If we hadn't become such a nation of pantywaists, eating quiche and drinking wine in fern bars, we would celebrate this Independence Day the way our forefathers celebrated the first: by blowing things up. And my father, rest his soul, could again sleep in peace.
He had grown up in Kansas in the century's early years, in a world of small-town parades, patriotic speeches and a Fourth of July with a bang. But his passion for firecrackers was for many years a secret vice, unsuspected by even his closest friends. He was not usually fond of noise, and when he returned from World War II he opted for such peaceful leisure pursuits as an evening of books, a round of golf or a pond of bass. But the summer of my eighth year, he came out of the closet.
It started slowly. My mother had confiscated my newly purchased cap pistol on the grounds that explosive caps were dangerous precursors to blood poisoning. I appealed the ruling, believing that a former Navy gunnery officer fresh from the Battle of Leyte Gulf might more properly issue decrees concerning gunpowder. To my delight, he overruled her--a rare occurrence in issues involving the children. Then he put down his book and asked me what was happening in the neighborhood for the Fourth of July.
We were living that year just south of Alexandria, in one of the few suburban corners of a Fairfax County then almost totally covered by woods and farms. I told him of a backyard pooling of pyrotechnics after dark to which I planned to contribute two Vesuvius fountains, a pinwheel and a box of sparklers.
"We can do better than that," he said. Next thing I knew, we were in the car headed for Woodbridge.
Although Fairfax had banned firecracker sales by then, Prince William had not. Woodbridge, just south of the county line, boomed each year in late June with all the raucus hucksterism of a border town.
Parked beside Rte. l stood a herd of truck-trailers and dozens of wooden stands. From their shelves gleamed the upright silver cylinders of aerial salutes, the red, white and blue vertical stripes of screaming meemies. There were soft gray pasteboard cartons of "torpedos"--those nut-sized silver spheres that exploded on impact--buckets of scarlet cherry bombs, ropes of magenta-papered packets of "Chinese firecrackers," and boxes of "bulldogs"--two-inch silver cylinders with blue fuses on the side.
My father moved from booth to booth with the purposeful aplomb of a French chef buying truffles: five cannon salutes here, a dozen sky bombs, a case of torpedos. We returned with enough ordnance for a small war.
My mother, as I recall, was not enthusiastic about the purchase, envisioning, as mothers will, a family of fingerless offspring. But my father knew what he was doing. The bags and boxes were packed away in his closet. There was still a week to go before the Fourth.
News of the Ringle arsenal raced through the neighborhood like an offer of free kittens, raising my peer status overnight. My father, a sometimes forbidding figure with eyebrows like Elmo Zumwalt's, was seen in a new and intriguing light. A few mothers muttered, but mothers and sisters always muttered on the Fourth of July until the sparklers came out. It was a day for the boys.
The morning of the Fourth, I awoke to the staccato of small arms fire. Outside, cannon salutes were launching cans and echoing in culverts. It wasn't even 8 a.m. and the world was awash in explosions.
My father, always an early riser, was finishing breakfast. I implored him to start lighting fuses, but he would not be hurried. Firecrackers are an art form, he explained: Art should not be rushed.
At length he finished his coffee and went up to get the boxes, which we carried to a vacant lot next door, serenaded by the wail and blast of a screaming meemie. There were 30-odd children under 12 on our block, the majority boys, each detonating his own declaration of independence. But they halted their puny efforts when we emerged, in deference to a potentially bigger bang.
My father looked around impassively and explained to the mesmerized urchins around him that we would only be able to provide a taste of the real thing. Woodbridge, while able to provide Bazookas, Warblers, Thunderballs, Howitzers and Flag Cannons, had failed to provide Punk.
None of us knew what that was. Punk, he explained, was a corkish substance that permitted controlled and rapid ignition of firecrackers by smoldering hotly without burning. The trouble with matches, he explained, was that they led to confusion between the burning flame and the burning fuse, which could be dangerous. He couldn't imagine anyone selling firecrackers without punk, he said, but there you were.
He spoke in the sober tones of the Range Safety Officer, but that only deepened the awe of his audience. This was clearly serious.
Nevertheless, we set about selecting the first exploder. It had to be enough to get people's attention, he said, but not enough to overshadow the rest of the day. He finally chose an aerial salute that must have been three inches in diameter. I carried it to a spot clear of overhanging trees. He touched it off with his cigarette and we all ran. The fuse hissed and sizzled for an impossibly long time.
The first blast merely made the head ring.
The second, four seconds and a hundred feet above, could be felt in the gut. Everyone agreed it was an impressive start.
"Now," he said, "we need something like a big can or a metal box."
Volunteers raced to help, returning instantly with an empty Renuzit cleaning fluid can and a discarded section of metal gutter pipe.
He chose the pipe. One boy chose a place for it, another placed it in position. A third put a bulldog inside. My father's cigarette touched the blue fuse. Everybody ran.
That explosion lives in my memory in slow motion, the copper gutter pipe rising 30 feet from the ground, cartwheeling and slowly turning inside out, as the whole block rang.
We gee-whizzed over the tortured metal.
"Do this wrong," my father said, "and that could be your hand."
After that, the day stretched on endlessly, a magnificent percussive serenade. We shattered bricks with cherry bombs and blew apart gopher holes. We threw torpedoes on signal and dropped silver salutes down sewers. The big six- and 10-inchers, we simply lit and fled like midget sappers in some mythic war.
My father, his face now alight with the mischief of the day, supervised from a nearby stump, loaning his cigarette to the designated igniter and seeing to the enforcement of the rules. The two main rules were "Light and run, never light and throw;" and "One demolition at a time." Any duds were left alone for at least five minutes, with a designated guard to warn away passersby.
We shut down our operation during lunch, but free-lance efforts took up the slack and the concussions continued. My dog stayed under the bed all day.
I don't know when we set off the last bomb or what it was. I seem to remember a whistling devil around sunset, as the fireflies appeared and the first Roman candles arched into the night. I only know that by the time the skyrockets appeared, there was a kind of peace on the neighborhood, a quiet above which the whooshing stars showered a spar-kling benediction.
Shell-shocked and sweaty by then, I didn't want any more noise. I was ready for beauty. But as I lay on the grass in the rocket's red glare, I was satisfied that I had been and was now a part of something important. Thirty-six years later, I'm not sure I was wrong.
The other night as I sat outside swapping stories with a lifelong friend, I asked what his richest memory was of boyhood. He drew on his cigarette and thought a long moment. Then he smiled.
"Your father," he said, "on the Fourth of July."