Mixed thoughts on July 4th.

08 July 2024

It's July 4th as I sit outside and write this post, after quite a few years of wondering if I should type this up. But, I figured, I'm not getting any younger and if I ever get around to writing my memoirs I'm going to put this in there, anyway, and there's no guarantee that I'll remember this if and when I ever do. So, here goes.

Content warning: Gore. This is kind of the definition of trauma for a little kid so if you don't want to read about fireworks accidents you might want to close the tab and go about your business. No judgement.

There are many criticisms of July fourth to be made, and folks who've spent longer than I have considering how to express them have no doubt posted them everywhere by the time you read this. So, I'll spare you the discourse and get right down to it. It was being at ground zero of two pretty horrific things that, to this day, wake me up at night in a cold sweat once in a while because I still dream about them.

The first thing was when I was four or five, living la vida little kid in western Pennsylvania. My best friend at that age, Lee (It's been about forty years so I think it's safe to give just a first name) and his folks were setting off fireworks in the front yard, like lots of folks do. Sparklers and party poppers are pretty much par for the course, but if you drive an hour or two over the border into Ohio it's pretty easy to buy fireworks illegal in Pennsylvana and, as long as you don't do anything incredibly stupid bring them back to Pennsylvania. To this day I don't know what Lee was setting off, in part because it's been so long, in part because nobody actually told me (because I was pretty fucked up over it and it would probably have made things worse), and in part because there's so much folklore surrounding (usually illegal) consumer fireworks I strongly doubt that much of it is accurate.1 Anyway, pretty common playing with fireworks was going on, vis a vis lighting the fuses on firecrackers and throwing them to watch them explode. Somehow Lee messed up his throw; maybe it was the wind, maybe it was a mistake, maybe a manufacturing defect of some kind was involved, probably some combination of factors were involved. I don't know.

What I do know, and still remember vividly, was Lee lighting the fuse of and throwing a small red cylinder about the size of the last two joints of an adult's finger. The fire cracker hit the branch of a tree, which caught the fire cracker and flung it back in Lee's direction. He put his hand up to protect his face and the fire cracker struck his hand and detonated. I vividly remember seeing blood dripping from his hand, burn marks, and a smaller than usual number of digits. Long story short, the fire cracker had blown three of his fingers off. I don't recall anybody ever saying that they'd found them, and Lee was about as old as I was at the time (which includes physical size relative to an adult) so it probably didn't take very much force to turn those digits into a fine red mist.

No reconstructive surgery had ever been done on Lee's hand, so when we graduated from high school in 1996.ev he was still missing those fingers, though the scars looked somewhat less heinous due to natural development.

The other event was just a couple of years later. I was eight, maybe nine, and I'd gone with my folks to the local park where the community professional fireworks display was held every year.2 Prior to nightfall when the fireworks display was held, folks were sitting on the grass on blankets doing the picnic thing. As you've presumably guessed from context, there were picnickers around setting off their own fireworks.

Weirdly, this event is a bit fuzzy, probably because of how shaken up (in a literal sense) I got. I know that somebody's fireworks went awry: I don't know what kind it was other than it was a pretty hefty sky rocket but I do know that it didn't go up but sideways along the ground. I recall it skipping off the ground a few times because there was a shower of sparks every time it hit. I also recall it heading right for somebody's picnic spot where they had a bunch of their own fireworks sitting on the blanket. This is where things go wonky in my long-term memory, because all of those fireworks went off all at the same time and we felt the blast wave about ten feet away.3 I got my bell rung pretty good (remember, I was maybe eight years old). The picnic blanket at ground zero caught fire. I remember my folks picking me up bodily and hauling me away at best possible speed, and the other family screaming because their picnic blanket (made of synthetic fibers) had caught fire and was not only burning the folks sitting on it at the time, but the melted synthetic fibers were sticking to them while they burned.4

Cops everywhere. Fire department. Multiple ambulances. Little kid me in the back of the family car, still dizzy from the blast wave knocking all of the fluid inside my head around and looking out of the windows (rather than laying down in the back seat, as my folks kept yelling at me to do). At least six people badly hurt. We didn't go back to that park for quite a few years.

Suffice it to say, I'm not really a fan of fireworks, and given the chance I'd much rather be someplace that doesn't sound like World War III is starting for recreational reasons.

I hate ending posts in this this way because it comes off as not trying to write a good wrap-up. Just ending a post with an abrupt break isn't satisfying to the reader and it's not to the writer, either. However, sometimes there just isn't any more to say. People grow up and grow older (at differing rates). Time heals some wounds. Some of those wounds are physical, some aren't. Sometimes they stop hurting, sometimes they don't, and sometimes it's always a constant ache. For me, one of those things is a dislike of fireworks because seeing folks maimed is one of those things I can't forget.

I'm not really one to tell people what to do or not do. But please, just be careful out there, okay? Don't do anything dumb, take some precautions if you do, and don't be afraid to not do something because something in the back of your head tells you not to.

  1. M-80's, M-100's, M-200's.... only one of these is actually a known classification of firework, the rest are probably made up, and statements like "They're equivalent to a quarter/half/full stick of dynamite" are regularly bandied about but there's never any hard data. 

  2. Probably still is. 

  3. No, I don't know what kind they were to go off like that. I try not to think about it. 

  4. I read this in the paper a day or two later, in an article about the accident.