William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Fireworks!

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The first one that says “grand finale” gets it. It’s over when it’s over.

I spent a year of boyhood in Chicago, 1975. Actually, Oak Park. An enormous creaky house one block from the Chicago city limits. UFOs were in the air—and on television. There were areas of the house into which I would not go unescorted.

Fireworks were legal. So was the idea that you could set your kids loose in the neighborhood with only the warning “Be home for dinner.”

Who was it that said the past is a foreign country?

We would collect pennies and nickels and trade them for weapons of minimal destruction, or WMDs. We’d take off down the alleys on our bikes lighting bottle rockets from smoldering punks held in our teeth, holding the rockets just until ignition to get a better aim. Not unlike jousting.

My favorites were the plastic green grenades which looked exactly like those my grandpa used to hoist at Germans. Inside was a cardboard tube with a fuse. Tremendous thick clouds of white smoke. But they were expensive. So we’d buy the little round smoke bombs, light two of them and jam them into the grenade. Almost the same effect, but you ran the risk of melting the plastic.

They had this one tiny firecracker the thickness of spaghetti. To show your bravery, you lit one and exploded it in your hand. Some guys pretended to do the same trick with the regular-sized WMDs, but we told each other too many stories of fingers flying in all directions to do it for real. Somebody knew somebody who knew somebody who heard of a guy who lit one he was biting. No takers there.

The elusive goal was a cherry bomb, or M-80, said to be illegal. They were supposed to look like an over-sized smoke bomb and be the equivalent of a quarter stick of dynamite. Rumor always had it the kids in the next neighborhood had one. Massive explosions were attested to. Eyewitness reports were plentiful. But none of us ever had one.

Next best thing was to tape a bunch of regular firecrackers together, twisting their fuses into one. If you did it right, these would go off more or less at once. Looking back, I don’t know how powerful these were. We tried to blow up a bike tire with one. No success.

The same trick, incidentally, can be done with bottle rockets. Tremendous boost in take-off speed. And with snakes, those little cylinders of carbon which when lighted unspool to great length. A pile of five or six would release as much smoke in the air as a press conference by Chuck Schumer.

Remember those little green army men? I had battalions of them. Some came equipped with plastic parachutes, which worked if you were careful about throwing the man in the air just so. Well, all experiments to send a parachuter up with a bottle rocket failed. Oh, he’d soar into the wild blue yonder, all right. Sometimes. But he’d always stick to the stick of the rocket—the parachute would never deploy—or fall off at take off. If anybody ever solved this engineering problem, I’d be glad to hear of it.

Since I am, I blush to say, the Statistician to the Stars, I must present the total of all deaths caused by the WMDs in my neighborhood: 0.

Fingers blown off? 0. Teeth shattered? 0. Eyes poked out? 0. Maimings of any kind? 0.

Burns? Well, one or two, here or there. Mostly from holding the punks or the bottle rockets too long, or just as likely from gripping the match incorrectly or from picking up a thought-to-be-cool spent sparkler. Yes: we used to carry packs of matches everywhere.

But even though no mayhem ensued, it is a logical truism that it could have! And this mere possibly is enough for the more effeminate among us to quail and quake and to invoke the ever-present urge to San Francisco the problem, i.e. to ban, ban, ban. For your own good, naturally.

The “grand finale”, by the way, is the end of the fireworks show, the point where dozens of rockets are sent up at once, an end with a bang. It is the event which is always announced half a dozen times before it really happens.

Happy Fourth of July! But be careful about attending a parade or looking at a flag. You might turn into a Republican.

19 Comments

  1. Ah, the powerful M-80, the size of a 35mm film roll (a nonsensical reference nowadays). Fond memories of ignition at night on a large pond many years ago. The blast first, then echos resounding for a few seconds. Glorious.

  2. Dr. Briggs,

    I was born and raised in Chicago. We are contemporaries and we share the same 4th of July boyhood experiences. Thanks for the memories. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. (L. P. Hartley)

  3. Halloween was the occasion for firecrackers in my youth. I remember the small red ones and the larger striped ones best as well as the snakes and sparklers. I don’t remember any bottle rockets though. We would lose no more than one kid a year (just kidding).

  4. Ye Olde Statisician

    July 4, 2014 at 11:24 am

    One time, tossing a few of the “penny crackers” about, one landed in the shirt pocket of one of our gang. It was a marvelous sight to see a kid trying to run away from his own shirt pocket.

    In high school, I blush to say, we employed C4 plastique to blow up a pill box. We were filming a war movie (16 mm b&w) and had built a bunker from sandbags and plywood and armed it with a .30 cal. belt-fed machine gun (alas, gutted) and two classmates. However, when we blew off the emplacement, it was unoccupied. One of the benefits of having a classmate with a large farm.

    I had a second cousin who used to build plastic model warships from kits, sail them out on his farm pond, and then sink them with a rifle from the shore.

    But the prize goes to Jerry Pournelle, who grew up on a farm near Memphis, writes:

    When I was in seventh grade I made half a cup of nitroglycerine. We detonated it harmlessly – well harmlessly enough. We floated it in a bottle on a hog pond, stood about fifty yards away, and shot it with a rifle. The result was more than satisfactory, distributing the contents of the hog pond – 2 feet of water and 4 feet of muck from the bottom – over a uniform distribution of about 100 yards radius. I think I mentioned that we were about fifty yards away.

  5. This was a fun read. Thanks Briggs.

    I grew up in the NYC area. Fireworks were pretty much illegal everywhere around there. Before the 4th, every year, from when I was a young teen, a bunch of us would get together, go to China Town or Little Italy, and buy illegal fireworks from these street vendors who operated out of alleys and atriums between the old buildings. We’d load up, head back out to the burbs and have fun.

    I had a buddy who’s father was a fire chief in a large town and a well known figure. His family would all spend the 4th at their little summer camp site, but when he got into his teens, they would let him stay behind at the house and enjoy the 4th with his friends. He lived in this tightly packed old neighborhood. We’d go out to his tiny back yard, with enough fireworks to signal an alien landing, and put on our own show. The local cops and fire department just ignored us. Fireworks would land everywhere – on people’s roofs, patios, on their cars, everywhere. The whole neighborhood stunk of sulfur by the time we were done. It would go on for an hour, at least. One time, this guy made up climb up his roof to clean off the remnants. People would be hanging out their windows yelling at us to “knock it off already, you lunatics!”

    Ah, to be a teenager again, ambivalent to the feelings of all around you! LOL! The teenager – libertarianism manifest. 😉

    JMJ

  6. The Good Old Days! We had M80s, cherry bombs, Roman candles and once got our hands on a firecracker 4 times larger than an M80 but it cost lots of bucks. So did the large rockets. All illegal but could be gotten at the corner store with the sign advertising them. I once had a smoke bomb (about 6in long and 3/8 inch in diameter) go off in my clenched fist once. It wasn’t meant to explode but it did. I’ve never been smacked in the palm with a piece of rebar but I imagine it would have nearly the same sensation. Really hurt. Didn’t lose any parts though.

    In high school we made about 100 ml of TNT in the school lab and set it off in the football practice field. No one investigated. Recently, a couple of local kids blew up a couple of 12 oz. water bottles using the release of a lot of CO2. They are now facing criminal charges for setting off an explosive device (the charges for adding all that CO2 to the atmosphere apparently were waived). Times change.

  7. We used to make gunpowder and pipe bombs, all the fun stuff that is a felony now. This country has really become sissified. Remember the Gilbert chemistry sets? Banned, too dangerous for todays kids.

  8. It certainly is a sad situation when we can’t have Gilbert chemistry sets. The utility room in the basement of my parents house (basements existed in Rockford, IL, they don’t out here in So Cal) ALWAYS stank of my various experiments. I only burned myself occasionally, though I did burn down my friend’s garage and nearly burned down ours.

    I had several such chemistry sets and had huge fun, though it seemed that the really interesting experiments invariably needed some other component that wasn’t included in the set. I’d end up begging mom and dad for some money (and a ride) to go get whatever it was. Then they’d want to know why…..

    To Ray: I’m not so sure that pipe bomb making and possession has ever not been a felony, though I’m open to being proved wrong. And I assume that you and I both are entries in an NSA extremist database just for typing the words.

    Quoting the wicked witch of the west, “what a world, what a world…”

  9. In 2007-2011, four people per year were killed in fires started by fireworks, while data from death certificates show that five people per year were killed directly by fireworks. These estimates may overlap, because fireworks can directly kill someone while also starting a fatal fire.
    http://www.nfpa.org/research/reports-and-statistics/fire-causes/fireworks

    When I was a teenager growing up in Tennessee I knew an adult that started a major fire with fireworks. Although no one was killed there was property damage. Fireworks are fun But they still need due caution.

  10. While reading the comments, I wondered, “How did we end up prisoners to the nanny state.” Then I read Martin’s comment and the answer became clear.

    Martin, thank you for all of your sleepless nights, ala C.S. Lewis (that was sarcasm, by the way).

  11. Martin,
    I notice that your icon contains a sharp pointy object. Are you aware of the number of people killed by these things each year. The NSA has you on their list as a possible undesirable. Be forewarned.

  12. Trouble with my HTML tags.

    Here’s the referenced C.S. Lewis quote:

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”

  13. Jim Fedako,

    And the total lack of freedom your quote implies is something to be much contemplated on the 4th day of July — a day to celebrate the separation from tyranny.

  14. Noblesse Oblige

    July 4, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    The things we get away with! I recall dismantling decent sized firecrackers to extract their powder. The idea was to combine the explosive from a whole bunch of them into a hoped-for megaton explosion. This never worked out. Instead of the expected seismic event, I would get only a futile flare and momentary hair-searing blast of heat.

    Eventually I abandoned my attempt to become a pioneering suicide bomber in favor of harmless theoretical physics. And the rest is history.

  15. Ah, fond memories. We did have M-80’s when I was a kid in Albuquerque in the early 60’s. A neighbor would drive to Texas every year to get them. They were quite powerful and lots of fun.

    We also used to tape firecrackers to bottle rockets, creating air burst weapons. These were a lot of fun, and we were lucky that the cops whose car we hit one day couldn’t find us (we were hiding in a fort we had dug in the desert).

    High school, in Kansas, involved sodium chlorate, sulfur and sugar – a variant of gunpowder. A bunch of this stuffed into a paper tube would make a much bigger bang than an M-80. We accidentally blew up a skunk with one once, no doubt to the annoyance of a nearby farmer. The smell was, well, unique.

    I don’t think these explosives were illegal, but who knows. I doubt the feds cared, and the locals only got upset if you blew up the wrong thing, got hurt (a friend got in trouble that way), or annoyed someone.

  16. Oh, I forgot to mention… another thrill was explosive bullets. I’d drill out the cavity in a .22LR hollow point, fill it with firecracker powder, and seal it with wax or soap. This would make a good sized flash at night, and would blow a chunk off of concrete. These also would kill nearby fish when fired into water. Fun and games.

    I recently discovered, to my surprise, that they are legal.

  17. We made our own gunpowder which we packed in Silly Putty eggs. When we made plastic model boats we would glue firecrackers inside, set fire to the model and push it gently out where it would burn with the sooty yellow flame many of us know so well until the firecracker went off. There still may be some “sunken ships” at the bottom of that pond! And you haven’t lived until you lit a cherry bomb and dropped it in the toilet in boy’s bathroom, flushed the toilet and 5 seconds later, watched fountains of water erupt from every toilet.

  18. Although lacking 4th July as an excuse to play around with gunpowder, we Brits have a better one, “Bonfire Night”, November 5th.
    Commerates the last person to enter Parliament with honest intent, one Guido (Guy) Fawkes.
    Why’s our’s better? you may ask. Well, it’s dark about 4.30pm then, so we get all the bangs, but with pretty colours too and a bonfire to go along with it.
    Killjoys are trying to ban private celebrations, far too dangerous.
    The power of our “bangers” has dropped off too, poxy little things these days, but doubtless “Crow Scarers” are still available if you know where to look and those naughty Chinese still import illegal stuff (ie it doesn’t just go “Crack” but a bloody great “BANG”.
    The destruction of Airfix models, by explosives was undertaken too, also by air rifle-fire year round.
    Happy days, the Playstation Generation don’t know what they’re missing.

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