Camp Stahlman Fireworks Crew, 2002
Every so often, something will happen that makes your heart beat so hard and fast that you feel it up in your throat and it makes you shiver. It's not nervousness or fear, but the sheer thrill of pure anticipation, knowing that the most awesome thing in the world is just around the corner. Off the top of my head, I can think of three; when you clearly have the drop on someone while playing paintball, and you are moments away from unloading on them in a ping-ping-ping symphony of personal victory, when a girl you're making out with for the first time asks you to get a condom, with exposed breasts and exciting new pheremones heavy in the air, and when you first see those huge, roadside tents underneath a hand-painted sign reading "FIREWORKS" in big, bold letters.
Growing up in the rural South meant that fireworks season was a long, beloved stretch of weeks, filled with multiple trips to the Tents, bottle-rocket fights, smoke-bombs, M-80s taped together in lethal clumps, and of course, the Fourth of July. (This is, as we all know, the High Holy Day when one celebrates emancipation from the yoke of British Monarchy by blowing shit up. Nothing says "freedom" more than aiming a Roman Candle like a sniper rifle, and shooting bursts of colorful flames at your friends.)
Hot summer days were filled with that distinct, acrid gunpowder odor and an ever-present white fog, sprinkled with paper ash and adrenaline. Seeing fireworks actually explode was almost secondary to the hedonistic ritual of perusing the folding tables full of cardboard tubes, and wondering what kind of horrific mushroom cloud lived at the bottom of each one.
We always heard rumors of states that had banned fireworks, and refused to believe that such places existed. Madness! Not only were fireworks readily available all over the Tennessee Valley (and parts beyond), but they could be sold to anyone, of any age! If you had a bike and a handful of cash, access to deadly and brightly-colored implements of destruction was easy. If, between watching massive, booming displays and shooting each other with scorching flame, we had stopped to think about our peers in other states (whose elected officials were keeping them from firework glory), we would have felt terrible for them.
One of the great triumphs of firework season was working on Scout Camp Staff, and being in charge of the Fourth of July display. My friend Andy and I would go to the Camp Director, who would then hand us a wad of bills, and say "No more than four-hundred bucks worth." We would then drive to the nearest roadside stand, and tell the guy "Hey, we're with the Boy Scout Camp down the road... maybe you can cut us a deal? You know, for the kids." He would then proceed to load us up with box after box of massive, military grade explosives. Close to a thousand dollars worth of sparkling death packed into the trunk of a compact car. We could barely conceal our desperate glee.
On the Big Night, as the sun was setting, we would soak handkerchiefs in water, so as not to asphyxiate on the smoke-clouds to come. We would find goggles, and fire up cigars to use as wick lighters. The fireworks were laid out in a specific progression on the back of a soaked-wet wooden trailer. The music cues were readied in the outdoor amphitheater. And then, when the Scouts arrived and were seated, fiery chaos would be brought down upon us like the coming of Yog Sothoth. Mere yards above us, screaming detonations dazzled and terrified delighted troops of awe-struck kids, while we scampered like maniacs, lighting fuses and laughing madly.
When all was said and done, and the smoke had settled and the dust had cleared, we were covered in perspiration and ash and mostly deaf, but it was worth it. Bits of colored paper would drift in the breeze, our eyes would sting, and our hands were covered with bruises and black steaks. We stank of sweat and gunpowder, but most of all, we reeked of exasperated satisfaction. Emerging from the white sheet of concentrated smoke around the charred husks of blown stacks, we could only smile.
Nights like that are few and far between. Fireworks are Awesome.