The Great Fireworks Show of 1995

 

fireworksIt all started near the end of our senior year of high school — the unofficial Senior Skip Day, to be precise. My best friend and I took off for a bit of joyriding in the Mohican Valley in his overhauled pumpkin orange ’78 Chevy pickup on a beautiful and sunny Tuesday morning in late May.

Graduation was just two weeks off, we had some cash set aside, and so when not scaring old Volvo station wagons as we slid and bounced through the twists and turns of the gravel roads, we aimed for a little fireworks shop you could pass a hundred times without knowing it was there. We signed the “liar’s form,” dropped our cash, and walked out with some packs of saturn missiles, some mini mortars, a six-pack of Black Cat shells, and some fountains, then pointed the nose of the truck towards the cabin and set about trying to get airborne on some of the humps and crossroads. We may also have braced one of the mortars against the truck door and aimed it in the general direction of some cows.

So began our love affair with fireworks. We used some of the goodies at graduation parties (although we had to abort at my friend’s party because a police chopper dropped a spotlight on us before we could start — he lived in the city), and fired the rest off the night of the fourth. My parents lived out in the country, so my dad (himself a fireworks devotee) let us light ’em up after dark. The Black Cat shells were particularly impressive, giving us multi-colored star bursts and aerial crackling. We wanted more, but August had us going our separate ways to different colleges. Still, we agreed to put some money aside for a more impressive show come New Year’s. While watching the stars and screamers burst over the snowy fields, my father made us an offer: He would sponsor us to put on the show to end all shows on July 4.

As soon as college was out we made our pilgrimage back to the Mohican Valley, this time with my father’s credit card and a budget in the hundreds of dollars. Given what we were planning to haul off, we borrowed my mother’s minivan as we weren’t keen on getting any attention directed towards the explosives. Ohio had a peculiar law at the time: You could buy fireworks in the state, but you could not possess or use them without a license. So when you made your purchase you had to fill out what was jokingly called the “liar’s form” — where you stated the exact city and state where you were supposedly taking the booty, and pledged to remove the fireworks from Ohio within 72 hrs. We picked Anchorage, AK. Then we loaded up the car with countless fountains, packs of shells, missiles, firecrackers, and novelties.

black catThen there were the mortars. Black Cat shells come six to a pack, with a disposable one-inch diameter, eight-inch long cardboard launch tube. We had a couple boxes of those, but some uncounted number of true pro-grade mortars. These are single-use tubes, two to three inches in diameter, each containing just one shell in lengths of about 18 to 20 inches. These arc high into the sky and detonate with chest-jarring concussions. I wonder if we cleaned out the shop. These were mainstay of our planned show, the rest was just filler.

The planned launch site was, in the meantime, kept closely mowed and cleared as we planned out the show sequence. My father had a leftover shipping pallet from a piece of machinery and my friend suggested we chainsaw it into three sections to use as firing platforms. He then used scrap lumber to make slots, so we could just run up and slide the mortar bases in without fear of them tipping. We also made a more rugged launch tube for the smaller Black Cat shells.

On the morning of the fourth, we set up lawn sprinklers all over of the launch field, while my dad hauled brush and scrap into a pile for a bonfire.  My friend and I, meanwhile, made a few dry runs to test our ideas.  In the evening, his family joined mine for a cookout and swim in the pool, but I think we were too nervous to each much.  We kept checking our lighters and spares, and staring at the sky to make the sun go down sooner.

8:30, 8:45, the bonfire was lit, but not dark enough yet…

At 9:30 we gave the go-ahead and began the show. We had the fireworks stored in empty trash cans at a central point, and our three platforms were spread downwind radially, each about 30 yards from us and 20 or so yards from each other. We positioned a mortar on each outer skid, then grabbed the biggest fountain and put it in the center. After a quick high five, we lit and started sprinting towards the mortars. With them touched off, we booked it back to central, listening to sparks and shrieks of the fountains, followed by two booming thuds as the mortars fired.

I don’t know if either he or I remember much of the show’s set pieces and launches. What I do remember is a mad 45 minutes of dashing out to one platform or another (I had left, he had right, we mixed it up on the center), grabbing the spent mortar out of the slot, ramming a new one home, touching it off, and dashing back to central to queue up the next whizbang. We mixed in more fountains and missiles while we caught our breath, but crack, bang, thud, kaboom, whistling, shrieking on and on the whole time. I could see the road a third of a mile off, and cars stopped to watch the spectacle. Neighbors far off sent up a few sympathetic shells, but our show kept on cracking, booming, and filling the air with odor of sulphur, nitrates, and burning magnesium.

In a thick fog of smoke, utterly exhausted, but with the nearby cheers of family and the distant cheers of far-off neighbors, we ended the show with one last large fountain and another double mortar launch, the last of the loot. Then we gathered up all of the spent tubes and empty boxes and fed it all into the bonfire, so no questions would be asked. Even the skids were tossed in at the end.

We never repeated the show at that scale. The following summers we were either working full time, or traveling, or getting married. We had a few smaller shows, but what had been country very quickly became suburbia. My parents’ acreage is still intact, but most of the surrounding lands have been populated by McMansions and busybodies. Their road, once so quiet that cars were a rarity at night, now has a steady stream of traffic at all hours. Too many eyes around, too many people they don’t know anymore, too much risk of trouble for an amateur fireworks extravaganza.

Still, we lay in a few boxes of shells, and sometimes we do find the time to fire them off, even if it means taking a trip to do so. 21 years later, that show is still remembered as the big one: The Great Fireworks Extravaganza of 1995.

There are 37 comments.

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  1. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    Freaking Merican baby!

    • #1
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    What a wonderful tale, Skipsul, and so artfully told.

    One of the poignant facts of life is no matter what year you were born, twenty (or, in this case, twenty one) years after high school graduation feels like a helluva long time. A generational interval.

    • #2
  3. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Cool stuff.  Nowadays, you would video the whole thing.  Totally viral.

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    “… and that, your Honor, is how we come to burn down Perrysville.”

    Great tale, Skip.

    • #4
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    It’s a little bit “Stand By Me”, a little bit “Avalon”, and a lot of understanding of how it looked when we were younger. It’s not merely nostalgia, but a sharply described set of turning points in growing up.

    Not that I necessarily would have wanted to live next door to him in 1995…

    • #5
  6. Pencilvania Inactive
    Pencilvania
    @Pencilvania

    Great, Skip! A true tale of Liberty!

    • #6
  7. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Sounds wonderful – and intense.

    How did your mother react? Mine would have been freaking out about the danger.

    • #7
  8. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Son of Spengler:Sounds wonderful – and intense.

    How did your mother react? Mine would have been freaking out about the danger.

    She was a bit nervous, but my buddy and I had been launching stuff and shooting guns for a while.  Besides, it was a great show and ahe enjoyed it.

    • #8
  9. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    How is the Contessa not here to utter the words of anointment, strong work!

    • #9
  10. Vicryl Contessa Thatcher
    Vicryl Contessa
    @VicrylContessa

    Great story. And strong work.

    • #10
  11. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    In the family movie, it’ll be the little girls who ask Skip about how come & wherefore when they find, concealed in the garage, past the muscle car, his long-awaiting arsenal of mortars–it’ll be called, Excalibur or some clever American sales-pitch reworking of the name–& he’ll have to tell them about this time when Americans were free & all these things they did. & in the story, it’ll be obvious that the girls are at the age when they’re dreamy about princes & such & they’ll think Skip a prince of the princeliest type. But of course, there’ll be some disbelief & humor along the way, because Skip’s now a bit rusty with the years, & a bit too pacific… But by the end, the girls will want to go on the great American road adventure.

    Of course, if I can somehow put zombies somewhere in here, I’ll be printing my own money for the foreseeable future.

    • #11
  12. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Great story, Skip.

    • #12
  13. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Titus Techera:In the family movie, it’ll be the little girls who ask Skip about how come & wherefore when they find, concealed in the garage, past the muscle car, his long-awaiting arsenal of mortars–it’ll be called, Excalibur or some clever American sales-pitch reworking of the name–& he’ll have to tell them about this time when Americans were free & all these things they did. & in the story, it’ll be obvious that the girls are at the age when they’re dreamy about princes & such & they’ll think Skip a prince of the princeliest type. But of course, there’ll be some disbelief & humor along the way, because Skip’s now a bit rusty with the years, & a bit too pacific… But by the end, the girls will want to go on the great American road adventure.

    Of course, if I can somehow put zombies somewhere in here, I’ll be printing my own money for the foreseeable future.

    Keep in mind that my favorite film is Big Fish, which could well be the tale of my grandfather, himself an artful story teller.

    • #13
  14. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Woo-hoo!!! Wish I could have seen it! Great story, skip.

    • #14
  15. Jamal Rudert Member
    Jamal Rudert
    @JasonRudert

    in furtherance of a fine –and I do mean fine–tradition!13603558_1381285511887575_6901813481047881027_o

    • #15
  16. Jamal Rudert Member
    Jamal Rudert
    @JasonRudert

    image

    • #16
  17. Hank Rhody Contributor
    Hank Rhody
    @HankRhody

    We used to have an annual bonfire with friends, cousins and the like. Guy who organized it was half insane, and a real fantastic individual. First year (well, first I was in on it; I missed the inaugural bonfire which had to do with clearing materials from a deconstructed shed) we took a piece of screen, nailed it to a wooden frame and slotted 1,100 bottle rockets through it. Then, as the bonfire was dying down, we put the bottle rockets onto the embers.

    They didn’t all go off at once. They fired in the space of maybe 10 seconds. Many went up, but many also went sideways. I stood there watching bottle rockets streak to the left, to the right, and above, laughing maniacally the whole while.

    In subsequent years we tried more bottle rockets, in different configurations. We never managed to duplicate the magic of that first barrage.

    • #17
  18. Grosseteste Thatcher
    Grosseteste
    @Grosseteste

    Thanks for the story!  I wish the Minnesota of my youth had the bureaucratic option for unscrupulous civilians to obtain fireworks.  Sounds like a great time.

    • #18
  19. Mike LaRoche Inactive
    Mike LaRoche
    @MikeLaRoche

    Some of the best Independence Day memories I have are of attending El Paso Diablos baseball games at the old Dudley Field in El Paso, Texas during the 1980s. On the 4th, the game was always followed by an incredible fireworks show.

    • #19
  20. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Loved it!

    • #20
  21. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    If you want some laughs:

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/fireworks-stories-1/id201480140?i=1000371057451&mt=2

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/more-fireworks-stories/id201480140?i=1000371125383&mt=2

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/even-more-fireworks-stories/id201480140?i=1000371498206&mt=2

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/because-they-were-so-good/id201480140?i=1000371615256&mt=2

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/fireworks-stories-el-gigante/id201480140?i=1000371753293&mt=2

    I defy anyone to listen to these and not have a few belly-laughs.

    As one of the host says, there are certain phrases that keep recurring across multiple stories:  “Black cat fireworks”, “M-80s”, “and then it tipped over”.

    • #21
  22. Jules PA Member
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Fun!

    • #22
  23. Casey Member
    Casey
    @Casey

    We’re about the same age. In the late 80s, my whole extended family rented a big place at Myrtle Beach. My cousin, one year younger, and I snuck off one day to buy fireworks. In retrospect, it’s kind of insane that this guy let a 13 and 14 year old walk out of his store with a paper bag full of explosives.

    Anyway, we knew this was against the law. The law of mom that is. So we planned and plotted. We’d hide them under there until tomorrow night. A bunch of them are going to dinner. We’ll slip off down the beach to that quiet empty spot and go nuts.

    Well, tomorrow came. The parents were preparing themselves. They leave in an hour. What time is sunset? Got the matches? The bag? Where’s the bag!? Holy crap! Where’s the bag?

    THEY KNOW!

    We ran downstairs to the kitchen. There the moms stood chatting. And our fireworks floated quietly in the sink.

    • #23
  24. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Casey:We’re about the same age. In the late 80s, my whole extended family rented a big place at Myrtle Beach. My cousin, one year younger, and I snuck off one day to buy fireworks. In retrospect, it’s kind of insane that this guy let a 13 and 14 year old walk out of his store with a paper bag full of explosives.

    Anyway, we knew this was against the law. The law of mom that is. So we planned and plotted. We’d hide them under there until tomorrow night. A bunch of them are going to dinner. We’ll slip off down the beach to that quiet empty spot and go nuts.

    Well, tomorrow came. The parents were preparing themselves. They leave in an hour. What time is sunset? Got the matches? The bag? Where’s the bag!? Holy crap! Where’s the bag?

    THEY KNOW!

    We ran downstairs to the kitchen. There the moms stood chatting. And our fireworks floated quietly in the sink.

    Hahaha! Well told.

    • #24
  25. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Casey:We’re about the same age. In the late 80s, my whole extended family rented a big place at Myrtle Beach. My cousin, one year younger, and I snuck off one day to buy fireworks. In retrospect, it’s kind of insane that this guy let a 13 and 14 year old walk out of his store with a paper bag full of explosives.

    Anyway, we knew this was against the law. The law of mom that is. So we planned and plotted. We’d hide them under there until tomorrow night. A bunch of them are going to dinner. We’ll slip off down the beach to that quiet empty spot and go nuts.

    Well, tomorrow came. The parents were preparing themselves. They leave in an hour. What time is sunset? Got the matches? The bag? Where’s the bag!? Holy crap! Where’s the bag?

    THEY KNOW!

    We ran downstairs to the kitchen. There the moms stood chatting. And our fireworks floated quietly in the sink.

    My father would never have done that.  Even when I was younger, at the very least he would have helped me shoot them off.  You see, he was actually making explosives as a kid (up to, and including, nitro glycerine, TNT, and various fulminates).  He also had his own moonshine still at 14.

    • #25
  26. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Fireworks were (and still are) unavailable in Illinois.

    Photo supply stores still sold flash powder, however.

    BWhahahahaHAH!

    Take a metal trash can and put a couple of inches of water in the bottom. Place an empty soup can in the trash can with the unopened end up. Put the flash powder on the soup can, and a larger can (grapefruit juice can works just fine) over the soup can. There is a small hole poked in the grapefruit juice can to admit the fuse. Light the fuse and be elsewhere, quickly. The juice can goes flying to an impressive altitude with a big bang.

    Do not use a plastic trash can. The bottom is not strong enough. You can end up punching a hole in the bottom of the can, which is a little hard to explain later.

    To this day I have no explanation how anybody in my neighborhood survived the eighth grade.

    • #26
  27. dittoheadadt Inactive
    dittoheadadt
    @dittoheadadt

    For some reason, I assumed it was too cold in Alaska for fireworks.

    • #27
  28. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    dittoheadadt:For some reason, I assumed it was too cold in Alaska for fireworks.

    It was a better mythic destination than some of the more creatively named (and mildly vulgar) names we had put down on previous trips.

    • #28
  29. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    dittoheadadt:For some reason, I assumed it was too cold in Alaska for fireworks.

    Bigger issue is that it doesn’t really get dark enough around 4th of July.

    • #29
  30. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    skipsul:

    dittoheadadt:For some reason, I assumed it was too cold in Alaska for fireworks.

    It was a better mythic destination than some of the more creatively named (and mildly vulgar) names we had put down on previous trips.

    But did you have a backup story just in case you were asked?

    • #30

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