True, fireworks stores in Michigan, where I grew up, weren’t allowed to sell real firecrackers. But everybody occasionally passed through Indiana on the way to Chicago, and I realized the value of having relatives to visit in Missouri the year I got my grandfather to aid and abet my purchase of a brick of Black Cats.
Plus, as I learned from my best neighborhood friends—whom I’ll call the Cline brothers, in case there are unsolved arsons in western Michigan from the 70s and 80s—even a trip to the local department store could be fruitful. At one point the Clines were implicated in an “accidental” fire that charred the garage door of a neighbor who happened to yell at the brothers a lot. They’d been forced to work off the cost of the damage, but out of the incident had come a discovery: if you scraped a few sparklers down to the wire and combined the silver dust with the powder extracted from a few otherwise boring fountain fireworks, the mix was capable of blowing up an ant hill, a G.I. Joe action figure, or a little sister’s Barbie doll.
This was a spectacular sight to behold.
Of course, it had to be done behind the garage, when our parents and various other authority figures were preoccupied. But that was the other great part of the Fourth of July—it was an ideal time for scientific experimentation. The adults were all grilling food and drinking beer at the neighborhood block party, and our work would go undiscovered for several days, until my mother suddenly wanted to know why there were patches of singed grass in the back yard. Who’d been lighting fires?
“Nobody,” my brother promised. “What fires? I haven’t seen any.”
My mother was not persuaded. “I can tell you that someone’s been up to no good!”
Out of nowhere, she dramatically produced what might have been a half-burnt plastic Barbie arm.
This line of interrogation broke me down. “It was the Cline brothers!”
Yes, I once loved the Fourth of July. But over time I learned that it’s painful to have firecrackers go off while you’re still in the process of throwing them at one of the neighborhood kids. In short, I got older and slightly wiser.
As I did, I came to view Independence Day with mixed feelings: gratitude that I live in a place with democratic freedoms; frustration at how haltingly they’ve been extended to all its citizens; joy at a summer day off to hang out with family and friends; annoyance with the heat, the drunks, the litter, the indulgence . . . and the people who devote the day to blowing shit up.
Last year I spent the holiday on Albion Beach with friends. A potbellied, beer-pounding specimen parked nearby did his best to irritate us all by sharing his loud opinions about the Cubs, the temperature of the lake, and the proper way to light fireworks—until he abruptly passed out, facedown on the shoreline with his legs in the water and his arms stretched in front of him on the sand. He baked in that position for several hours.
We carried on—eating, shooting the breeze, watching kids throw water balloons at each other.
At dusk, though, a space was cleared on the sand, and we realized with some alarm that our lobster-red acquaintance was not only conscious but wielding a butane grill lighter near an assembly of serious fireworks, many of them at least knee-high.
“Happy Independence Day, everybody!” he hollered, just before a boom that shook windows in nearby buildings and began nearly an hour of spectacular pyrotechnics above us.
Amid the laughter, oohs, and ahs, I had to agree.