West of Woolwich: Fireworks return!

Posted Wednesday, July 11, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: Fireworks return!

or …. 70 years ? I don’t think so!

by Fred Kahrl

It has been a long drought for Maine’s true fireworks lovers.

But it hasn’t been 70 years, as suggested by the local newswags who weren’t even a twinkle in their daddys’ eyes when the law came down on the private ignition of celebratory pyrotechnics.

I know this not because I looked it up. I know this because I am only 68 and had almost reached the age when I could order my own fireworks for the Fourth of July, just as my much older brothers had been doing since my birth.

Thus, I vividly remember my brothers toiling with their shovels through winter blizzards and pushing balky lawn mowers under blazing summer sun, single-mindedly squeezing every earnable dime and nickel into the “firecracker bank”.

Every comic book had one or two back pages filled with the most extravagant advertisements for fireworks galore, and my brothers brooded for hours each Spring on how to spend their precious funds.

And then, sometime late in June, word came down from the Railway Express Agency office at the Bath Train Station that there was a delivery to pick up.

The trip up to Bath in those days was long under the best circumstances, especially because part of Rte. 127 still hadn’t been paved and the old station wagon sucked in the dry dust at any speed over 15 miles an hour … especially with the windows closed.

My brothers would be in a state of almost uncontrolled agitation, held raggedly in check by Father’s assurance that he would turn around and head back home if they didn’t stop wiggling. That was a dire threat because … even eight years after the end of war rationing … gasoline was treated as a precious commodity. We still did not go to Bath more than once a week … sometimes only once every fortnight! … unless it was a mortal emergency.

Father did not necessarily believe that leaving the fireworks at the REA office until after July 4 was a mortal emergency. So the “wiggling” was barely contained, but even I could feel the mounting tension ‘way back in my solitary perch on the third seat.

REA was a revered service of the railroad industry in those days. It handled small shipments that couldn’t come through the mail and would have easily bogged down in the ponderous commercial freight services that passed carloads of commerce from one railroad line (company) to the next on up the line.

REA was the UPS of the day, with their own specialized “package” cars that moved with the passenger trains, had offices right in the train stations, and even had handsome green trucks to make the last leg of a delivery within most cities where trains stopped.

When you lived outside the delivery zone and came to the station to pick up your Spring chicks, your Package Bees, your nursery stock for planting, or your fireworks, the man from the REA office would take his clipboard out and roll up the big door where the truck spent the night, and would slowly check each box on the loading platform against his list.

My brothers would be standing behind Father at the doorway, squinting eagerly into the gloom, literally dancing with anticipation.

A box made of wooden slats would roll out of the gloom on a hand truck, pause while Father signed the paperwork, and then would roll on toward the tailgate of our 1948 Ford “Woodie”. The crate, much like those used for shipping citrus back in the day, would be tenderly lifted over the back of the third seat, dispossessing me of my rightful place, and gently lowered onto the seat itself.

It was a hushed and reverent moment. Eyes wide, my brothers hovered over the crate, with its many bright warning stickers dancing across the slats. They touched it briefly with just their fingertips.

Father shattered the moment with a command to “sit down and leave it alone!”

We rode back to Georgetown in a sort of exhausted silence.

Back at Kennebec Point Father put the crate in the grass in front of the workshop and carefully pried off the top slats. Inside was a sea of excelsior with dazzling glimpses of color here and there beneath the nest of springy wooden spirals.  My brothers would spend the afternoon carefully unpacking each treasured pyrotechnic, spreading them out on the old canvas we used in the back of the car.

When done, it was a breathtaking display! I was hypnotized, ‘way beyond noticing the sloppy application of the bright wrappers glued to the skyrockets, the fountains, the little mortars, and the roman candles. I was so distracted by the coiling dragons and abundant Chinese printing that I didn’t even notice the tortured pidgin English on the same red tissue wrappers that held the promise of long strings of crackers.

Father allowed the premature ignition of some of the small firecrackers, especially the Lady Fingers, a few Cherry Bombs (supervised), lots of Snakes, and most of the little clay balls (Atom Pearls) that exploded when they were thrown down on a hard surface.

Then the excelsior was carefully saved aside (like “packing peanuts” today), the glorious rainbow of anticipation was placed gently back in the crate, and Father carried it into his study at the end of the el and slid it under the cot where he took his naps. The next few days leading up the The Fourth the study door remained locked when Father was not therein.

On the evening of the Big Day, the whole family (and a few friends and neighbors) would slather on the mostly ineffective 6-12® repellant and troop over to one of the small beaches around the “Bedroom” on Sagadahoc Bay. Father would bring an old piece of wooden rain gutter along to which he had added two legs. Once set up in a sturdy three-point stance, it became the launcher for the skyrockets, which would arch majestically out over the bay (think: “mudflats”) in a most satisfying way, expiring only after emitting a “bang” or several colored balls, or both.

I could go on in detail, but I don’t want to lose my audience … if indeed you are still with me. I would not be surprised if I have already lost some non-believers.

I think I was nine on what was to be the last summer of legal fireworks. That evening on the beach left indelible memories.

I was given a piece of smoldering punk and a string of Ladyfingers all my own! It was absolutely twice as much fun to light your own crackers rather than just watch someone else.

Then I was given a Fountain, and I was so mesmerized I barely stepped back enough from the dazzling shower of sparks. Then there was an almost absurdly small mortar that I DID run away from when its sizzling fuse ignited, but turned in time to see it loft its tiny cargo into the air, where it blossomed into four colored balls with a small “Bang”.

I was in rapture. I had become one with the little firework the instant my punk touched the fuse. It was the most memorable firework of the evening for me … bar none.

I vaguely recall having my small hand wrapped around a Roman Candle, with Mother’s hand then wrapped around mine, and enjoying the small jerk and pop as each bright meteor streaked away.

But I was in a daze from my “mortar moment.”

In fact, I think I had not the slightest objection when Mother led me back toward home, even though the “Big Boys” were still expending the dregs of their arsenals.

The next morning, before all the adults were stirring, I dashed back to the beach with an old gunnysack. There I gathered the carcasses of the larger fireworks … those that had not been carried away by the tide … and brought them back home. Once there, I emptied my small wooden toybox (that I had inherited from someone) into a wooden orange crate on the front porch where my friends and I played on rainy days.

The blue toybox … about one-and-a-half feet square … was about all I could carry, even empty. I quietly puffed up the stairs with it in my arms, and installed it under the window in my small bedroom. Next came the musty gunnysack, giving up its prized contents into my little blue pine chest.

Perhaps I had overheard, maybe even subconsciously, the grown-ups chatting about the impending change in the law. I can’t remember. I just know I had to save some of those empty cardboard tubes and cones, their bright wrappings scorched and their colors dimmed by lapping waves, some never dropping tiny sand speckles … reminders of where they once spread their light and sound across the night sky.

For years thereafter, I would go up to my room when there were quite, private moments, and I would sit down and open my chest of drab treasures, arranging them rank and file on the floor around me. Then, I would pick up each one, turn it slowly in my hand, and then carefully smell the barrel.

A ghost of burned gunpowder lingered there, and I would close my eyes and remember that last night, and my Mighty Mortar.

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