04 July 2009

July 4th: When Dad Turned to Crime

Independence Day was my dad's favorite holiday. He LOVED his fireworks. We grew up on the stories he'd tell of legendary trips with his best friend, Wayne, to buy fireworks "When $100 would really buy something," back in the late 40's and 50's. His gaze would turn a bit wistful when he related antics with Cherry Bombs and tin cans.

We lived in Sioux City, Iowa, which is located in that little sticky-out part of northwestern Iowa that borders South Dakota and Nebraska. We could jump in the car and drive about 10 minutes into South Dakota, where firework sales were legal. My brother Steve and I would spend time shooting off Black Cats in the field behind the fireworks stand while dad carefully chose the elements for the neighborhood display.

While purchasing fireworks in South Dakota was legal, transporting them across state lines into Iowa definitely was not. The old blanket that lived in the trunk of Dad's car was used to cover the box of contraband, and we always warned that "Dad could get into a lot of trouble if he gets stopped." I think that meant we were not supposed to hold up signs that read "Help we're being kidnapped" if we saw someone in uniform.

We were always closely supervised when it came to the fireworks. We were allowed to play with those awful smelly snakes that left black marks on the sidewalk; they were legal in Iowa. Sparklers became a family activity when the sun went down. We'd get tiny stings when a stray sparkle would hit our arm. We were taught to be careful with the hot metal wire and never, ever, dropped a wire on the ground. Dad would get a variety of sparkle colors--silver, gold, red, green, blue, and it was fun to see how the wire would bend when we would do whoop-de-dos and circles with the sparklers.

The area fireworks show was at Atokad Park, a greyhound racetrack just over the river into South Dakota. Mom's duty would be to pop a paper grocery sack full of popcorn and pack the mosquito repellent. Dad had a favorite spot bordering a cornfield just outside of the park, and that was our vantage point every year. He'd park the car, take the blanket out of the trunk and put it on the hood of the car. We'd take off our shoes and climb up to claim our spot on the blanket, feeling naughty because car-climbing was on the verboten list any other day of the year. We would lean back against the windshield, munch popcorn and wait impatiently for the first big BOOM that marked the start of the fireworks display.

Each display would be propelled into the night sky. Ooohs and Ahhhs would bubble forth at all the appropriate times. After 20 or 25 minutes, the big finale of multiple displays would fill the sky overhead and a volley of booms would mark the end of the legal fireworks display.

The neighborhood fireworks display was another matter. We lived on a corner that saw very little traffic, so the intersection became Fireworks Central. Beer-wielding adults would pull up lawn chairs to watch the spectacle and thereby became co-conspirators in the crime. Fortunately, we had a friendly group of neighbors and there was little risk of some grouch calling the police.

The bottle rockets, firecrackers, Roman candles, aerial displays would be planned in detail. Spinners were nailed to the telephone pole and showered sparks in the darkness.

The display didn't last long, because in the Sixties, $100 didn't go as far as it used to. Plus Dad wanted to move quickly just in case the police drove by.

Dad's neighborhood fireworks display was something he gave to his friends and family every year but I think he enjoyed it even more than we did. It's a cherished part of growing up and I'll be thinking of him tonight when I hear the first BOOM to mark the 2009 fireworks display.


  1. This brings back memories. Let's just say our little displays didn't always go off without a hitch. But I'm sure those are years my kids will never forget!

  2. Most fireworks are illegal here in Quebec, but we can go to some places like the Mohawk Reservation next door and buy the stronger ones!
    Evelyn in Montreal