In anticipation of the 4th….
The crackle of salutes, the pop of a Roman candle, the flair of a pinwheel echoed as the Fourth approached.
“Teddy knows where to get sparklers, Roman candles and pinwheels.”
“The heck with sparklers, Roman candles and pinwheels. Let’s get some salutes. We need noise.”
“Yeah, but have you ever heard a cherry bomb? It’s like a cannon…a round, red cannon. You have to hold your hands over your ears. Remember that kid Gilbert? He was nuts. He had two fingers blown off by one last year. Yep, like the shrapnel we saw in the Audie Murphy movie.”
“I think Moose knows where to get them. Do you guys want to chip in?” I had never heard a cherry bomb. Maybe this year.
“And, hey, you guys, don’t forget to store the wood for the bonfire. We’ll pull it out when it starts to get dark.” The plans were in the works weeks before.
It was the Fourth of July ritual in our Providence neighborhood and in the heat of summer it was the game we played — to see if someone knew someone who knew someone who could get us fireworks. But we all had to help to build the biggest and best bonfire on the night before the Fourth. Kids came alive, almost frenzied, because this was THE excitement of the summer; a thrill very different from the carnival, a jackknife, baseball games, the beach and the pools. Our eyes were wide and shining; we were ready!
Weeks out of school and a long way from the history lessons and the founding fathers, hanging around on hot summer days, beginning to get a bit bored,, most of us had long forgotten the reasons for the celebration. We just knew that something had to be celebrated with a bang, lots of bangs, the original big bang, I guess. And it had to be accompanied by the bonfire.
“We’ll light it in the street, in the middle of the intersection of Huron and Wisdom, right in front of the fireman’s house. It’ll be unbelievable.”
Our search for wood started weeks before. We stored the supply under cover of bushes, trees, porches, in the sandbanks, in our yards, cellars…anywhere. We had little reason to fear being discovered by adults. We were good. There were logs big enough for two to carry, but most of us found tree limbs, sticks and pieces of lumber. No matter, as long as it was dry enough to burn.
The day came; the excitement started just before dark. Early on, a few sparklers were lit with punk, that sweet smelling, slow burning, rope-like stuff that lasted for hours; its purpose to light more punk, sparklers, salutes and a Roman candle or two. When the burn of the sparklers got closer to our fingers, we threw them with little caution, some landing on rooftops, finally trickling out as we held our breaths.
At it grew darker on that night, things started to happen. The team gathered, its members driven by the same goal…the biggest bonfire ever for the neighborhood. We were on the move..
The commotion began with no order. Ted, Jackie, Johnny and Eddie, the older guys with no fear, appeared from the shadows…bold, undaunted, and ready with the huge logs. Kids ran from all angles…back and forth, laden each time with wood of all sizes and shapes, stopping at the pile, making half turns, then winding out a throw to the top like a discus toss, with missiles of wood piling higher and higher, so high that the smaller kids threw their pieces up against the sides. We moved quickly, fearing little. In a flash, the pile of wood extended almost to the level of the first floor of the houses, at porch level of the fireman’s bungalow. I stood back, looked up and spotted a few browned Christmas trees on high.
I was younger, fearful, hesitant and afraid to get caught. I ran at the heap, threw some stuff on, and then took off at top speed to hide around a corner. Louie, younger and slower, ran home and stayed where he was able to watch from his third floor window, Dan, larger, considerably slower, but the bravest of our group, ready to take over next year, was fearless and stood close by. Paulie was thin enough to hide in the shadow of a street pole.
The pile was complete and reached with pride to the sky. The night was now still… a few salutes rippling in the distance, no sparklers and no Roman candles. Dark had settled. Then…in a flash…someone ran out of the shadows with something that smelled like the Shell station and threw the liquid on the pile. Another ran out, struck and threw a match. Whoosh, varoosh…a sound like no other, the blow of the fire. It appeared with a poof, a boom and lots of crackles. I was a distance away, and the details of who did what escaped me. But the flames that filled the sky with a hot bright light did not. Oh my god!
The tinder, baked dry by the hot summer days, was quickly out of control. The neighborhood, lit before by the dim streetlights that cast weak shadows on each corner, was now alive with the intensity of the dancing glow….yellows, reds, greens… and the smell of heavy smoke. Shadows that covered trees and houses were wiped away. Flames danced in the windows. Porch lights came on in unison. We thought they would love what was happening to the night; for sure they would admire how we knew how to celebrate a summer holiday in such a spectacular way. For sure. Oh no.
“What the hell are these kids up to? This thing is out of control!” I learned some new swears. This was not the place to cook potatoes as we did with smaller fires in the dump when we thought we were Army.
Uh, oh. I backpedaled closer to home. I peeked and bobbed to see the flames shining in the distance, their glow now above the rooftops and into the sky. Was that the fireman who came out on to his porch?
Sirens in the distance came closer. The rumble of the trucks roared from every direction. I was frightened. What if someone ratted? My uncle was a fireman. Don’t blame me! I only threw a few sticks. I didn’t light it! A police car?
What if they found me and asked who the other kids were? What if Dad figured it out and made me to tell the truth? I would be banned from neighborhood stuff forever. Done. Maybe I was headed for jail. Which was worse; banishment or jail?
The firemen did their job and they and the police left without a search.
I went to bed, too excited to sleep. There was more noise out there, a bit more than a hiss, whoosh or a rat-tat-tat. It was more than a salute placed under a can. It was a sound that hit the boom chart, exploding enough to rattle my body three floors above the street. That was it! It had to be! It was the cherry bomb! Maybe in a can; a can that must have flown miles to the night sky. And then there was another, and another. Boom, boom, and rattle!! I began to enjoy it and waited for more.
The next morning I ran down the stairs and shuffled to the site of the bonfire. The day was hot and bright. The street was stained like coal and the sun reflected off the mirror of black. Charred logs were strewn at every corner and on the sidewalks. There were puddles at the low points. But the houses were still standing.
“Where did you go last night? You should have stuck around. Moose got a cherry bomb.”
“Yep. I know.”
What a great Fourth. Now, what was that we were celebrating?