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The Truth, Mainly - 07/02/1990

Fireworks reach deep into human psyche

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 and destruction.

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 Schweinfurt.

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 torpedo—one 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 each other.

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.


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