Ooh, Aah… Repeat
By Craig Ruhl
As we walk over to the high school across the street from the community I live in, daylight quickly fades over the horizon and darkness fills the void. Spreading out our blankets on the hill next to the football field, we eagerly await the show to begin. Suddenly, from the playing field in front of us, a rush of light and sound rises into the sky. A second or two later, there is a brilliant flash and an echoing boom followed by a cascade of red, white, and blue secondary explosions. We hear the first oohs and aahs amongst the throng of onlookers filling the high school stadium bleachers. In quick succession, a series of rockets shoot into the night in an array that will light up the sky with waterfalls of exploding stars that slowly drift back downward. A thick cloud of smoke wafts across the field obscuring the brave men who scurry about tending the incendiary devices and watchfully ensuring the safety of the workers and the observers. It is the start of another annual celebration of America’s freedom.
The above is one of my memories of growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s. The Fourth of July fireworks followed a day full of picnics, parades, and a lot of flags being waved. Families and friends gathered on lawns and driveways, often spilling out into the street. The neighborhoods were noisy, filled with the sound of laughing, and sometimes crying, children. Hot dogs, hamburgers, and corn on the cob sizzled on the charcoal grills. Bottles of soft drinks and beer for some adults sat chilling in galvanized steel tubs filled with ice. Card tables were filled with condiments, chips, pickles, cakes, and pies. The delicious smell of food cooking combined with the sweet scent of suntan lotion and would soon include the acrid bite of gunpowder from the fireworks.
Back to those fireworks. There are quite a few things that capture the attention and imagination of a young boy, but I would have to put anything that flashes and goes bang at the top of my list. My parents were conservative in what they allowed us kids to get involved with. Although my mom was always home, she couldn’t keep her eyes on my every move. She tried, but I sought neighborhood friends whose parents were less stringent in their parenting. This gave me access to the fabulous and fascinating world of fireworks. It is cool to take a plastic model of a boat, tape a couple of small firecrackers to the deck with a long fuse, light the fuse and shove the boat out onto the pond or lake. The resulting explosion, flinging parts of the boat into the air, and a cloud of smoke and water mist is very satisfying to a kid. Not safe, but fun. We considered it a rite of passage to advance from ladyfingers, black snakes, and sparklers to bigger and louder incendiaries. A boy achieved maturity and stature when he mastered roman candles, cherry bombs, and the ultimate - the M-80.
When I was still in grade school, we lived in Prairie Village, Kansas. Our home was on 75th Street, forming a border between Kansas and Missouri. If my memory is still correct, it was illegal to have fireworks in our part of Kansas but legal just across the street in Missouri. Well, I had friends on both sides of the street, and I knew how to use them to my best advantage. As soon as fireworks went on sale in Missouri, I gave my allowance money to my buddy on that side of the street, whose parents allowed him to have small firecrackers. I hid the coveted brown paper bag filled with explosive delights away from the prying eyes of my parents until the guys and I could meet up and light them off. Mom was a super sleuth, and she soon discovered the cache. When he came home from work that day, Dad was tasked with disciplining me for the infraction. He gave me a stern talking to that night. Two days later, on a Saturday morning, he loaded me, a shovel, and the offending bag of evidence into the car. He drove us across the street, down a side street and into an empty dirt lot a good distance away with no one nearby. We got out of the car and he handed me the shovel, telling me to dig a hole and then empty the contents of the bag into the hole. My hopes and dreams of setting off firecrackers were about to be buried. As soon as the bag was empty, dad had me stand back a few yards, and he struck a match, lighting the empty bag. Checking to see that I was safely behind him, he tossed the burning bag onto the strings of firecrackers in the hole and ran back to where I was standing. Within seconds fuses caught fire, and the explosions started, sounding like a machine gun was firing on full auto. Loud, I remember it being very loud, and smokey too. I looked at my dad in amazement at what had just happened. A little while after the conflagration had stopped, he gave me the shovel again and told me to toss the dirt back into the hole I had dug. When I finished and had tamped the dirt down tightly, he bent down to look me in the face and said with a smile, “Your Mom and I decided your punishment was to be for you to safely bury the firecrackers. You have now done that. Nobody needs to know what happened between the digging and burying, do they?” I still remember the enormous grin on my dad’s face when those firecrackers started going off. You just can’t take the boy out of the man.
My youth was during the first and second decades following World War II. Patriotism was strong and family traditions included celebrating the birth of the United States of America. Our parents taught us about patriotism, being of service to our country, and passing those traditions down to our children and grandchildren. We Americans wore our national pride on our sleeves, and we weren’t shy in living it out or showing it to the world. Fireworks have been a part of those celebrations for as long as America has existed. In many parts of the country, laws, regulations, and civil codes have changed the way we enjoy our patriotic displays, but the memories of my youth are filled with the flashes, bangs, oohs, and aah's of Fourth of July celebrations.
(This article first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Faith On Every Corner magazine)