Two weeks before the Fourth of July, Grampa and I had driven in his groaning old Ford out to one of the fireworks stands outside town and stocked up. Grampa struggled with his conscience, I know: between his responsibilities as Chief of Police and the gleeful little boy inside who loved explosions. He struggled, too, with money; the big stuff, skyrockets and the like, cost too much, so we didn’t get any. But together we bought enough Black Cats and Zebras to fill a three-pound coffee can, a substantial shock of bottle rockets, and sparklers, and those black triangles that you lit, and that smoked, and that turned into a skinny five-foot featherweight charcoal turd shitting out of the sidewalk.
At first, in the ten days or so leading up to the Fourth, it was enough just to light a firecracker and throw it. But my friend Richard and I were kids, true conservatives and true inventors all at once; and soon we began devising ways to get the most out of each of our precious explosions. We tried everything.
Light a Zebra and throw it in an empty rain barrel.
Light a Black Cat and tweak it up the downspout.
Not so good. Take off a section of downspout and set it up like a cannon; toss a Black Cat down the barrel.
And wait. And wait.
Another dud with a Black Cat. They looked mean, but they really weren’t very good firecrackers. Next year, we vowed, we would buy only Zebras.
We got the cannon pretty well refined. We plugged the breech end with dirt and found a tin can that fit the barrel end tight and we loaded and fired fast: light the firecracker, drop it down the barrel, slip the tin can over the downspout muzzle and PWOMP! Shoot the can all of three or four feet.
Then we realized somehow that we were losing a lot of pressure and that we could get better can velocity with another setup. I think it probably grew out of Richard’s musing: “You know, if we had a cherry bomb, we could set up a pan of water and put the cherry bomb in the water, and then put the can on top of it, and it’d shoot up a million feet!”
But we didn’t have cherry bombs — too expensive, too dangerous. So we punched a hole in the bottom of our tin can with an awl, just big enough to squeeze a firecracker in. We set up a pie plate with a half inch of water in it. We jammed the firecracker into the hole in the tin can, most of its explosive extending inside. Settled the open end of the can in the pan of water, till it stopped trying to float; lit the firecracker —
A million feet straight up in the air. Water all over the place.
What an instinct. Find out how to make something explode, then look for something to put it inside, look for some way to make it propel something…And of course we did our share of planting Zebras in the ground and blowing craters in the lawn. I think it’s species memory, little boys and warfare. Once we even caught a salamander and jammed a Black Cat down his throat and vaporized him, running, giggling, the thrill rearing up in our throats like a snake.
It’s a good thing it never occurred to us to throw a firecracker down the gas tank of a car …look for something to put it inside, look for some way to make it propel something…
We might have. We might have.