Things that go BOOM!

by Brian Clarey

We’re a bit nervous as we cross the border. Everything should be cool – we’re in a nice car, a new little Audi sportster, and we’re more clean-cut and presentable than we’ve ever been on a road trip before, and together we’ve made about a dozen. But still… we’ve got a trunk full of contraband and all it would take is one forgotten turn signal, one curious cop, and then… we don’t know. What do they do to fireworks mules anyway? Of course, you can buy fireworks in North Carolina, but it is generally agreed upon that the ‘works available in the Old North State kind of suck. It’s covered in Chapter 14 of our General Statutes. Caps for toy guns are legal. So are snakes, smoke bombs, party poppers, drop pops, sparklers and those crappy little fountains that shoot colored sparks from the ground. Rockets, missiles, mortars, Roman candles and everything that has a report – things that go “Boom!” – can result in a Class 2 misdemeanor. It is illegal in North Carolina to possess, sell, trade, barter, transport or use any other kind of pyrotechnic device, with the exception of emergency flares. But down in South Carolina they have no such qualms about pyrotechnic-grade munitions, so Mike and I head from his home in Charlotte just across the border to a Phantom Fireworks outlet with a liquor store next door. I’ve known Mike since I was maybe four years old, and together we’ve driven the entire eastern seaboard several times over. This is the shortest road trip we’ve ever taken. And it’s probably the most nervous we’ve ever been – more, even, than the time we were pulled over by a cop in a cowboy hat in Mississippi and we – two teenagers from Long Island – couldn’t understand his accent. But today our border crossing goes smoothly.

On Nov. 26, 1983, the Grucci fireworks factory in Bellport, Long Island caught fire. Just before noon the rockets started going off in the pale autumn sky, with concussive reports and, finally, a mushroom cloud that could be seen from across the Great South Bay. It was a tragedy in every sense of the word. Two people died, including Jimmy Grucci, one of the company’s visionaries who four years earlier became the first American to win the Monte Carlo fireworks competition. Twenty-four were injured and 100 homes in the area sustained heavy damage. All of the inventory was destroyed and the company was almost ruined. It was also one of the greatest fires in New York history, rivaling even the blaze that leveled Coney Island’s Dreamland in 1911, and in those pre-YouTube days we were bombarded by the footage on the nightly news. I was 13 that year; Mike was 14. We both remember it vividly. And whether it was the memory of that fire or perhaps our ages, we both recall that the following summer all of us wanted to get our hands on as many fireworks as possible. They were hard to come by in New York. All fireworks were illegal except for snakes, sparklers and smoke bombs. We could get snakes, those carbon pellets that emit a long, snake-like ash, at the newsstand downtown. But they smelled like poison and were lame, to boot. Sparklers were for babies. And smoke bombs… what’s the point of those? The conventional schoolyard wisdom held that to get good fireworks, one had to take the train into Manhattan and go to Chinatown, where, it was rumored, there were no laws against such things. And I did take the LIRR and then a subway into Chinatown that summer, a surreptitious trip paid for with greasy old dollar bills and some coins cadged from my dad’s change bowl. But, as it turned out, the streets were not exactly paved with gunpowder. I couldn’t read Chinese, and I didn’t see any kind of explosives hanging in the windows along with the whole roasted ducks and paper lanterns. I did come across a musty storefront without signage that, to my young eyes, looked shady enough to have contraband inside. But when I tried to enter, an old Chinese woman blocked my way and shouted what seemed to me to be a celestial expletive. I ran off, found a touristy store and bought a couple Chinese yo-yos, which I played with on the train ride home. No fireworks. The Chinese, of course, invented fireworks quite by accident when a cook compressed charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter in a bamboo tube. Fire, as the legend goes, made it explode in magnificent fashion. But it was the Italians who turned the gratuitous use of gunpowder into an art form. They developed rockets that shot into the air and exploded in brilliant colors, which in the early days were limited to yellow and orange. In fact it was a Grucci family scion, Angelo Lanzetta, who brought the art form over from the old country in 1870, coming through Ellis Island and settling in Elmont, NY, just a few miles from the house I grew up in.

The Phantom Fireworks outlet is about a tenth of a mile into South Carolina. It’s the size of a modest grocery store, and today everything is half price. There is a large “No Smoking” sign out front and also a uniformed fireman in the parking lot in his car. Dan Tatalovich, the store manager, shows us the ropes. The first aisle contains all of the sparkly, fizzy playthings that bear the “Safe and Sane” label, assuring buyers that they are legal in NC. We pass it by. Things get progressively more explosive in each row – there are assorted firecrackers and Roman candles, bottle rockets, then larger fountains and mortars, tubes, mines, shells, spinners, blooming flowers, big boxed sets and, finally, in the last row, the big guns designed for the finale of a fireworks show. That’s where we want to be. “This one is sweet,” Tatalovich says, pulling the Orbiters Launch Sequence off a stack. It’s about as big as a snare drum. “It’s got twenty-two shots, a spinner, and two UFOs rise out at the end.” There are dozens of them, ranging in price from about 50 bucks to almost $200. There’s the Urban Warrior, with a visored soldier on the package; the Hoo-Ah, a collection of 16 missiles that has nothing to do with Al Pacino; the Shagadelic Mojo, which may or may not infringe on the Austin Powers copyright; the Bada-Bing! Bada-Boom!, which has a gangster with a fedora on the package; the Boston Tea Party; the Barbarian Blast; Red, White and Boom; Palm Pyro Pageantry; Cometary Chaos; Crack the Sky; Whistling Pandemonium; Wickedly Awesome. The Supercell Storm, Tatalovich tells us, is “the best finale in fireworks.” And one called Da Bomb, he says, is this year’s best seller. “This one has nine tubes,” he says. “That’s the biggest 500-gram keg you can get.” There are also a few pieces by Grucci, which these days is the pre-eminent fireworks company in the nation. We load up a shopping cart with ordnance, giggling, and we remark that we feel like we’re 13 years old again.

Our childhood friend Dave always had fireworks, a ton of them that he kept in the bottom drawer in his bedroom. He obtained them each summer through mail order – mats of firecrackers, clusters of rockets, assorted whistlers, spinners and shooters. We would launch bottle rockets from the end of a plastic yellow Wiffleball bat and, in his backyard, would have Roman candle fights using garbage can lids as shields. On those warm nights back when young teenagers could still roam the streets we would load our pockets with fireworks and packs of matches we stole from our parents. We had to keep moving – fireworks were, of course, illegal, and sometimes we would get chased by the cops. If they caught us, they would confiscate our goods and, I later learned, would light them off themselves at family barbecues. Sometimes we would blow things up with firecrackers, or M-80s if we could get them. We destroyed many of our childhood toys, pieces of fruit and once, memorably, a coffee can full of Japanese beetles. And right about here I should interject that fireworks cause thousands of injuries a year. In 2005 there were an estimated 10,800 fireworks injuries treated by the nation’s emergency rooms, with four reported deaths. About half of the victims were 14 or younger. But there were no such instances among my circle of friends during our early teenage years. The closest I ever came to getting hurt was when a lady finger with a quick fuse went off in my hand. I was definitely freaked out, but the tiny explosion didn’t even break the skin. My hand was numb for a few minutes, but that was that.

It’s getting dark at the office and faraway thunder rumbles in the sky. Rain is coming, but I’m still thrilled by my carful of things that go boom, and there will be fireworks tonight. Everybody gathers around as I start things off with some jumbo jumping jacks. When I was a kid these things were the size of a firecracker, and when used properly they would spin on the street and pop an inch or so off the ground. If you waited after you lit them until the fuse was almost down and then threw them into the sky, they might catch a nice piece of air and shoot into the neighbor’s yard, or sometimes they would double back and head straight for you. These jumbo ones are bigger around than a double-A battery, and when I light the first one and toss it into the parking lot, it shoots straight into the air with a zipping sound. The assembled crowd of staffers and kids start to jump and shout. It is awesome. We move on. Next comes a few of those crappy little tanks and a Roman candle. Then we pull out the strobe spectacular, a 20-shot maximum load repeater. Foosh! Foosh! Foosh! The loads shoot into the sky; they crackle and bang. The kids are jumping up and down, waving their hands. Everybody looks skyward. Ooh! Aah! When it’s all over, I’ve got an adrenaline rush. Anything this fun should be illegal, I guess.

I vaguely remember the bicentennial fireworks displays on the Fourth of July in 1976. I recall watching the fireworks displays at Grove Park in Garden City when I was a kid, sitting on the damp grass. I remember the fireworks show in Manhattan on the Fourth of July in 1992, which I watched from the ground in Battery Park City – foomps and whooshes launched from boats in the harbor. And I remember the display every summer shot from the Lawrence Beach Club on Long Island, which I would watch from a mile or so away. The fireworks were provided every year by Grucci. They probably still are.

I bring one Grucci piece home from my trip to South Carolina: Mineshell Mayhem. It’s got 500 grams of power and, the label promises, “Every shot is a mine (a blast of stars and effects from the ground up) and there are no shells.” I light it on the street in front of my house. It crackles and sends up a burst of green and red stars. Then more crackles and brilliant blue flares. Foomp! Foomp! Fountains of color shower on the pavement and the sky lights up with explosions and sizzling sparks that look like fireflies. The neighbors start to come out of their homes, watching from porches and doorjambs. It goes on for maybe 40 seconds and the finale mine goes off in a spectacular conflagration of red, white and blue. The embers sift down from up high and smoke wisps from the spent box on the street. There is a moment of silence, followed by scattered cheers throughout the neighborhood. If this is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

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