Once upon a time fireworks were illegal in Indiana.
To be more accurate, I should say most fireworks.
Hoosiers could lawfully purchase only “sparklers,” “snakes,” “smoke bombs” and a few other junior varsity incendiaries. I guess the Legislature’s logic was that the occasional brush fire was an acceptable tradeoff in exchange for our primitive 1970s Independence Day celebrations.
By today’s standards, these devices were rather ho-hum, making for less than spectacular pyrotechnical displays. Indeed, if you were to show up at your July 4th pitch-in picnic with a bag of these items this year, your host would likely not deign to ignite them, though I’m sure she’d gratefully accept your family favorite potato salad.
No, back then if you wanted the “good stuff,” as far as fireworks were concerned, Tennessee was the Promised Land. In the Volunteer State you could purchase all manner of “real” fireworks: firecrackers, bottle rockets, atomic rockets, Roman candles; even ear drum rupturing cherry bombs!
It is impossible to calculate the number of Midwestern families returning from their Florida spring breaks who were lured by roadside signs to stop and fill any remaining space in their cars with explosive contraband.
The advertising itself was worthy of memory. Large, colorful signs. Images of rockets, scantily clad women, exotic animals, conflagration — these guys really knew how to bait a trap! I even recall a few of the store’s names: Big Daddy’s, Loco Joe’s, Black Cat and last but not least, Sad Sam. Tempting credulity, each of these outlets boldly claimed to be the “world’s largest” and the “last chance” opportunity to purchase. It was all too much for a 10 year old to take.
Dad! Please! For the love of Pete, it’s the last chance!
How many road-weary parents made this stop? How many dads pulled out their vacation depleted wallets for this last, small vestige of the family trip?
With an appropriate amount of gruff, the old man came through.
I remember one year riding the last leg of the trip home sitting on a brick of firecrackers. Interesting how things passing by looked different sitting only a few inches higher.
My dad really enjoyed fireworks. Immeasurably.
I believe they were one of many things he had no access to as a child and so he made up for this as an adult, not for his sake so much as for his children’s.
In 1979 we had not made our by then traditional border stop for whatever reason and July 4 was approaching. We had no fireworks, a prospect unconscionable to my father.
In a move that would have made Ferdinand and Isabella proud, dad sponsored my 18-year-old brother and one of his friends to journey to Tennessee for the sole purpose of bootlegging big boy fireworks back home in time for the Fourth.
Much planning ensued. AAA maps were acquired. Budgets proposed and approved. Communication contingencies laid out.
The mission finally launched and was a success and July 4, 1979, arrived with much anticipation.
The word was out among our immediate neighbors that there would be a grand fireworks display at our home that night, beginning shortly after nightfall.
Please remember, it was still illegal to set off such fireworks in Indiana, so there was also the added concern that the police might show up.
As dusk approached my brother moved the giant box containing all of his ordnance onto our front lawn.
Only a few of the more eager spectators were present, the others awaiting nightfall still perhaps 30 minutes away. My father, having had a drink, perhaps two, was napping in the web-lined rocker (remember those?) on the front porch.
I begged my brother to give us a preview. “Set off something! Come on, just a fountain!”
After a few minutes of cajoling, he relented.
Choosing a small cone fountain he walked it a few steps from the main trove and lit the fuse.
Hsssss. A multitude of sparks accompanied by cheers shot perhaps 15 feet into the air, briefly lighting the gloam before cascading harmlessly downward.
“Harmlessly” except for one errant ember that found its way into the fireworks cache unseen.
For perhaps five minutes nothing much transpired except my intermittent whining for another “preview,” which my brother staunchly resisted.
Then, a phantom serpent of smoldering smoke arose from the box.
Before I could process this and get my brother’s attention, hissing and sparks were leaping from the top of the container.
The next three minutes were shear pandemonium, fear and glee.
Faster than anyone could react, projectiles were flying from the hoard — atomic rockets coursing horizontally, Roman candle bursts helter-skelter.
Dad woke abruptly, sprang from his rocker and began running the length of the porch back and forth yelling, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” Over the next two minutes he rested from this only once to briefly enjoy a tug from his bottle, then resumed, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes boys!” Winded to a degree that perhaps only Revere and Prescott might truly appreciate, he settled back into his rocker.
The detonations at length died down, as mere popcorn completing its cycle in a microwave to…silence.
My brother’s once fearsome arsenal was now engulfed in flames perhaps four feet tall. Now three. Now two. Then crumbling cinders like the ashes collapsing from some drowsy aristocrat’s cigarillo were all that remained.
Suddenly through the acrid haze new lighting appeared. Blue-red from the driveway. It was the cops.
Dad mumbled something about “Tories” and the police, satisfied with someone’s explanation, eventually moved along.
The charred spot on our front lawn bore witness to this great happening for the rest of that and the next few summers.
Forty-plus years have passed since that wonderful, accidental exhibition. Time affords me even greater perspective than sitting atop a brick of firecrackers once did.
As you know, fireworks of far greater power and grandeur are now legal in Indiana — to purchase that is. No one would ever dare set them off here of course. (Wink-wink.)
My oldest child now approaches the age I was when my father died. At 63, he passed a relatively young man by today’s reckoning.
Many hard truths of fatherhood have revealed themselves along the way. Harry Chapin’s “But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay,” cuts deep.
As a father of four and a veteran of many drives to and from Florida, I can now attest to the fatigue a parent feels when their children press for one more pit stop, one more seemingly unnecessary souvenir.
At the time, I met those small inconveniences with less grace than I should have.
I now treasure those moments beyond all else.
I trust, I pray, my dad felt the same.