With fireworks legal in Athens on the recent anniversary of our nation’s independence, I saw more flashes and fiery cascades over the Classic City than I could ever remember. The rise of Old Epps Bridge Road was a perfect vantage point. Every few seconds, the sky lit up in a different direction. It got me thinking about my history with pyrotechnics. The word “fireworks” for me evokes memories of Christmas, not the 4th of July. I have no recollection of lighting firecrackers or shooting off Roman candles in the middle of summer. Maybe it was just too hot in July in south Mississippi. I don’t recall my hometown, Laurel, ever having a big fireworks-in-park event, either.
Where I lived, in the Pendorff community out in the unincorporated, almost-anything-goes country, fireworks fever would strike around the end of November. As the day of Jesus’ birth neared, the sound of carols was punctuated, if not drowned out, by the clap of cherry bombs and the keening of bottle rockets.
It always amuses me when I’m driving on an Interstate somewhere like South Carolina and see these big, squat fireworks emporiums, bunkers almost as big as a Walmart plastered with bright red lettering announcing enormous selection and discount prices. I guess it’s big business now.
I remember a whole lot of medium to tiny fireworks stands, from converted produce huts on Highway 11 to makeshift Masonite booths and open picnic tables along the tar and gravel roads that often didn’t even have names.
My neighbor and best friend Frankie Mixon usually had his stand on the edge of the driveway to the little white house where his daddy kept the dry goods he sold on his rolling store. Mr. Mixon would get Frankie stock at Laurel Wholesale, where he did business, so Frankie could sell cheaper than most. Not that profit was foremost in his mind.
The main reason for kids to have fireworks stands on rural roads that saw little traffic — except when the neighborhood men were driving to and from work — was to have access to personal explosives. Once school let out for Christmas vacation, most every boy within biking distance of Frankie’s stand spent a good part of every day there, shooting the bull and shooting as much of Frankie’s merchandise as he could afford.
I will admit that I was kind of an addict. Money I would ordinarily save for Topps baseball cards or the latest issue of Batman or Uncle Scrooge comics at the Bee Hive newsstand in town would go toward sheaves of firecrackers covered in Chinese hieroglyphics or bottle rockets or ground spinners. The contents of my piggy bank seldom survived the Christmas holidays, and I did everything short of steal to feed my fireworks habit. I picked up glass Coke and Orange Crush bottles and sold them at Mr. Beckman’s store for a nickel apiece. I did extras chores. I wheedled money from my Mama, ostensibly for gum or a Payday, then spent the money at Frankie’s.
It wasn’t enough to just “pop” firecrackers. What I really liked most, and in this I was pretty typical, was blowing things up. Leave the sparklers to toddlers. I wanted bang for my buck. I never did mailboxes. Well, all right, once. But I got found out, and I not only got a whipping from my daddy but I had to pay a neighbor, Mr. Braddock, for the damages. Never did it again. And I never, ever applied a firecracker, much less a cherry bomb or an M-80, to a living creature, unlike some boys I could name but won’t who would tie a packet of Black Cats to the tail of a real cat or throw cherry bombs in the creek to blow up fish and turtles.
I was more likely to do something like toss a jumbo firecracker in a culvert under our driveway to see it flash out both ends. Or I might stick a jumbo firecracker or a cherry bomb underneath a mop bucket or an empty five-gallon can to see how high it would lift off the ground. And some of us, when we were feeling really invulnerable and stupid, and there were other boys around to egg us on, would stand on the can and see if the blast could lift us as well.
We were easily bored. If nobody had any money, Frankie would shoot up a few dollars worth while the rest of us watched. And we were always looking for new ways to employ the fireworks.
Which is how Frankie and I came to build the cannon.
We knew older boys, like Booboo Rawson and Frankie’s brother Charles, who had firecracker pistols. They would cut an L-shaped piece from some one-by-four pine board, then whittle it a little and sand it so that it was like a gun stock. They’d get a piece of plumbing pipe that had a screw-on cap and saw off the other end so that it was about 12-inches long. Then they’d unscrew the cap and cut a slit with a hacksaw through the threads. They would insert a firecracker into the pipe so that the fuse stuck out through the slit. They would drop an old bearing or a round piece of gravel down the open end, pack it with a little torn newspaper, light the fuse, aim and…pray that the cap didn’t blow off and take off their head.
Frankie and I had a bigger idea. We found a piece of pipe, six or seven feet long and about two inches in diameter out behind his daddy’s storehouse. And it had a cap. It was rusted, but with a little motor oil and some big plumber’s wrenches, we got it off. We cut an extra large slit through the threaded end so that it could accommodate not some measly firecracker but a cherry bomb.
We were careful. We waited until early afternoon on a Wednesday, when we knew there wouldn’t be many people out and about who might tell on us.
We made kind of a ceremony of it, bringing it out like it was a Thanksgiving turkey while a gaggle of neighborhood boys oohed and ahhed and shook their heads in approval of our ingenuity and hard work.
We unscrewed the cap, inserted a bright red cherry bomb, its greenish fuse extended, then put the cap back on tight. Into the other end we dropped a rounded rock about the size of a golf ball, and then we added a wad of paper from a grocery bag and tamped it down with a long, straight stick.
We had seen movies like To Hell and Back and The Red Badge of Courage. We had seen artillery in action. We knew we need to elevate and secure our literally loose cannon.
To give it what we thought would be a proper tilt, we put the capped end of the pipe on the ground and leaned the barrel across the big, bulbous tank in which Mr. Mixon stored the kerosene he sold by the gallon can on his rolling-store route.
We piled some boards over the pipe and weighted them down with pieces of cinder blocks. Our cannon was pointed east, the opposite direction from Frankie’s house and mine. We had no idea how far our projectile might carry, or if it would even leave the barrel.
I went to the road, just a hop and a skip away, to see if anybody was out and if any cars were coming.
I gave Frankie the go-ahead. He struck a kitchen match and lit the cherry bomb. We all ran back a few yards and partially hid behind a cluster of sweet gum trees.
The retort was sharp and very loud. Smoke and a hint of blue-yellow flame flared at both ends of the pipe. It bucked on the iron kerosene tank but did not dislodge. We could see the rock sailing through the cold December air. We could hear it whistling. It went past the Camps’ house, then across the yard of Frankie’s Uncle Vardy and Aunt Coot. And then we heard a second loud sound, a thwack, and saw a dark spot appear in the wall of the little white, detached garage of another neighbor, Fred Funderberg, a house painter.
Our first reaction was amazement. The cannon shot had carried a hundred yards, easily, and it traveled a surprisingly straight path, given the irregularity of the cannonball.
Our second reaction was “Hide the dang cannon!” We dislodged the pipe from underneath the boards and masonry, took it out in the woods behind Frankie’s house, laid it down and covered it with sticks and leaves.
We cleaned up all the traces we could find of the cannon’s manufacture, and went back to the business of loitering. We tried our best to look like nothing had happened, like there had been no big pop, nothing unusual.
Frankie handed out a few packs of little Black Cat firecrackers and we lit them one by one and laughed and horsed around, tossing them at each other’s feet.
After a while I got on my bike and peddled down the road past the Funderbergs’ garage, not stopping but giving it a once over out of the corner of my eye as I rode on down the road another couple of hundred yards. Then I turned around and rode back, real casual like.
There was a ragged hole about the size of a cantaloupe about six feet off the ground in the white siding of the garage.
Every boy who was there eventually rode or walked past the Funderbergs and checked out the casualty of our artillery fire. Not one of us ever blabbed about it. And if Mr. Funderberg ever wondered how that gash came to be in his garage or said anything about it to the neighbors, our folks included, I never heard it mentioned. Maybe it was chalked up to an act of God.
The firecracker stand stayed open, and Frankie kept up the tradition for years after that, making just enough money to replenish his stock.
We never rolled out the cannon again. For all I know, it’s still out there behind the Mixons’ house, resting and rusting beneath the leaves. The hole in the garage was still there when I went off to college.
By that time, I was no longer all that attached to fireworks – largely because a firework nearly ended two of my fingers’ attachment to my hand.
I was 15, more than old enough to know better. And it’s not like Mama hadn’t warned me. She never gave me a lot of grief about BB guns, none of that “You’ll shoot your eye out” stuff. She knew I knew where not to point a weapon, be it BB or shotgun or .22. But she didn’t trust fireworks, and if she had had her way, my brother and I would never have handled anything more dangerous than a sparkler. She and Daddy knew men in Laurel nicknamed Nub.
So, I knew better. But I got careless. It was a cold day the week between Christmas and New Year’s. The new had worn off what Santa Claus brought us, so a bunch of us boys had gravitated back to Frankie’s stand. I was trying to stretch my budget, get as much pop for my money as I could. I had bought a dime packet of jumbo firecrackers – smaller than a cherry bomb, bigger than the normal size cracker – and I was carefully unraveling them from the string and lighting them and throwing them one by one. Lighting, then throwing.
A firecracker I was tossing did what we call “jumping the fuse.” A spark spurted and hopped directly to the load. The jumbo cracker went off just inches from my right hand.
It kind of stung, but my hands were so cold it didn’t seem like much. But an hour later, when I went home and warmed my hands by the space heater in my room, the pain flooded in. I saw that I had a powder burn. My thumb and first two fingers started to swell and get stiff. I could barely bend my fingers, and when I tried, it felt like my hand was going to crack.
Mama and Daddy were both at work. Which was good. The last thing I wanted either of them to know as that I had done something this stupid.
I wasn’t sure what to do, so I stuck my hand under frigid water in the bathroom sink to kind of numb it up, and then I dried my hand, just dabbed it with a towel, and put Vicks VapoRub on it. Women in our family devoutly believed that “Vicksalve” would cure pretty much anything, so that’s what I did. And then I put an old athletic sock over my hand so I wouldn’t get Vicks on the furniture.
That first night, I thought I was going to lose my hand, or at least a couple of fingers. I wiped the Vicks off before Mama called us to dinner, and I kept my right hand out of sight when we were eating. I left-handed my fork and told Mama and Daddy I was trying to become ambidextrous like Mike Holmes, the star quarterback at my high school.
They didn’t bat an eye. They were used to me having fanciful notions. They were used to the faint aroma of Vicks. I got through the night without being detected. A whipping on top of my self-inflicted injury was one thing I did not want. And the next morning, they both went off to their jobs in Laurel, so I had nine hours to walk around with my right hand smeared with Vicks and covered with a sock, hoping the swelling would come down, hoping my hand wouldn’t fall off.
It didn’t. I got through the day and that night without being discovered. And when my fingers took on a reddish-blue bruise color and those two fingernails started to turn black, I finally showed Mama. I told her I had accidently slammed the feed house door on my hand.
“Oh, honey,” she said, grimacing as she daintily held my hand to the light.
Then she went to get the Vicks.