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By Staff | Jul 3, 2009

Our nation’s Founding Fathers were probably the smartest guys ever. They knew that a year was too long between Christmases so they invented the Fourth of July and plunked it down at about the halfway mark.

July 4 is a unique American holiday wherein we celebrate our independence from England by blowing wads of George Washingtons on fireworks made in China.

Back when I was a kid, mid-June’s mail would bring vividly illustrated fireworks brochure. We spent hours poring over that brochure, making lists of our planned purchases.

Fireworks would consume perhaps a dollar of our hard-earned egg money. A soda or a candy bar cost a nickel, so a buck could buy you a day-long sugar bender.

Fireworks sales started a week before the Fourth. We kids knew this and would begin to beg our parents to take us to the nearest roadside stand to consult with our friendly local fireworks facilitator.

The fireworks facilitator was actually some zit-faced teenager, but he was probably a bona fide fireworks expert. Everyone was by the age of 12. Veteran fireworks aficionados were given such nicknames as Firebug or Lefty.

I don’t recall ever being told I was too young to purchase fireworks. If you were able to see over the counter and say “I’ll have a jumbo pack of Flying Finger firecrackers, please” the only question you might be asked was “Ya need an extra punk for that?”

We would commence our gunpowder-powered adventures as soon as we got home and quickly became expert in the art of knowing when a firework was truly a dud. Those who were too hasty in declaring a failure were severely punished for their impatience.

Duds were routinely dissected. We would unravel dead firecrackers, ignoring the indecipherable Chinese symbols inside which probably carried news of some kid being injured at a Shanghai fireworks factory.

But mainly we would blow things up. We would plant firecrackers in the dirt, learning the fine art of strip mining, a topic which is oft neglected by our school systems.

There was nothing better than having a supply of firecrackers and finding a big, bustling ant mound.

A lit firecracker would be placed on the ant mound. We would then scurry away to avoid any ant shrapnel. The angry insects would furiously attack the sizzling firecracker until – BOOM!

Incensed ants would rush into the small crater left by the explosion. Another ‘cracker was tossed in, which was also angrily attacked. We carpet-bombed the ants, who never failed to respond with anger. Stupid ants. They never learned.

Standard fireworks soon lost their thrill and we began to improvise. This was during the era of Gemini and Apollo, so rocketry was much on our minds.

I once constructed an experimental device from a board and staples and a wad of sequentially fused bottle rockets.

It was calculated that this device would produce enough thrust to carry a kid to low earth orbit. The issue of reentry was never addressed.

I lit the primary fuse and backed off a safe distance. The first rocket ignited and then – disaster! Its exhaust plume ignited all the other rockets!

After running a ways to escape the hissing, popping disaster, I looked back to see that it was following me! Only then did I recall that I had tied a rope from my waist to the plank. It was a searing experience on many levels.

One late June a slick-looking stranger pulled onto our farmyard. He chatted with Dad a few minutes, then went to his car and hauled out what appeared to be a bratwurst with a string hanging out of one end.

He said that this was the perhaps the best firecracker ever and that he would gladly demonstrate if we had a coffee can. One of us kids ran to the house and soon returned with a coffee can.

The stranger put the bratwurst on the ground and touched its fuse with his cigarette. The coffee can was placed over the bratwurst and we were warned to back well away.

The coffee can suddenly disappeared! My ears also began to ring loudly. My hearing recovered in time to hear the stranger say, “Your kids can’t have a real Fourth without real fireworks!”

I asked the stranger what happened to our coffee can.

“Just a second, son,” he replied. “Say, why don’t you step aside just a bit?”

A moment later our coffee can crashed to the earth about where I’d been standing. “What’d ya think?” asked the stranger.

Dad glanced at the scorched and dented coffee can and said, “No thanks,” adding that his kids yet had all their fingers and he’d like it keep it that way.

Too bad. I bet a supply of those bratwursts and a 5-gallon bucket could have let me fly as high as Santa Claus.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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