The smell that follows the explosion of fireworks touches something
deep and primitive in my psyche. You know the smell I mean: the acrid
effluvium that lingers in the confetti of Chinese newsprint after a
Black Cat explodes. Or the odor of violence that stays in a five-gallon
bucket even after you’ve blown open the seams by turning it upside down
with a cherry bomb under it and a concrete block on top of it.
What my mind tells me, of course, is that fireworks are dangerous
and dumb, that they bring out the beast in us and reward it with noise
But I’m still attracted to them in the same perverse way I’m
attracted to lots of awful things from my past: greasy curli-que french
fries, neckties that light up, old hymns like “There is a Fountain
Filled with Blood.”
When I was growing up during World War II, fireworks excited a
whole generation in my town to something like a frenzy.
We’d watch movie newsreels of Marines using flame throwers to flush
Japanese soldiers from their caves on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, or of B-17
Flying Fortresses dropping bombs on German ball bearing factories in
Then we’d re-enact that mayhem with our fireworks. It seems odd
now that when even Lucky Strike green had gone to war, and Hershey bars
and sugar and coffee and ham and Fleers Double Bubble bubble gum had
gone with it, we could still buy our little explosives every July. I
imagine some strategist in the old War Department saying “Let the kids
have their firecrackers; it’ll keep them ready for the next go-round.”
Ants bore the brunt of our patriotism. From our perspective four
or five feet above them, they looked about the same size that Axis tanks
and trucks might look from a plane.
Like B-24s plastering the refineries at Ploesti, we’d drop lighted
firecrackers on ant dens. Or we’d wait for an ant to cross a sidewalk,
then flatten him with a tennis ball. When others came out to retrieve
the body, we’d blow them all away with a torpedoone of those
jawbreaker-sized explosives that blew up when you threw it hard onto a
hard surface. It sent shrapnel-like fragments that would sting your
feet if you weren’t wearing shoes, and it left a satisfying scorch mark
on the concrete.
When we got really nasty, we’d stick a Baby Gorilla firecracker in
an ant hole and the frantic ants would carry it underground. Just
before the fuse disappeared down the hole, we’d light it and set off a
subterranean explosion that must have played hell with the ants’ morale.
The Truth, Mainly
It was all ugly and loud and violent, and hence, God love us,
attractive. It was especially pleasant because the ants didn’t shoot
back, although an occasional fanatic might sting us on the leg.
But one hot night during fireworks season when I was 15, our war
games got even dumber and they stopped being fun, at least for me.
World War II was over by then and the Korean War wouldn’t begin for
another year, so we had to invent our own: we shot roman candles at
The schoolyard was the battleground and we shot from around corners
of the grade school building and from the high ground of the fire
escape, the red and white and blue fireballs ricocheting off our jeans
without hurting much.
It was exhilarating right up until I took one of the red ones just
over my right eye. It bounced off, but it singed away half my eyebrow,
and left my eye full of roman candle grit. I went home and put a wet
washcloth on it and tried to avoid my father. He had never liked loud
noises and had always maintained that fireworks were dangerous and dumb.
The damage was only temporary. By the time school started in
September, my eyebrow had grown back, my father had stopped looking at
me and shaking his head, and I had a nice cautionary tale I could tell
my own kids when they reached fireworks age.
I’d like to say I learned a lesson, but let me sniff the spoor of a
Black Cat after it’s exploded and my reason still has to contend with
something deep down where dark things grow, something telling me to look
for an ant den to exercise my patriotism on.
Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.