Thursday, July 3, 2014

Black Cats, Cherry Bombs, and Christian Patriotism

I must confess I don't really look forward to 4th of July celebrations these days. This is mostly due to Cordelia, our bichon frise, for whom the day is pretty much her worst nightmare. On the other 364 days of the year, Cordy enjoys our two daily walks. But July 4th is different. She'll be leading me down the sidewalk as usual (though I hold the leash, there's no question she's in charge), hear the boom of a firework, near or far, stop dead in her tracks, turn around, and hightail it for home. Once home, as soon as I remove her leash, she sprints straight for our bedroom where she crawls under the bed or curls up on her blanket in the corner of the closet, her body trembling and her heart racing. We've tried sedatives but those just seem to agitate her more.

The second reason I don't look forward to fireworks day occurred a few years ago. We had just moved into our house in Newberg in June. On the fourth that year, we had gone to Cascade Locks in the Columbia gorge to watch the fireworks show, arriving back home late that evening. As we approached the driveway, we noticed that a couple of the slats in our wooden privacy fence were blackened at the bottom and one even had a red glow to it.  We realized with horror that at some point during the evening our fence had been on fire.

The mystery was solved the next morning when a neighbor from a few doors down came by to say he had been walking his dog past our house when he saw the small fire, got some water, and doused it. Apparently our across-the-street neighbors had been shooting fireworks in their front yard and had failed to notice that one of them had ignited our fence. Had it not been for our other neighbor, we could have arrived home to a much more disturbing scene!

My current feelings about the 4th of July strike me as strange because growing up, Independence Day was, next to Christmas, my favorite holiday.

For me, Independence Day did not mean freedom from British tyranny; it meant the freedom from restrictions about blowing stuff up. And how I loved to blow stuff up!

I’m surprised my brother and I survived so many July 4th. celebrations without blowing ourselves up—or at least sustaining serious injury.

My brother and I loved creating loud noises with any kinds of explosives we could get our hands on. At the end of June, when the fireworks stands began to appear around the edges of Wichita, our anticipation began to build, and it continued to mount until the day we got to make our annual fireworks shopping visit.

I still remember the smell of gunpowder and sawdust as we left the mid-day Kansas sun and entered the shade of the fireworks tent (though the shade didn't really make the 100 degree heat feel much better). Mom and Dad would hand us each some cash, and we would go to work, our objective being to obtain as many high impact explosives as possible on our limited budget. We always shopped for the loudest and baddest ones.

Legal restrictions were less prevalent in those days, so when I was a kid you could still buy Black Cat firecrackers: the ones that had the most gunpowder in them. This, of course, also made them more dangerous than the kind they sell today. Because we liked to hold a firecracker in our hand, light it, then throw it, there was always the chance that the fuse would burn very quickly and the firecracker would explode before or just after it left your hand.

Apparently, making firecrackers was not a science, so it seemed that out of every pack, there would likely be one or two “quick burners,” the problem being you never knew which ones they were. This happened to me often enough that I remember how frightening it was. I also remember how much my hand hurt when it happened. My mom was very aware of this danger because it was to her I would go running when it happened. She would wrap my hand up in a cold washrag until the throbbing stopped. Then I would be out the door, ready to launch more Black Cats into space.

Next to Black Cat firecrackers, our favorite explosives were cherry bombs and M-80s. Cherry bombs were called that for obvious reasons. The looked like a cherry but in place of a stem, there was a thick fuse on top. M-80s were shaped differently, consisting of a silver cardboard tube that held the powder and a fuse that extended from the tube’s middle.

As I remember, these two were pretty equal in power. They were, of course, many times more powerful than a black cat firecracker. So powerful that, even as reckless as we were with fireworks, we would not hold them in our hands and light them. We would place them on the ground, light them, and then run like hell.

A favorite pastime was to place a coffee can on top of either an M-80 or a Cherry Bomb with the fuse sticking out. We would light the fuse, run like we were being chased by a grizzly bear, and then turn to watch the can being launched 10 feet or more into the air.

Cherry Bombs and M-80s were valuable commodities. They cost more than firecrackers. They were cherished, hoarded, and saved, and while they would primarily be used on the 4th. of July, we might save a few to use on special occasions throughout the year.

I liked to get my stash of M-80s and Cherry Bombs out occasionally just to look at them and imagine the glorious day when I could set them off. Like Gollum with his precious, I reveled in the uniqueness and promise of these explosives.

Our family’s tradition was to travel outside the city limits of Wichita to the house of family friends. This family also had a boy who would engage in the pyrotechnics fun with my brother and me. I’m not sure why we had to leave Wichita to shoot fireworks. Perhaps there was a law that prohibited shooting them in the city limits. Likely there was because I don’t remember ever shooting fireworks off at our home.

I do remember though shooting tons of fireworks every 4th of July. We did some stupid things, most of which would have been strictly forbidden, I’m sure, had our parents known what we were up to. I already mentioned the practice of holding, lighting, and throwing powerful firecrackers. We also threw lighted  firecrackers at each other—not a brilliant idea given the potential for one to explode near an eye or an ear.

One time a couple of us boys climbed up in a treehouse with our fireworks and threw them down at the boys below while they in turn threw lighted fireworks up at us. The perils attendant with such an activity are obvious, and I can only think it’s a miracle that no one was seriously injured in these exchanges. I suspect some of my mild hearing loss today can be attributed to those excessively loud noises my ears experienced on those hot July days long ago.

We never went  to fireworks shows. We conducted our own. We would buy a few of the roman candles and fountain type fireworks and set them off in the driveway once it got dark, but these were much more expensive, and I think we preferred to spend our money on the firecrackers and Cherry Bombs and M-80s. We also liked bottle rockets, black snakes, and those little round pellets that exploded when they made forceful contact with the ground. I don’t know what these were called, but we loved them.

Their chief attraction was their use in the game known as Surprise Attack. For example, let’s say you and your brother were standing in the driveway after coming home from church. You could conceal one of these little guys in the palm of your hand; then when your brother wasn’t looking you could throw it right next to his shoe, scaring the daylights out of him. The next step, of course, was to run like hell so your brother didn’t tackle you and beat you up. It was a drill similar to lighting an M-80 in that respect. The game of Surprise Attack was great fun, especially when you were on the giving end—not so much of course when on the receiving end.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I was unique among the Tandy boys in not taking to guns and hunting. This was not the case with fireworks, however. I loved and looked forward to the 4th of July festivities as much as any of the boys, and the fascination would continue after I had children of my own. Fortunately, by that time, most of my favorite explosives—Black Cats, M-80s, and Cherry Bombs—had been banned, so I didn’t have the same worries as my parents did that one of my boys would lose a finger or eye as a result of a 4th of July celebration.

It occurs to me as I write this that I never recall my parents tying what happened on the 4th of July to any patriotic or Christian message. Certainly I was aware of the Independence Day aspect; I’m just saying I don’t remember our family ever talking about that or placing a particular emphasis on it as a holiday. I never heard my dad preach a sermon about Independence Day.

These days it seems common to hear evangelical Christians talk about nationalism and our country’s biblical foundations around Independence Day. I find the difference intriguing. Dad served in the military during WW II, and no doubt would have called himself patriotic, but, at least as far as I remember, he didn’t see a need to mix his patriotism with his Christianity. (Just to be clear, I don't object to love of country or to Christianity; it's just the combination of the two that frightens me. To use one example, consider the way the Third Reich co-opted the Lutheran church in Nazi Germany.)

For us, I guess, blowing stuff up was a good enough reason for celebration. We didn’t need to cite chapter and verse for our practice. It was just good, clean, loud (and sometimes dangerous) fun. Plus, there was the homemade ice cream.