Playing with Fire(works); a Lifetime of Adventures

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Playing with Fire(works); a Lifetime of Adventures

Warning: Do not try this at home!

James R. Aist

I have had a long-standing fascination with fireworks, especially the do-it-yourself variety. Playing with fireworks offers opportunities to blow things up without getting in trouble for it. It also invites the application of creative juices when one begins to get bored by mindless repetition. Finally, the ever-present threat of bodily harm adds a certain excitement to the entertainment value, perhaps not unlike that experienced by rock climbers and bungee jumpers. Here, I have elected to share with you some of the more interesting or bizarre experiences I have had with fireworks during the course of my lifetime. I hope you enjoy them; I know I did.

Roman Candle Peekaboo

When I was about nine years old and living in very rural Arkansas, we lived on a dirt road off of a dirt road, about half a city block from the small, Methodist church in Cypress Valley. It was Sunday evening, and the Fourth of July was coming up in a few days. But some of the more patriotic young locals had already stocked up on fireworks early, and they came to the Sunday Evening Service with mischief in mind. It was already dark when the congregation was dismissed, and these patriots made a bee-line for their automobiles. There they armed themselves with Roman Candles, touched them off, and began shooting them at whoever was shooting at them from behind the parked cars. It was all I could do to negotiate the parking lot without being shot down myself! And I marveled at the skill these combatants displayed at dodging the fiery darts after first seeing the flash from the candles aimed right at them. Obviously, this was not their first Roman Candle “rodeo.” It was truly a wonder that no one was hurt that night. I was frightened.

Blind Man Standoff

That same night, after the Roman Candles had all been used up, another fireworks battle took place, this time on the road in front of our house. And this time I was able to participate. A group of about 12 willing participants assembled, fireworks (mostly firecrackers, but some cherry bombs and block busters to make it more interesting) were distributed, two sides of six each were chosen, and the two sides stood in a row and then took about five steps back from each other. Since we were now well away from any source of light, it was pitch black on that dirt, country road, and we could barely see anything. I thought it incredulous that they (we) were really going to do what it was obvious they (we) were going to do. And they (we) did. Fireworks were lit by both sides and flung at the other side. You could see them being lit and thrown, and there were explosions all around us. We dodged as best we could while lighting and throwing our own ammunition in retaliation. I soon wished I had sat this one out, but it was too late! Oddly enough, though, no one was hurt in this battle either. But I swore never to do that again!

Arrow Rockets Rock!

Right around that same time, also in Cypress Valley, I invented my first fire cracker weapon. Here’s what happened. I had some firecrackers left over and was wondering how I might set them off creatively. I had a crude bow that I had fashioned out of the trunk of a persimmon bush and strung with bailing twine. A local weed left dry, straight stalks after flowering, and I had crafted these stalks into crude, but suitable, arrows for launching from my bow. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself, “I wonder what would happen if I were to fasten one of those firecrackers to the end of one of those arrows, light the fuse, and then, at just the right moment, fire it into the clear afternoon sky with my bow so as to explode the firecracker at the pinnacle of the flight of the arrow. (OK, OK, at only nine years of age, I wasn’t using advanced, three-syllable words like “pinnacle”, but that’s what I had in mind, I’ll swear it!) Anyway, that’s what I did. It took some practice to get the firecracker to explode at just the right time, but, after a few tries, I had the timing down pat. I would load, light and fire, and the explosion would give off, not only a loud bang high up in the sky, but also a puff of smoke would emerge and drift off slowly, carried by the wind. I had invented the “arrow rocket!” But I didn’t anticipate what would happen with my next launch. Up went the arrow, bang went the firecracker, and puff went the smoke, as before. “But wait, what’s that I’m seeing? Is that a perfectly formed smoke ring? Why yes, yes it is!”, I thought to myself. My arrow rocket had just produced a perfect smoke ring that drifted off slowly, carried by the wind! Was that cool or what!

Firecracker Time Bomb

In an earlier short story, I published a more complete account of my application of this ingenious time bomb (click HERE). So here, I will just relate essential details of its construction and use.

This invention took place when I was about 12 years old and living in Evening Shade, a small town in rural, north-central Arkansas. Now, the key to making a Fire Cracker Time Bomb is to first make a homemade fuse that will produce a delayed explosion of the firecracker, a “timer fuse” as it were, and then insert one end of the timer fuse into the free end of the fuse of a firecracker. As it turns out, the perfect, convenient raw material for a timer fuse is thin, white, cotton string, such as used to be employed to bind a flour sack or a bag of charcoal briquettes. When you light the end of the string with a match and then blow out the flame, the string will continue to smolder and burn shorter and shorter, much like a lighted cigarette left sitting in an ashtray. So, I did some test runs to determine how long the string needed to be to give about a two-minute delay, just long enough for me to make my getaway and appear completely innocent if there was an unexpected “incident.” The action plan was to mosey innocently down to the center of town (about one block), stop at the big maple tree next to the telephone operator’s house on the left; you know, the tree with a huge hole, about waste high, that was facing the sidewalk. Then, I would turn and face the big hole in the tree, reach in and assemble the “bomb” inside the hole so that no one could see what I was doing, light the timer fuse, turn back toward home and mosey innocently up the hill, waiting to see if anyone would be startled by the “bang” so I could watch (i.e., be entertained by) their reaction. And so I did. But, as it turned out, there was no one but me in the area at that moment to hear the explosion, so my prank was a bust (pun intended). Technologically though, it was a huge success. Woo-hoo!

Mater Grenades

This final caper with fireworks has had many variations throughout the years, but I think you might enjoy reading about this one in particular. It happened about 14 years ago at my home in Knoxville, TN. My wife’s daughter and her family were visiting, and the Fourth of July was coming up. The grandson and I were plotting to blow off a few firecrackers and wanted to add some kind of twist to it, just for kicks. Why not blow something up this time, besides the firecrackers, we reckoned.

Now, we were somewhat of a couple of cheapskates at that time, and I began to wonder how we could blow something up without spending too much money on it. As it turns out, a few days earlier, when I was shopping for vegetables at the supermarket, I noticed that some of the Italian tomatoes (you know, the ones shaped like shmoos) were perfectly sized and firm for this adventure, and several were rotting from fungal infections. No one would buy these tomatoes anyway, I surmised. So off we went to the supermarket to buy tomatoes to blow up. Well, sure enough they agreed to give us the rotting tomatoes for free. Now this little trick may not be as simple as you might think. To pull this off successfully, one must first create a clean hole in the tomato just the right size and depth to hold a lit firecracker while flying through the air at high speeds (the tomato, not me, silly!). Aha, a drill is “just what the doctor ordered” I thought. So I got out my electric drill and selected a drill bit of the same diameter as a firecracker.

When the time came for our little entertainment gig, we all went out on the deck (which, by the way, is ten feet off the ground) to enjoy this homemade spectacle. I drilled a hole in the first rotten tomato, and we inserted a firecracker; it fit perfectly.  So, we lit the fuse, waited a couple of seconds, and then flung it violently into the air, away from the deck. When it was about 20 feet from the deck, the firecracker exploded in mid-air, and instantly there was tomato juice, pulp and seeds flying everywhere…BAM…poof! That was awesome, and so we high-fived each other. Then we repeated the process 5-6 times before getting bored. And that’s when we noticed tomato seeds where we didn’t expect them: on the deck, on the deck rail and even on my van, which was parked a good 25 feet or more from the explosions. Now THAT was well worth the trouble!

(To read more of my short stories, click HERE)