Whoa, guys, make sure you’re not on any fault lines when you light that thing off…

[Author’s note: The following is a 100% true story of a Fourth of July experience I had as a ten year old. Here in the United States, “Independence Day” is celebrated in true American fashion by attempting to blow things up. Do not try any of this at home. Ever.]

The Fourth of July ranked just behind Christmas and Birthdays on my juvenile holiday calendar. Well, sure, Easter and Halloween were both pretty cool with all the candy. But the Fourth was like a pandora’s box of explosive delights. You never knew what you were going to get. You woke up with the day full of promise, nothing but adventures ahead. Especially in states where anything bigger than a smoke bomb or sparkler was illegal. The day held such potential! Would one of your neighbors smuggle in the banned stuff from out of state? Would you get to blow something up? Would you get hurt? Would the cops be involved? It was a glorious mix of excitement, fear, danger, explosions, and really cool flaming smoky stuff.

The year that I was ten, us neighborhood kids hatched a plan that would live in legend. It began, as many of our schemes did, up in the rafters of Ben’s garage where a few plywood boards made up the floor of a makeshift room. There I found him, hunched over, working on something. You see, Ben was wise in the ways of the world, being that he was almost thirteen. A guy like that’s been around. He sat Indian style with an empty bottle in front of him and a sparkler in his hands. He was using a pocketknife to scrape the gray dust off of the sparkler and into the bottle. Several shorn sparkler sticks sat discarded nearby, evidence of his hard work.

“What are you doing?” I asked, peeking my ragged little head up between the rafters.

He continued his work, intent. “This stuff on sparklers is just gunpowder, right?” he said. It all seemed plausible to me. My eyes turned to the bottle he’d been filling. At that point I didn’t really know what the plan was, but it was clear to me that a plan was underway, and that it was going to be BIG.

“WHOA!” I said.

Ben just nodded and scraped.

I jumped down to the cement floor of the garage and tore out of there, intent on rounding up more sparklers. I added my sparkler collection to his pile, and before long I had my best friends in on the scheme, contributing sparklers as well. In a small town like ours, word travels fast. Soon there were about a half dozen of us, hunched low among the rafters in that hot garage, scraping away. Our stash of gunpowder grew, as did our expectations of the firecracker we were going to build with it. Of course, I wasn’t doing any of the actual scraping because my parents told me that knives were too dangerous. (!)

As we scraped, we talked. We talked about “The Bomb.” With every minute of labor our expectations grew. Soon what was going to be a firecracker became, in our minds, an explosive device capable of ripping the aluminum siding off of a house or sending a pickup truck airborne.

As we scraped, it became clear that we were going to need a plan for once we detonated this thing. We needed to do it where we wouldn’t arouse suspicion, and where we could easily get away once the cops came to investigate the thundering explosion and subsequent billowing mushroom cloud. We also needed to detonate the device in an area that provided ample cover from the screaming debris that it would undoubtedly kick up in every direction.

Construction of the firework itself was the next step. Ben had it all planned out – he had a thick cardboard tube set aside. He had a base solidly attached and he poured the powder into the open end a little at a time. He would pour a little, then pound it all into place with a hammer. Then he’d pour some more. And pound it. Pour. And pound. Pour. And pound. We all watched it with awe – it was like Ben knew what he was doing. He had the precision of a surgeon and the knowledge of a scientist.

I wondered aloud if it would be safe to look at the explosive when it went off. I wondered if maybe I should be far away, on my bike, so I could watch it go off and then ride away before the police honed in on the crater.

Finally, after an eternity, the tube had been packed to capacity and pounded as tight as it could get. Ben sealed the other end and carefully put a long fuse in place. The resulting experiment was about twice as big as a D-cell battery and roughly the same dimensions. Who would light it? We all decided it should be Ben, who was the oldest and could run the fastest from the hellish cacophony of explosive might that would erupt from the doomsday ‘cracker.

As we rode our bikes to a nearby tree-lined field, I started to get nervous. What had we done? I wanted to be as far away from the monstrosity as possible, and yet, I found myself inexplicably drawn toward the potential devastation like a moth to a lamp post. I had to be there, regardless of the consequences. So there I was, crouched behind a ridge with my friends. Our bikes were scattered across the ground nearby, wheels still slowly spinning in the late afternoon holiday sun.

Ben set down the firework at the foot of an old tree. He flattened out the ground around it. We gave him the thumbs-up from where we were scattered among nearby cover. With a grim nod, he waited until the wind died down then lit the fuse with a disposable lighter. All the cool kids had disposable lighters.

The fuse twinkled and sparked. Ben scurried – I was amazed he didn’t run – toward cover and crouched behind a nearby tree. The fuse burned, smoked, sizzled, burned, flared up, then disappeared into a crimson ember. Suddenly it fired up again, shooting sparks. A little spout of flame danced over the top arch of the fuse and began its inevitable descent into the bowels of the beast itself. A curly wisp of smoke snaked up from the firework in the instant before it went off.

It’s difficult to put what happened next into words. Try this: Imagine the fattest man that you’ve ever seen. Next, imagine that fat, fat man taking a deep, deep breath. Now punch him hard in the stomach. The noise that would result is identical to the raspy “PAF!” that erupted that fine July afternoon from the world’s most disappointing engineering project. The ground didn’t even shake. It wasn’t even a boom – it was like a very deep puff.

A cloud of pitch-black smoke poured from the device. The dark column rose up and then, to my astonishment, billowed out into the smallest mushroom cloud I’d ever seen. In later years I look back with surprise that the bomb went off at all, and even more surprise that it was able to go off with such spectacular anticlimaxity. A great dark circle lingered on the ground, the only visible remnant on the mightiest weapon of destruction ever honed by the hands of prepubescent man. Our jaws hung open. I don’t recall any of us registering disappointment. We just stared, transfixed, at the plume of smoke that wafted begrudgingly away. We didn’t feel any pride in what we’d wrought, and yet, we shared a sense of mutual accomplishment.

Wordlessly we rode our bikes away.

Later that evening my friend Joe discovered if you put an M-80 underneath a metal pie plate you could send it into low-altitude earth orbit. God bless America!


Victim Pic Small

Of course, the highlight of that year was when Bryan discovered you could just set fire to a whole pack of those charcoal “snake” thingiees and like 50 of them would pour out of it simultaneously. That was SWEET.


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