If you’ve ever watched Pawn Stars, then you’ll appreciate where this story is going. With each new episode, Rick Harrison (co-owner of the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop) along with a few family members and colleagues, haggle with customers over how much a Civil War wooden leg is worth—or it might be a Picasso print. Either way, the show doesn’t really hit its stride until Rick and crew barter for a blunderbuss, pistol, rifle, cannon, or some other ancient explosive device. Then the real fun begins. After they’ve purchased an antique firearm, the pawn team gleefully piles into an SUV and hotfoots it to a nearby shooting range where they test the worthiness of their recent purchase by firing it at cans and boxes filled with gunpowder.
With each new explosion, the pawn stars leap with joy. The day they touched off a mortar that shot a bowling ball several hundred yards, the entire team fell to the ground in a paroxysm of laughter. Their joy was so contagious, it took all I could muster to keep from running out and buying a bowling-ball mortar of my own.
I mention this because here in America, we’re about to enter a period of patriotic devotion manifested by the time-honored tradition of blowing things up—the Fourth of July. Similar to Rick’s crew, which is drawn to cannons like moths to a flame, many of us will be drawn to roadside firework stands. There we’ll purchase large bags filled with colorful pyrotechnics sporting names such as “The Punisher,” “Nuclear Sunrise,” and “Red, White, and Boom.” We’ll buy these celebratory explosives because the skill of blowing things up provides humans a genetic advantage that has been passed on by their prehistoric predecessors and it simply won’t be denied. Plus, admit it, we’re comforted by the knowledge that a panel of experts examined the fireworks and deemed them to be legal (and presumably safe) for use in our neighborhood.
But what is it about the ability to blow something to smithereens that inclines us to abandon basic common sense? Don’t get me wrong, I love fireworks shows. I attend them regularly. I love fireworks. I buy them regularly. As a kid I made rockets and bombs. If I could get permission to do so today, I’d shoot flaming bowling balls at abandoned greenhouses filled with gunpowder. And like Rick, I’d fall over in a fit of joy with each shattering explosion.
But now I have children and grandchildren, so let’s get serious. There isn’t a twelve-year-old kid in the country who can’t transform legal fireworks into weapons of destruction. Twist this, bend that, (and now for the real secret) wrap seven layers of duct tape around this part and voilà—what was once an innocent, sparkling pinwheel now has the potential to earn you the nickname of “Lefty.” I’ve heard friends’ stories of bottle-rocket races (humans run, rockets follow) and activities so bizarre and dangerous I don’t dare mention them.
Even when you don’t grossly abuse fireworks, they present a serious risk. I, of all people, know this. On July the fourth, 1960, my friend Ed Biery’s parents dropped the two of us off at the Lummi Indian Reservation where all manner of fireworks were legally sold and detonated. I started the day by casually lighting and throwing firecrackers at rocks and pieces of beach wood until I grew bored (roughly four minutes). Next, Ed brought out the sacred Revell plastic model planes and boats he had built, treasured, and protected since he was old enough to hold a pair of tweezers—the same plastic models he had meticulously glued together and fastidiously painted for several hundred hours. Now, at age fourteen, the two of us callously blew up his masterpieces—like mad bombers on a rampage.
At one point during the destructive frenzy, I lit a firecracker and forgot to throw it. Silly me. Eventually the firework reminded me that I hadn’t released it by exploding in my hand. My right index finger and thumb throbbed for two days. They still throb when I think about that painful explosion.
But this setback didn’t stop the insanity. The escalation continued until Ed and I placed a three-shot aerial bomb on a log. The first shot flew an explosive fifty feet in the air where it detonated with a frightening roar. It also knocked the remaining firework to the ground. The second “aerial” shot (now aimed at my head) zipped past my right ear and landed under a passing police car, which took the full force of the explosion. Two officers leaped out of the vehicle and headed our way until the third and final shot ricocheted off a log and landed next to me and Ed. It lay a few feet away from us on a patch of seaweed for what felt like a week—the fuse spitting and hissing like a snake. Suddenly it detonated with a force so concussive it knocked the two of us off our feet.
The police officers quickly scanned the beach, concluded that we weren’t attacking them (after all, we had nearly blown ourselves up), and chastised us for using sloppy ordinance-handling techniques. What else could they say? The fireworks were legal. The damage was temporary. And we’d been extremely lucky.
This year, as Independence Day approaches, I wish you the best of holidays. Go ahead and be independent. Refuse to give in to British domination. Don’t listen to One Direction, Adele, or Mumford and Sons. Refuse to pay excessive taxes on tea. Go nuts. Just don’t become independent from all vestiges of reason and logic. Try establishing ground rules before the first fuse is lit. Start with Mutual Purpose. “I know we all want to have a safe experience, so why don’t we set up some rules to ensure our safety?” Ask others what they want to avoid and then jointly create guidelines. Better to set expectations before people act unsafely than to deal with infractions after they occur and others become defensive. As I tell my children, when you or your neighbor comes up with a crazy firework idea, ask yourself: “What would Dad do?” Then don’t do it anyway. And finally, to all you blunderbuss and cannon lovers out there—stop referring to your left eye, hand, and foot as “spares.” That’s just asking for trouble.
If you enjoyed this story, you’ll love Kerry’s new book, The Gray Fedora—a collection of stories from Kerrying On. The book is now available on Amazon.com.