When I was a wee lad in Iowa, schoolkids trafficked in Black Cat firecrackers the way some sell drugs today.  It wasn’t legal for kids to have firecrackers, of course, but everyone knew a supplier.  (The suppliers, now that I think about it, were usually tough kids who didn’t do well in school.  )

Weeks before the Fourth of July rolled around, we’d stop wasting our allowances on marbles, candies and other worthless junk, and start saving up for a personal supply of explosives.  If you saved enough, you could even stroll up to a supplier and proudly announce, “I need a brick.”  

A “brick” was the real deal:  an entire package, all wrapped up in waxy paper, complete with a logo of a snarling black cat.  When we tore open a brick, there they’d be … dozens and dozens of firecrackers, with the fuses twisted together.  We learned right away to un-twist the fuses delicately, or they’d snap off. 

But of course, we weren’t about to let the fuse-less firecrackers go to waste.  We’d tape those to the firecrackers we could actually ignite and explode them together.  That was also the preferred method for making use of a dud.  By the end of the day, the fields near our house would smell like gunpowder and be full of little bits of firecracker confetti.

The paper that wrapped each brick included clear instructions on how to enjoy the firecrackers.  PLACE FIRECRACKER ON THE GROUND.  LIGHT THE FUSE AND MOVE TO A SAFE DISTANCE.

Yeah, right.  In all my childhood years, I never saw anyone set a firecracker on the ground and move a safe distance away.  In fact, we considered it a test of our manhood to hold a lit firecracker until the last possible second, then could toss it in the air just before the explosion.  Our timing was generally pretty good … but unfortunately, quality control at the Black Cat factory wasn’t perfect, and some fuses burned more quickly than others.  I went home after one firecracker expedition with my right hand in my pocket, hoping my parents wouldn’t notice I had two black fingernails.

But there was no hiding the splatter of ink on my shirt.  No longer content to merely toss Black Cats in the air, my friends and I had started experimenting with more creative explosions.  We blew up anthills, dirt clods, and empty soda cans.  (The cans didn’t exactly explode, but they jumped a bit, and there was a satisfying WHOMP when the Black Cat went off inside.)

Then one of my friends had the bright idea of attaching a firecracker to a Bic pen with a rubber band.  I had the bright idea of volunteering to hold the pen-bomb while he lit the fuse.  The fuse had the bright idea of burning all the way down in a couple of milliseconds.  I realized what was happening just soon enough to say a bad word and make a panicky attempt to toss the firecracker, then POP! – black fingers and a forerunner to the tie-dye shirt.

Mom wasn’t happy, especially since she made many of our shirts back then, including the ink-stained one I wore home.  After confronting me with some rather damning evidence (the burnt gunpowder smell, in particular, was hard to explain) and eliciting a confession that I’d been playing with firecrackers, Mom stuck my fingers in glass of ice water, then gave me a lecture about a boy who blew off three of his fingers with a cherry bomb. 

In comparing notes with different kids in different towns over the years, I eventually concluded that every mom in America knew a boy who had blown off three of his fingers with a cherry bomb.  Strangely, none of us kids had ever actually met a boy with three missing fingers.  None of us even knew anyone who knew anyone with three missing fingers.  I could only guess that the missing-finger kid spent his life moving from town to town and introducing himself to all the local mothers.

I don’t play with firecrackers anymore, but my girls spent part of today delighting themselves by tossing little exploding caps against the sidewalk.  Tomorrow evening, we’ll head to downtown Franklin for a free concert on the town square, followed by fireworks.  I have fond childhood memories of the Fourth of July, and I hope they will too.  I also want them to understand what the Fourth of July means.  I’ve already told them about the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and how the fireworks represent the battles that freed us from British rule.

And when they’re older, I’ll make sure my wife tells them about a kid who blew off three of his fingers with a cherry bomb.

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4 Responses to “Firecrackers”
  1. SnowDog says:

    Firecrackers aren’t completely harmless. When I was 6, one of my friends lost an eye after putting a firecracker in a glass bottle.

    Sorry to hear that. Anything that explodes can be harmful.

  2. Ed says:

    We enjoyed using 3 foot lengths of plumbing and bottle rockets, playing bazooka. Oh, and gently tossing a lit firecracker near someones foot when they were in the middle of lighting a black cat.

    We made soda-can cannons that fired tennis balls one year, but I don’t remember the construction method.

    • Your older brother says:

      Good Lord, kids — DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!!

      That was way back when soda cans were made with about four pounds of steel. Each. These twinky modern aluminum cans would turn into hot shrapnel.

      for sholastic purposes only, BTW, you cut both the ends off of three or four cans, then punched a three of four holes in the top of another with the “church key” opener (no wussy pop-tops in those days). That was the bottom can.

      Tape them all togehter with the Handyman’s secret weapon (duct tape), punch a nail hole in the very bottom, put a squirt of “propellent” (lighter fluid) in the nail hole and a tennis ball down into the top. Point at open ground down range — wayyyyyyy down range — or someone you don’t like and hold a match to the nail hole.

      If you come home with all of your fingers, you’re not trying hard enough.

      Modern day equivalent is the potato cannon. Just as much fun (except you have to go buy hair spray instead of lighter fluid), higher caliber, and if you can explain it with a straight face about how it’s a good physics lesson, you can even build one for your kid’s science project!

      Cheers,

      JN

      Good point about the soda cans. Those babies were solid back in the day. (If anyone does try this at home, I’m probably going to get sued …)

  3. Paul Eilers says:

    My cousin only has four fingers.

    But he lost his pinkie in high school from a weight lifting incident, not setting off firecrackers.

    We used to go around giving each other High Fours!

    That must’ve been some weightlifting accident. Give him a high four for me.

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