If we were to play word-association and you said “fireworks,” I would not say “4th of July.” I would say “Christmas.” I have no memory of popping firecrackers or shooting off Roman candles on the Independence Days of my youth. Why that is, I’m not sure. Maybe it was just too hot in July in south Mississippi. I don’t recall the city of Laurel ever having a big fireworks-in-park event, either.
Where I lived, out from town in the unincorporated, almost-anything-goes country, fireworks fever would strike soon after Thanksgiving. 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 palaces, 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.
What I remember is a whole lot of medium to tiny fireworks stands, from converted produce huts on Highway 11 South 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 house-to house, farm-to-farm, on a converted bus everybody called the rolling store. Mr. Mixon would get Frankie pyrotechnic 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 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 off 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 Fantastic Four at the Busy Bee 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 rescued glass Coke and Orange Crush bottles from roadside ditches 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 Baby Ruth, then spent the money at Frankie’s.
It wasn’t enough to simply “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 — or ignite it, thank God. 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 away beneath the leaves.
This story is excerpted from Nature Boys and Other Stories, a memoir in the works.