04 July 2009

Fiery Fourth

The year must have been around 1953. I had two younger brothers and one younger sister. My father made it a tradition to have a large box of fireworks for the July 4th holiday and celebration. Since he was a local businessman I think he got some of the leftovers from one of the local fireworks vendors. Most years there was a family picnic in the back yard with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins attending the festivities. At twilight the sparklers started sputtering, followed by the fountains, pinwheels, and small star shells. Anything bigger was illegal in Illinois. At some point the big municipal display started going off several block away so our local display was punctuated by the big stuff being supervised and set off courtesy of the local American Legion post.

Twilight brought out the sparklers and a few fusees (a flare on a stick) that were in box of fireworks Dad had brought home. My six-year old sister was bored with the sparklers and wanted to hold a fusee. How she got the fusee I don't know, but it was not a master stroke of parenting to give a six-year old kid a hot, sputtering fusee. What could go wrong? Fusees burn with a bright light (this one happened to be green) and molten combustion products fly off the burning end. They are something you want to be careful with. In any case, my sister was holding a burning fusee and getting dangerously close to the box of fireworks Dad would soon be lighting. Big brother that I was (about age 12) I told little Sis to move away from the box of fireworks. Of course little Sis refused to move. Once or twice more I tried to get her to move away from the fireworks box with her sputtering fusee. At some point she swung the hand holding the fusee away from me and toward the fireworks box. As she swung her hand a glob of molten stuff came off the fusee and arced toward the open fireworks box. I watched, literally in horror, as the molten stuff dropped into the box and landed squarely on the fuse of one of the fireworks. The fuse lit immediately; my only reaction was to run like hell.

In a few seconds the ignited firework began doing its thing; that set off a chain reaction and seconds after that the whole box of fireworks was going off all at once. Everyone, young and old, was trying to clear out of the back yard and get as far away from the fiery shower that was coming out of the fireworks box. There were red and green fireballs flying; a pinwheel went sailing into the air; sparks were flying everywhere; a neighborhood friend who was stand next to me watching the spectacle was hit by a fireball.

After watching for a few stunning seconds, I decided to try to put the fire out. Being twelve I grabbed a pan of water and tried to approach the now fiercely burning box from behind. Fortunately for me, our neighbor was a member of the local fire department and he had a much better plan than I did. He grabbed a garden hose that was still connected to the outdoor tap; even better, the hose had a circular lawn sprinkler attached to it. The fireman turned on the water full force and approached the flaming box from behind the lawn sprinkler's water spray. The fireworks were beginning to burn themselves out, but still burned brightly. The fireman put a quick end to that bit of excitement and doused the box thoroughly until the whole thing was a black sodden mess and no smoke could be seen.

The remainder of the evening was spent recovering from that bit of unplanned excitement, including personal accounts of what people did to save themselves. Little Sis took the brunt of the recriminations for ruining the entire day (at least that's what we kids thought). Fortunately no one was seriously hurt, although a few people were singed by sparks and fireballs. We all were lucky.

For years afterward a July 4th celebration couldn't pass without someone recounting at least once how little Sis had blown up the backyard fireworks box. As best I recall, after that year there were no more backyard fireworks displays at our house.


A brother remembers.
"I will never forget that evening. I remember being behind the bushes where our yard was separated from Arendt's (where the garage stood) I was on the ground and watching the fireballs flying everywhere. I think the pin wheel you mentioned landed on Tilden's roof down the street, or at least one of them did. Our back yard reminded me of scenes from the Three Stooges movies, I saw later in life. The whole event seemed like it lasted an eternity, but it was probably a couple of minutes in total time. I remember Marvin Steege getting hit with a fireball going horizontal over the ground. Years after that event, I asked Dad where he use to get the fireworks. He told me he bought them at Reid's Sporting Goods there in downtown Bloomington. Dad went in the day before the 4th, and Mr. Reid would give him a deal on them because he did not want to carry them over, for obvious reasons."

...And a cousin remembers too.
"Ahhh yes I remember that day. I was about 5 at the time. I think I was standing there watching Martha having fun with the flare, wishing I had one too. If I recall the only thing that didn't get torched was a few spinners that had been set up earlier in the back yard. I watched them as I recall and that was it.

I made the mistake of mentioning this story to Martha at my Mothers funeral. The look she gave me was, well, intense."

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