Note:  A prologue from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)


I mean, who doesn’t love great fireworks shows?

In the heartland where I grew up, fireworks were popular, but the fireworks year really centered around the Fourth of July.  The local volunteer fire departments or, in the larger towns, the municipal fire departments usually oversaw things, but everybody looked forward to the shows and even little, sparsely populated Allamakee County managed some impressive ones, held on the county fairgrounds at Waukon.

The problem was one of patience.  Most of us local kids had a hard time waiting for the Fourth.  One could purchase fireworks in Iowa in those years, but thanks to state laws on the matter one was limited to some pretty weak sauce:  Sparklers, snakes, poppers, that sort of thing.

Fortunately, there was another option:  Missouri.

By Way of Background:

In those halcyon days of the Seventies, a common event was the summer convoy to Missouri to buy fireworks.  Once you crossed the border, a plethora of fireworks shops were immediately to hand, and it was a wonder to walk in and see the cornucopia of BOOM on offer:  Bottle rockets, Black Cats, M-80s, even the big professional-grade mortar-fired stuff.  In those days, when you could still buy something for a dollar, it wasn’t uncommon for folks to drop a couple hundred bucks on fireworks.

And, of course, some people recouped a good part of that cost by “informally” reselling the goods up in Iowa, to those who hadn’t made the pilgrimage.  In our pre-driver’s license days, that’s generally how we obtained the good stuff, fireworks-wise.  There was always someone’s older brother, or cousin, or just some local guy that everybody knew had a stash.  We bought our M-80s, bottle rockets and Roman candles from them, and since the Allamakee County Sheriff’s Department was notoriously blasé about enforcing fireworks laws as long as there were no resulting traumatic amputations or structural fires, we all had our fun and went on with our lives.

Demand will, after all, always find a supply.  That’s an immutable law of the universe.

But sometimes the supply faltered.

And Then:

The original M-80.

The supply line being tenuous, sometimes we had to improvise.

From the time I was twelve or thirteen I was messing about with black-powder guns, and so generally had a good supply of black powder on hand.  I did a lot of shooting, so the Old Man was never particularly surprised when I announced my supply was almost run out and that I’d have to go to town with him on his next trip to buy a few cans.  I’m sure he was aware that I was diverting some of that supply to non-firearms-related purposes, as he even witnessed a couple of those trials, but as long as I managed to keep my fingers, toes, and other body parts in place, he didn’t seem too concerned.

Boys will be boys, after all.

The key to a really good bang is, of course, confinement, as I discover one afternoon after helping the Old Man deal with pocket gophers by pouring gasoline down their holes.  On a whim (and when the Old Man wasn’t looking) I decided to take the eradication effort a step further by dropping a lit match down one of the gopher holes.  The resulting whump was pretty impressive, as lighting gasoline fumes in the enclosed confines of a gopher hole makes a pretty good impact on a fourteen-year-old who did not step back far enough.  When my ears stopped ringing and I was able to sit up, I saw the Old Man standing over me, a stern look on his face.

“Learn something?” he asked, his usual taciturnity on display.  The gopher was unavailable for comment.

I nodded.  But somewhere in my mind, my thoughts were already turning towards how best to use this new knowledge safely – or at least, less dangerously.

In another installment I have already described destroying a small fleet of model ships by filling them with black powder, adding a fuse, and sailing them down the creek with fuse lit.  That was just a preliminary, one that I felt comfortable enough to try with my parent’s watching.  Leave it to my old al Jon, my misfit friend and partner in poor judgement, to suggest taking it to the next level.

One day as I was digging a hole in the ditch down the road from the house to… well, that’s a story for another time, but suffice it to say I was out in the July afternoon sunshine digging a hole when Jon showed up on his ancient bicycle, carrying a large burlap bag of something that clanked.

“Hey,” he asked, climbing down from the elderly coaster bike.  “You still have some black powder around, right?”

“Sure.”  I laid the shovel aside.  “What you got there?”

Jon opened the bag.  “My Pa was doing some plumbing work on the propane tank,” Jon explained.  “This here’s some leftover stuff.”  ‘This here’ turned out to be three roughly four-inch segments of black iron pipe and a number of matching black iron caps.  “I watched Pa threading the ends of some of the pipe for the caps, so when he went in for lunch, I went ahead and threaded these.  See?”  He took a cap and easily threaded it on to one of the sections of pipe.

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “So?”

If you’re already thinking ahead and telling yourself “Pipe bomb,” you aren’t wrong.

“I bet if we filled these up with black powder, then stick a fuse in, they’ll make a hell of a bang!  Want to try it?”

Of course, the answer to that was “Yes!”  And so, later that day, we had assembled three improvised explosives that would have done justice to anyone who studied the Army’s Technical Manual TM 31-210 (Improvised Munitions Handbook).

“You know,” Jon said when we were ready for the first test, “we might want to be behind something when this goes off.”  That note of caution coming from my notoriously reckless friend was well-taken, so we cut the fuse on the first ‘firework’ at about two feet, placed it carefully on a stump, then ran off about thirty yards and hunkered down behind a fallen log.

The resulting BOOM would have done a stick of dynamite credit.  We stood up, looked at the cloud of smoke drifting away from the stump – then we looked down.

“Uh, Jon,” I said.  “Look there.”

“Urk.”  There was about a three-inch strip of black iron embedded in the fallen log we’d hidden behind.

On examination, the stump we’d placed our ‘firework’ on was shredded.  Pieces of scrap iron were scattered generously about.  After a brief conference, we tossed the remaining pieces of iron pipe in the creek and called an end to that particular bit of experimentation.

It was another hobby, though, that would end up producing the most interesting results in the improvised fireworks race.

This One Time:

Model rocket engines.

As we got older and started obtaining the coveted driver’s licenses, we began exploring options for shooting off fireworks from a moving vehicle.  Cars and trucks in those days had metal rain gutters over the doors, and a common practice was to light a bottle rocket, place it in the rain gutter, and let it fly, assuming the car or truck was pointed in the proper direction.  One could also just light the rocket and toss it out the window, counting on the aerodynamics of the trailing stick to point it more or less in the direction of travel, but results from both of these practices was somewhat… mixed.

Then an old acquaintance of mine, a guy called “Tricky Rick” Osborne, came up with a better idea.

“Tricky Rick,” mind, was a guy who once welded an improvised roll cage into a ’67 Mustang and took it out on the state highway to see how many times he could roll it.  (He managed five complete flips, even landing back on the tires.)  He came out of that trial with a totaled Mustang, a broken collarbone, a dislocated shoulder, a broken radius, and several cracked ribs to go along with various scrapes and contusions, but his fundamental drive for invention and experimentation was undeterred.

Around this time model rocketry was becoming popular with some of the guys.  The high school even had a model rocketry club, of which our pal Albert Hedley was one of the founding members.  One Sunday, a bunch of us had gathered in a pasture to watch Albert launching a rocket of his own design when I noticed Tricky Rick examining something.

“What you got there, Tricky?” I asked.

“One of Albert’s model rocket engines.”  Just then the rocket launched, fired by an electric trigger controlled by a small control box Albert had is his hand.  We watched as the rocket ascended until it was almost out of sight, at which point a small pop let us know that the bursting charge had expelled the rocket’s parachute, allowing it to make a soft landing.

“Well, ain’t that something,” Rick said softly.  “Hey, Albert!  Where can I buy me some of this stuff?”

Tricky Rick didn’t seem like the type for model rocketry, but I knew better than to ask questions.

A few weeks later, on a fine August Saturday, a bunch of us were hanging out in the Pamida parking lot in town when Tricky Rick showed up.  He had replaced the wrecked ’67 Mustang with a more dilapidated 1964 Ford F-100 pickup, and as we discovered, he had since been making some modifications to that vehicle as well.

“Hey guys,” he called, dismounting the old pickup.  “Come check this out.”

‘This’ was a big Estes model rocket engine, with two feet of ¼” wooden dowel taped to it and a crude nose cone made from what appeared to be tin from a soup can.  “Tested a couple of these already,” Tricky Rick informed us.  “Got a couple of ounces of black powder in that nose cone.  The charge that’s supposed to pop out the parachute sets it off, just fine.”

“OK,” my pal Dave said, “so you made a big bottle rocket.  So what?”

“Look here.”  Tricky Rick opened the hood of his pickup.

“What the hell,” Dave said, leaning over.  I pushed my way in for a look.  It was curious; under the hood, in the capacious engine compartment, two lengths of galvanized steel conduit were attached to the wheel wells on either side of the straight-six engine.  A moment’s examination revealed a threaded cap on the back of each length of pipe, with a small slot cut in to allow passage of some cheap Radio Shack wiring.  Another moment’s examination revealed that the forward end of the tubes protruded through the grille of the vehicle.

Not the actual pickup, but much the same.

“What the hell,” Dave continued.  “Do you mean to say… I mean, is this…”

“Yep,” Tricky Rick grinned.  “It’s a rocket launcher.”

Like many of our dads, Albert’s father had served in World War 2 and had passed on a lot of the terminology.  “You put a Screaming Meemie in your truck?”

“Sure.  Check this out.”  Rick walked around and opened the driver’s door. “Look there, under the ashtray.”  A small, cheap Radio Shack sheet-metal panel was installed under the dash, with a toggle switch on either side and a big red button in the middle.  “One switch for each side,” Rick chortled with glee.  “Can set off either side, or both at once.  Uses them funny little electric igniters like Albert had.  Turns out the truck’s 12-volt system fires ‘em right up.”

Nobody ever said creativity and insanity were mutually exclusive, and Tricky Rick was probably a good illustration of that, but nevertheless, a bunch of us piled in the back of Rick’s pickup to take a test run to evaluate the practical application.

“Most of the townie assholes are hanging around down on Water Street,” Tricky Rick called out as he started the truck up and put it in gear.  “Let’s go shake ‘em up some.”

We proceeded thither, then, and sure enough, the moment we turned onto Water Street, there was a 1974 Camaro containing two members of the local townie sports clique, idling at a red light.  Tricky Rick had tasked Albert Hedley as Weapons Officer for the day, and as he turned, barked orders: “Hit the left-hand switch.  Ready…  Ready…  Fire!”  Albert stabbed the red button.

It’s important to note that Tricky Rick’s creativity had not extended so far as a heads-up display, or indeed any other kind of aiming device.  The rockets performed – oh, they performed perfectly.  One bounced off the Camaro’s windshield and went screeching almost straight up, where it produced a pretty impressive detonation about a hundred feet above the tops of the buildings along Water Street.  The other flew in the open door of the Corner Bar, bounced off a table, and spun around on the floor until a quick-thinking patron doused it with a pitcher of beer.

Tricky Rick hit the gas.  We careered down Water Street.  Behind us, the Camaro hung a quick U-turn and started off in pursuit.  I was mildly disappointed to find Tricky Rick had not installed a caltrops dispenser or some other such gadgetry to discourage pursuit, but after a block or so the two guys in the Camaro got close enough to realize that there were eight of us in the pickup, and that the odds were stacked against them in a scrap, so they abandoned the chase.

“Tricky!” Dave called through the rear window of the truck cab.  “I’m not so sure this is a good idea!”

“Don’t worry!” Tricky Rick called back.  “It’ll be fine!  Just got two more rockets left to try out.”

We left Water Street and roared out of downtown, heading for the Upper Iowa river bridge and the college.  “Look,” Rick called, “Look at that asshole’s shiny truck!  Bet that guy’s never been off a paved road.”  Ahead of us was a beautifully clean, new Chevrolet half-ton that we knew belonged to another of the areas’ notorious townies.  “OK, Albert,” Tricky Rick barked.  “I’m lined up.  Hit the right-hand switch.  FIRE!”

Both rockets flew straight and true this time, but again, Rick’s aim was off.  One rocket bounced off the new Chevy’s driver’s side rear-view mirror and deflected downward, where it was crushed under a tire.  The other missed to the left and screamed down the street, narrowly missing a tall figure in khaki before exploding in the used-car lot.

The figure in khaki, of course, being Officer Messerschmitt of the Decorah Police Department.

I could hear Dave let out an audible groan.  He had been, up to that very moment, dating Officer Messerschmitt’s daughter.  Tricky Rick never considered making a run for it.  The officer knew us all; there was no escape.  When Officer Messerschmitt stepped into the street and held up his hand, Tricky Rick obligingly brought the truck to a halt and surrendered to the inevitable.

All of us but Tricky Rick got off with being hauled into the local police station, given a damn good talking to, and tossed unceremoniously out on the sidewalk.  Tricky Rick spent the night in the hoosegow, and when his brilliantly angry father came to get him in the morning, was forced to dismantle the Screaming Meemie system under police supervision.

Thus, ended our experiments with vehicle-launched rockets.

These Days…

I still enjoy a good fireworks show.  When I’ve had occasion to be in Japan during a local festival, I’ve seen some incredible fireworks displays.  I have it on good authority that you can find some great shows in China, too.  In that part of the world folks just love them some fireworks.  And our fireworks tradition in the family did continue, although with fewer improvised fireworks.  In one banner year, Mrs. Animal and I made a trip to Wyoming, dumped about five hundred bucks into fireworks, then went back to Allamakee County for the Fourth of July where my brother and I organized and executed a great fireworks display for the whole family – with all eardrums and limbs remaining intact.

Here in the Great Land, one can get some pretty good fireworks.  Stuff like Roman candles and Black Cats are available, and not far from us, down the Parks Highway at Big Lake, is the famous Gorilla Fireworks, which has a fine assortment for sale.  The Matanuska-Susitna Borough technically disallows fireworks but in typical Alaskan fashion, I’m told that rule is regularly ignored.

But the Fourth of July options are muted by the fact that… well, it doesn’t really get dark that time of year.  Even here, quite a way south of the Arctic Circle, the sun is up until a little after eleven-thirty, and the sky never really gets dark, so the fun of a really good fireworks show is muted.

So, instead, perhaps a good New Year’s Eve show is in order.  That time of year it’s dark by four in the afternoon.  Added bonus:  No fire danger.  Not with two feet of snow on the ground.

Americans in general love them some fireworks.  While I’m generally not in favor of government regulating such things, at this point in time when I’m older and (presumably) wiser, I’m willing to admit that a car-mounted rocket launcher probably wasn’t the best idea, and maybe good old common sense should have warned us of that.  Your mileage may vary.