symphony of noises rising to a shriek, then the injured surprise expressed in a plaintive yip, then the whole round repeated again—we got the whole story by ear. By the time someone had found a way to let the cat out, the orator was floundering in the wreck of his overweighted verbal edifice, the audience was snickering, and the band struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner” in an effort to save the sadly deteriorating situation.

After the noonday dinner there was a ball game, but I didn’t go. The afternoon heat settled over us like a thick blanket, leaving us limp and lazy. Now and then a faint breath of air stirred under the trees on the back lawn. We lay around on the grass, tossing a firecracker now and then, resting up for the evening program. Then I persuaded my mother to make us some lemonade, and in honor of the occasion she made it pink. What virtue the color had I do not know, but we assumed that it made an infinitely superior product. The bittersweet flavor clung to the throat; the lumps of ice floating in the glasses made the liquid so cold that we could feel the shock like ice laid at our foreheads when we drank. Then, lying on the soft, cool lawn, we looked up through the rich tangle of leaves, bright green where the sun shone through them and touched with gold at the edges, enjoying the apathy produced by the heat, savoring the delightful prospect of the long, school-free summer that we knew lay ahead of us.

After supper there was another round of activity, beginning with a carnival that included such attractions as the man whose heart was exposed to view, a snake charmer, “real” Hawaiian dancers whom we referred to as “hootchie-cootchies,” a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, snap-the-whip, chamber of surprises, and a whole row of booths where you could buy something to eat or take a chance or try your skill in a variety of ways.

Money by this time was running short; we had to choose from all these temptations two or three. I chose a hot dog, a cone full of pink spun sugar—cottony stuff that dissolved into sweetness on the tongue— and the chamber of surprises, where I fell down collapsing stairways, looked at myself in rippled mirrors, and spun around on revolving floors.

The carnival brought to our quiet town-life a kind of gaudy splendor and activity that were a welcome change. The shouts of the barkers, the horrible painted canvases advertising the two-headed man and the man-eating savage from Borneo, the rows of tawdry prizes, the confusion of sounds, smells, movement, and garish lighting—all these suggested a possible world wider and brighter than the one we lived in, yet they also established in a subtle way the solid dependability of our own.

By nine thirty it was dark enough for the fireworks exhibit to begin. This was announced by two or three aerial bombs bursting with such magnificent strength that we could feel them in our chests and throats. As amateurs, we appreciated the professional excellence of those explosions. We ran to the edge of the ball field where the set pieces had been put up, their skeletal shapes showing dimly in the dark.

The pieces were mostly patriotic. There was an airplane with a pinwheel whirling around for a propeller. Uncle Sam rode in a car with revolving wheels. As the pieces were set off one after another against the velvet backdrop of the night, the burning colors with their deep pure shades had a quieting effect on us. It was as if we had been initiated into some mystery of beauty whose meaning we did not understand. Each time a piece was set off a chorused “Ah-h-h” came from the watchers—quiet, spontaneous, like the voice of the ocean.

Then an aerial bomb would burst over our heads in an umbrella of colored flowers. And at the end an American flag appeared in full and glowing color, a barrage of bombs exploded in little bursts of light above us, echoing up and down the surrounding hills, and the display was over.

But there was one event still to come. We had our own night pieces to shoot off. Because our yard was large, friends brought their stuff over, the neighbors collected, and we had another celebration. Pinwheels, Roman candles, flower pots, sparklers, fire fountains, and skyrockets—we had them all. Knowing that the sparks from the sparklers were harmless, we liked to hold our hands out to be bombarded by this magic fire that did not burn. Otherwise, we considered sparklers rather tame and sissy. As for the Roman candles, my brother was always pointing them at the crowd in his excitement and causing sudden alarums and excursions.

With a fine disregard for fire hazards, we also sent up hot-air balloons, carrying their own bit of candle to keep them buoyant. I remember them rising in the darkness, their red paper glowing in the dark, floating and bobbing about like buoys in a harbor until they were out of sight.

But best of all were the skyrockets, because they were the most dangerous. We placed them in a wooden trough that was aimed at the open space between the tall elms, just over our barn roof. But skyrockets had a somewhat mulish disposition. They made a great sputter before moving up the trough, and sometimes they burned without taking off at all, or went where they were not expected.

The principal of our school was one of our neighbors, and I suppose he thought it was with premeditated malice that one of our rockets chose to go after him. It chased him around the yard and ran him up a steep bank in a way that was gratifying to see. It was a perfect conclusion to a Glorious Fourth.

With the laws against fireworks and the arrival of radio and allegedly sophisticated forms of entertainment to supplant the human fly, the parade, and the oration, the Glorious Fourth has ceased to be a part of our national life. Maybe it is for the best, since accidents inevitably resulted from the presence of so much gunpowder in eager hands. Yet if we have learned anything in recent years we have learned that danger is inseparable from living.

In any case, no one old enough to remember such a Fourth of July is likely to forget, as long as he lives, the excitement of the dawn awakening, the wonderful pungent smell of gunpowder filling the air, the unaccustomed leniency of parents, the mood of a young nation innocently exulting in its strength and freedom, the glitter of the carnival, the beauty of colored flame burning against the great backdrop of night.

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