Jul/Aug 2004 Nonfiction

The Glorious Fourth

by Chuck West

Dear Sis,

Recently you emailed me with the following question: "Chuck, back in my childhood days on one 4th of July there was a mishap with a firecracker and one of your body parts. You went off to the hospital, but that's all I can remember. Can you refresh my memory?"

Well, Pat, I will do so immediately, but I must tell you that a few others who do not realize that I have always been an idiot when it comes to pyrotechnics may also read this letter. Also, for the benefit of your husband, the former banker, all amounts have been restated for inflation into 2004 dollars.

That said, here come the confessions of an Independence Day pyromaniac:


JULY 4, 1944

Our family joins dad's brother Walter and his family at Walter's house in the South Shore district of Chicago for food and cake and festivities and at-home fireworks. I am almost seven years old. My cousin Dave is lighting firecrackers with a cigarette and throwing them into the street, causing many satisfying reports. I am stuck with a sparkler. I beg a cracker from Dave and, not yet being a smoker, light it with my sparkler which immediately immolates the fuse.

Hospital: Mount Sinai.


JULY 4, 1945

Our parents decide to take us to a "safe and sane" celebration at a beach on Lake Michigan. There the U.S. Marines will stage a mock invasion, complete with LST landing craft and simulated gunfire. As darkness falls and explosions blow sand 20 feet into the air I am entranced. I crawl under the restraining fence and run out onto the beach to assist our brave fighting forces. I'm very surprised when a not-quite-burnt-out starshell slips inside my shirt collar and down my back.

Hospital: Rush Presbyterian.


JULY 4, 1946

Father has put his foot down. We will go nowhere this year. He has brought home fusees (which we now call "safety flares" and keep in the trunk of our car) for color and light. These he liberates from his wartime job on the railroad, plus a quantity of carbide, which the railroad uses to produce gas to fuel lanterns. He takes one of your Dextro-Maltose baby formula cans and punches a nail-hole in the bottom to make a "carbide cannon". When it gets dark he lights several fusees, puts a spoonful of carbide in the can, spits in it and thumps the lid on the container. He sets the contraption on the ground and holds it in place with his foot and touches a match to the nail-hole. The resulting explosion startles me so much I fall backward and sit on a burning fusee.

Hospital: Mercy.


JULY 4, 1947

By now, I can see that I must take control of the annual festivities if I am to survive to adulthood. Fortunately, I have been working as a newspaper delivery boy for the Southtown Economist for the past year and have saved $125. I have also discovered the Spangler's Fireworks Company somewhere in Ohio and have sent for its catalog. In April, after much consideration, I send my $125 money order off for Spangler's "Supreme" assortment, which transaction is totally illegal in the state of Illinois and can only be shipped by Railway Express and will subject the recipient to five years in state prison. (Needless to say, thousands of Illinois juveniles risked incarceration each year and, to my knowledge, none were ever sentenced.)

When the shipment arrives I decide to sell-off the less exciting items (like Ladyfingers, Black Snakes, sparklers, Vesuvius Fountains, etc.) to pay for next year's investment. So I take the entire lot on my paper route and whisper to certain interested juveniles and adults about my contraband. By the first of July I have a profit of $1,000 and nothing left but Snakes and sparklers and Ladyfingers. Our parents enjoy them with a great sense of relief.

Hospital: None.


JULY 4, 1948

Having learned several lessons, my Postal Money Order for $1,000 is in the mail to Spangler's in early January. I order the "Extravaganza" collection and it arrives in time for me to make a few hundred dollars on my paper route before disaster strikes. Our parents decide to move from the Brainard district to the Chatham district, a new neighborhood where nobody knows us (or about my clandestine activities).

I pretend to miss the old neighborhood and ride my bike back and forth several times, moving explosives in my newspaper sack to the excavation under the porch of our new apartment. But I need to improve my cash-flow quickly because I covet Spangler's "London Blitz" which includes a bonus of two Buzz Bombs and one #1 Aerial Bomb, which promises to make itself evident to all assembled within a radius of one mile.

So I find a job peddling an ice cream cart and stash my illegal items in the freezer. None of the little kids want Orange Push-Ups or Grape Popsicles in early May, but they are crazy for fireworks (and will pay twice as much for them as the folks in the old neighborhood). Soon I have my $1,000 back with only half my collection sold and enough money left over to order the "Blitz".

I decide to set off the Aerial Bomb on July 3, just to see how it sounds. It is amazing! It makes a startling report as it is launched, getting the attention of most of the neighborhood. It then ascends 100 feet or so and blows up, dropping several neighbors to their knees. When I am brave enough to peek, about three minutes later, Wabash Avenue is still filled with people looking up.

The next evening, in honor of our uncle John, who has recently been released from Hines Veterans' Hospital several years after Rommel's lads blew up his jeep during the invasion of Africa, I stage the London Blitz in our back yard. I light whole packs of Cobras with my punk (no more sparklers for me!) and toss them around the yard where they sound like machine-gun fire coming from all points of the compass. I ignite smoke bombs to simulate the fog of war. Roman Candles look like inbound V2 rockets. I light the first Buzz-Bomb. It is the size of the core of a toilet-paper roll with two wicked steel blades. You lay it on its side and, when lit, it flops on the ground for a second or two and then rises straight up like a helicopter with a sound like a killer bee the size of a washing machine. At a height of about 15 feet it explodes and produces enough concussion to make your ears ring for ten minutes.

Uncle John is definitely not amused, so he retires inside with aunt Jean. Several others also start drifting off, but I still have one Buzz-Bomb left. I light its fuse...it flops...it rises 18 inches off the ground...it begins to circle the yard. I run and the thing is actually chasing me. It catches up and slices through my pantleg and right thigh. I am bleeding. I reverse field and so does it. Incredibly, the thing makes a full circle of the yard, approaches my bloody leg and explodes, blowing burnt gunpowder into the open wound.

Hospital: Little Company of Mary


JULY 4, 1949

This year, I make enough money on the "Colossal" collection to buy a new bicycle and handlebar basket for my paper routes, set aside money for next year and still have 60% of the stuff left for myself and my friends. We so terrorize the area with explosions through the month of June that the neighbors are numb when I send the #2 Aerial Bomb 150 feet up on the third of July. The police patrols respond smartly, however.

On the fourth we decide to restage the battle of Guadalcanal in a vacant lot (we called them "prairies") in the next block. We wait until full night and use "Alligators," which have less black gunpowder than "Cobras" but a lot more magnesium. This produces a a sharp report and a brilliant flash. About 20 of us choose-up sides and commence lobbing munitions at each other in the dark.

The only problem is that if you just light and immediately throw the firecracker, the device will fall to earth and the flash will be hidden in the weeds. To compensate, one lights the fuse, holds the Alligator with the thumb, index and middle fingers until the fuse burns almost all the way down and then throws it.

Hospital: Little Company of Mary


JULY 4, 1950

This year the "Stupendous" assortment from Spangler's includes the biggest bomb available outside the military. It is the #5 Aerial Bomb, which the catalog claims can be heard over a five-mile radius. It also includes "Zebras," the most powerful firecrackers which can be obtained in packs of 20. I decide to use my remaining Zebras on July third, saving the bomb for a grand finale on the fourth.

Now, when a serious firecracker is lit it does one of four things:

1) the fuse burns down in three to four seconds and it explodes;
2) the fuse burns down and it shoots sparks and smoke out one end (a "fizzler");
3) the fuse burns down and nothing happens (a "dud"...except it might still go off when you pick it up);
4) the fuse burns down in a nanosecond and three of your fingers and the fleshy part of your thumb are severely traumatized.

Hospital: Little Company of Mary (where a nurse says "don't I remember you from last year?")


JULY 4, 1951

By now we have moved to Indiana Avenue...a brand-new house! I have managed to transfer the #5 Aerial Bomb to a locked steel cabinet in our basement and have stopped ordering "assortments". No more dealing with little kids who want me to split a package of Ladyfingers and pay me a nickel apiece for them. I have boxes of bright red "Two-Inchers" and silver "Torpedo-Tubes" (I think they're called "M-Ones" today) and ruby "Cherry-Bombs" (the nastiest little things you can imagine). I carry the inventory in the bottom of my newspaper bag and sell only to adults. The average sale is $300.

On the afternoon of the fourth we are blowing tin cans into the air with firecrackers...five feet, ten feet, 15 feet. I decide to see how far a Cherry Bomb will propel a can. I light the wick and scramble backwards. The can is totally shredded, and at least one shred impacts my forehead.

Hospital: Little Company of Mary


JULY 4, 1952

(Pat, this may be the year that you remember.)

With $8,000 in profits from the previous year I order every big explosive I can think of...sell some...light many...make enough money that I begin to think about early retirement from my Chicago Sun-Times and Daily News paper routes. I still have good old #5 locked in the steel case, along with all my cash and the rest of the stuff which will ensure a wonderful night on the fourth.

In late June, I have need to ignite a Silver Torpedo but have run out of punk. So, I borrow a sparkler...

Hospital: Little Company of Mary

Swathed in bandages, I decide to set off Old #5 after dark on the fourth and do so at about 10 PM, after all other celebrations are long-since over. Not having as yet studied geometry I do not realize that a five-mile radius translates into a circle with a ten-mile diameter and thus the report will be heard over most of the south side of Chicago.

Old #5 is magnificent! It rises to over 700 feet and when it explodes green leaves actually fall from the trees in the neighborhood. Within minutes, the area is illuminated by searchlights and flashing police-car beacons. I retire to my bedroom and pull the covers over my head.

The next morning our doorbell rings and a stern voice announces: "FBI ma'am, we'd like to ask you some questions..."

The two gentlemen talked to our parents for 53 minutes (I timed them from under the covers). When they left, I went downstairs and confessed to Dad. He took me to the basement where I unlocked the cabinet . He placed the contraband (probably enough to level our entire block) plus about $12,000 in cash into a 55-gallon barrel, took it to the backyard and filled the thing with water. The next day he hauled the whole mess to the garbage dump and bribed the guard $10 to let him leave it, no questions asked.

Thus ended my life of crime, my annual trips to the hospital and my dreams of early retirement. Years later, Mom told me that the FBI had been questioning them about a married couple who lived across the street and who were suspected of being Communists because somebody had phoned-in a tip that they were buying explosives from a shady character on a bicycle. This was in the midst of the Joe McCarthy era and the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations.

I keep thinking that there must be a moral embedded in this tale but, for the life of me, I can't think what it might be.

Sis, I hope this answers your question...


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