I’m sure when Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and the boys jotted their names on the Declaration of Independence they had no idea what it would ultimately spawn.
Yes, there was the formation of the world’s greatest nation, the spread of democracy and the ultimate creation of reality television, including the show “Naked and Afraid,” all fantastic things. But perhaps the most amazing thing was the birth of the Fourth of July as a holiday and ultimately the opportunity for children to handle explosives.
When I was a child the Fourth of July was hands-down my favorite holiday simply for that reason. As I’ve aged considerably I do spend more time reflecting on our country’s history on the Fourth, but I still think considerably about how much fun it would be to shoot a bottle rocket at someone else, or blow something up with a cherry bomb.
Times are different now, so let’s hope that last sentence doesn’t get me in trouble with the ATF or whatever federal agency frowns upon citizens igniting gunpowder. Plus living in the heart of a city it’s much different than where I grew up in a small town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Here in the city you’re really not supposed to be setting off firecrackers or bottle rockets, or even shooting your 9 mm into the air as rapidly as possible. But it happens. And maybe that’s one way of celebrating freedom. Certainly it’s a way of testing gravity and causing derelict houses to catch fire.
Where I grew up, though, we were allowed to spend any money we could possibly get our hands on to purchase as many fireworks as possible to take down to the beach at my parents’ house to “set them off.” My siblings and cousins and I had distinctly different ideas of what that term meant, though.
For some reason adults thought children drew some amazing delight from lighting a single bottle rocket fuse, running away and watching it shoot off into the night sky to die with a relatively tepid pop and faint light. I’ll admit there was some degree of satisfaction in doing that, or watching an adult handle the amazing Roman Candle – far too dangerous for the kiddies. But the real fun was generally had the following day when the adults were sick and tired of policing safe handling of fireworks.
That’s when the Bottle Rocket Wars took place.
What adults seemingly didn’t understand was that as we wandered through whatever trailer had been adorned with a plywood façade to make it look like a sturdy, year-round explosives warehouse, we were only selecting items based upon their battlefield usefulness.
Of course the major component of a bottle rocket war is … bottle rockets. They are quasi aim-able, cause pain on the few occasions you actually make contact and do have the potential to blow up in your own hand when you throw them. Perfect.
As we lived close to the water there was an abundance of cane, which were easily cut and fashioned into a bottle rocket launcher of sorts. It moved their accuracy up into the mid-single digits.
We typically would spilt up into teams of four or five with one group defending an overturned aluminum boat and the other charging out of a dry wooded area ripe to catch on fire from stray fireworks. Typically defending the boat wasn’t the best side of things. It was kind of the Alamo of our back yard.
But there was more to the overall melee than just shooting bottle rockets at one another. We had to work in the other fireworks available at the trailer.
Everyone bought a few firecrackers, although really they sucked as a weapon. Trying to throw them was likely to make it tougher to pick your nose later. Also they really didn’t do much other than make noise and perhaps add to the overall battlefield ambience — smoke, noise, some kid screaming because he blew his finger off, etc.
Probably the second most popular purchase was smoke bombs. We’d all seen enough episodes of “S.W.A.T.” to know smoke bombs were great for hiding tactical movements. Of course most of the canisters real cops and even TV cops use produced a whole lot of smoke — lots more than little blue, purple, orange and red smoke bombs. But in our minds tossing them out in front of a charge offered some pretty good camouflage. In reality the smoke probably didn’t ever get much more than two feet off the ground and was easily dispersed by the breeze. But I never lost a man during one of those charges.
Occasionally things got a bit out of hand. At one point I know we tried to include Roman Candles, but seeing as they shot actual burning embers and brought the skin graft/brushfire opportunities up frightfully high, that didn’t last long.
There were also those little metal spinners — I think they were called Twisters — that shot sparks and launched into the air at 1,000 mph. They also seemed likely to be something that would require a body part to be put on ice and rushed to the ER, so they didn’t last long.
And back in the ‘80s you could still even get an M-80 or M-60, both of which were some portion of a stick of dynamite. Those didn’t ever make it onto the battlefield, but they were used to blow up things all over the neighborhood. Glad we at least sensed our mutually assured destruction.
Hopefully my kids won’t read this column — something I should have thought about before writing it — because now that I’m a parent the last thing I want is them shooting or throwing fireworks at each other. I’ll just tell them the fireworks today are much more dangerous. (Don’t read that last sentence kids.)
Jefferson and his buddies deserve a great deal of credit for the bravery they showed in signing the Declaration of Independence. I wish I’d have been around with a few grosses of bottle rockets, a few dozen smoke bombs and a Roman Candle or two to help them chase off those pesky Brits.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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