The Fifth of July

When I was a little kid, we were too poor to afford fireworks. I suppose I can’t blame my pyrotechnic poverty just on being poor, but more on the fact that my mother didn’t think any part of the welfare check should be spent on frivolity. If we got fireworks, we didn’t get clothes, or we didn’t get food. Sure, it was a practical choice, but as a kid, you just want to rip into the hundred dollar “Independence Day” box of fireworks.

Our fireworkslessness meant that in the days leading up to the Fourth of July every year, we’d visit our more affluent friends and watch them light fireworks. Back then this annual ritual led me to conclude that socio-economic status could be identified by the characteristics of your fireworks.

If you had no color, just sound, you weren’t poor, but you weren’t living in a mansion. You lived in an apartment and shared a bedroom with a couple of siblings. The same went for fireworks with no sound, and just smoke.

If you had fireworks that were colorful, but just rolled around on the ground, you lived in one of the houses in a duplex.

If your fireworks shot color into the air, and did so while crackling, at least one of your parents had a full-time job and probably owned a house with a yard and a driveway (or at least they’d found a way to live in one).

In my family, we didn’t have any fireworks before and up to the Fourth of July. We didn’t get to light something and have sound, or color. Maybe, if we got lucky, someone handed us a sparkler. In the bad years, they handed us the punk used to light the fireworks. Yep, there’s the poor kid, the one with the smoldering ember.

Occasionally, when the sounds of Fourth of July were so muddled that you couldn’t tell the fireworks from the gunshots fired into the air, we pretended to be fireworks. I mean, if you’re a nine-year-old and you scream from a low tone to a very high one, you sound kind of like a Piccolo Pete. And besides, by nightfall, no one even knows what’s going on in neighboring yards, driveways, or streets. Everyone is just staring into the sky, looking for something to make the darkness light. That means there is no risk of being seen joining the cacophony of Independence Day sound, while in your pajamas, from just inside your apartment’s living room window.

I watched from the shadows every year until the Fifth of July. That was the day when my cousin Reggie would come over and my mom, and my sister, and my Tía Rosalba, and my other cousins, and I would go to the local park. Salt Lake Park was the one where the big neighborhood fireworks were set off, and the official, city-sanctioned Fourth of July safe zone for amateur fireworks displays.

We never went to the show on the Fourth of July. My mom was scared that going to the park after dark would make us victims of violent crime, and my Tía Rosalba was a Jehovah’s Witness. Her family didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July.

But, on the Fifth of July, Reggie, Virginia, and I made sure to take a magnifying glass to the park. Our families would stake out a spot next to a tree, drag over a picnic bench, pull out aluminum foil-wrapped burritos, and play dominoes.

Virginia, Reggie, and I headed straight for the previous night’s launching pad.

We crawled around every inch of that soccer-field sized patch of grass, looking for unused fireworks. Although not plentiful, and not colorful, little by little, we’d find some fireworks.

At first, we’d find little black charcoal disks. While we weren’t allowed to buy fireworks, and we weren’t allowed to play with matches, we did know what unused fireworks looked like, and how to start a fire without matches, so out came the magnifying glass.

We figured out the sun’s angle, and the length of time needed to create a flame, and voilà, black plumes of ash came up from the earth and “snakes” came to life.

My sister, Virginia, tore holes in the knees of her jeans and Reggie got dirt in his eyes, before we found another unused firecracker.

Lighting our fireworks became easier with each successive find. We’d get sound, and some smoke, and then we’d laugh hysterically and roll around in laughter on the charred firecracker paper and ashes left from the night before.

Although there were never more than about ten unused fireworks for us to light every year, we had gotten the chance to shoot off some fireworks after all. On the Fifth of July we had not been denied the simple pleasure of creating marvels of sound and sight.

We all knew that our scavenging hadn’t made us children of homeowners this year, but it was understood that ingenuity would get us there some year, maybe next year.

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About notoriouslig

I’m a former junior high school teacher and former newspaper reporter who’s currently masquerading as a superhero (ok, maybe not) attorney. I’m fascinated by the world around me and the great (or at least amusing) thoughts it inspires.

9 thoughts on “The Fifth of July

  1. Good story …We never got fireworks either maybe a few times but we got the cheapest box they sold.. my dad said it was too expensive, but as kids we still managed to have fun I always lived in the hood so there was always action out on the block the lights and sounds of illegal fireworks!
    and gun shots..
    By the way aluminum wrapped buriitos are classic, as a matter of fact I have one today I brought it to work for break lol

  2. Great story Notoriouslig! It was still fun watching other people’s fireworks, getting slowly closer to their base of operations, until they finally hand you a sparkler or maybe let you light one of those blooming flowers. That happened with some neighbor kids last year and they got super excited when I gave them a few extra items to take home.

    When I was a kid i would dream of one day being an adult with a job so I could buy the Block Party set, that huge box of fireworks way in the back of the fireworks stand. It’s not so appealing anymore but I still like to light a few, just because I can.

  3. Really enjoyed the story-Thanks Notoriouslig! My brothers & I always fantasized about buying the “49’R” box someday at the RED DEVIL FIREWORKS stand. I remember one lean 4th of July when all I could muster was popping “caps” (the little red strips of paper with explosive tiny dots) with a rock on my front porch. You should have done what a neighbor kid did one 4th of July on my street, he set his parent’s garage on fire.
    By the way, over by my Mom’s house near Montebello, every 4th, there are these families that bust out with literally pounds & pounds of illegal firecrackers (bricks)
    M-80s, Roman Candles, Sky-Rockets, you-name-it, I wouldn’t doubt it if they had Plutonium in their garage. How do these maniacs smuggle all this stuff over? Where’s Homeland Security?

  4. That reminds me Al we also used to go down to the marina sneek on to any of the old fishing boats docked up and steal the ” seal controls” now when those blew up they sounded viscious! they almost blow your ear drums out man we were crazy!

  5. Never bought more than thirty dollars worth of fireworks. It was enough to make me happy, mostly because we bought a lot of Piccolo Petes and smashed the bottom to make them explode at the end, making them more exciting. Fireworks lost their allure around the time I turned fourteen, but I sometimes get the urge to buy some fireworks.

    Like almost everyone here, I’ve always eyed the neighbors with their big box of fireworks and said to myself “One day I’ll buy that one.” Now, I think I would buy large amounts of fireworks, but to make them interesting, I’d douse them with gasoline and throw a match. Jeje.

  6. The punks made badass trails in the dark when you swirled them around.

    But Im gonna break the pbre stereotype; my trashy poor ass family always had a nice stash of illegal fireworks, and my the dopeslanging males always bought the blockbuster set, I was king of the projects that week. Its called the epidemic chicanos wasting their money on stupid shit syndrome, see hummers in cudahy and bell gardens and pobres spending the rent checks on espinners and BJs pitchers at the Towne Center.

  7. being broke on the fourth always sucked but I always managed to make the best of it and finding something to blow the hell up. My parents never bought me fire works not just because they though it was a waste, but because they feared that I would blow my hand up or hurt someone else. Plus for some reason I love the after burn smell. “There’s nothing like the smell of napalm in the morning.” Now if you excuse me, there’s a melon outside that has to be blown to kingdom come.

  8. After the spectacle I witnessed tonight, driving west on the 60 Fwy from Hacienda Heights into Boyle Heights (with a detour through the hilly area of Monterey Park), I would have to say, based on the amount of fireworks I saw, Los Angeles is home to the biggest Fourth of July celebration in all of the United States!

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