Friday, February 6, 2009

Yankee Doodle Dandy, Almost

Unlike Yankee Doodle, I was born on the fifth of July...not exactly dandy, but close. Maybe that's why as a kid I always enjoyed the Fourth of July and all the excitement it brought to our neighborhood. As I got older, and started worrying about sky rockets carelessly shot off and setting my house on fire, my enthusiasm for the holiday diminished. As a ten-year old though, I couldn't wait for those Roman Candles to light up the sky over our Brooklyn rooftops.

About the third week in June, the anticipation began to build. You would hear a stray firecracker go off here and there, ignited by someone who simply couldn't wait. As the Fourth drew near, the frequency of the explosions increased, as fireworks began to make their way up from the factories down South where they were legal, to New York City where they were not. Every year the same shady guys set up shop, selling fireworks out of their garages or car trunks. The cops pretty much looked the other way, after all, this was New York City where selling fireworks was way down in the crime pecking order.

As kids we started off with harmless "sparklers" that our parents bought us. When we were old enough to buy our own, we graduated to cherry bombs, “ashcans” (a smaller version of the M-80), bottle rockets, Roman candles, and packs of fireworks we called “inch-and-a-halfs” because of their length. I think one of the reasons the police left us alone back in the fifties is that that we were not nearly as indiscriminate with our fireworks as people later became. We couldn't afford to be. We didn’t just light them off; every cherry bomb detonation was planned like a Spielberg action sequence. We either set it under a tin can to see how high we could blow it, or put it inside a piece of fruit or some old crank’s mailbox to get some entertainment for our buck. We were so thrifty that if a fire cracker didn't explode, we would break it in half, ignite the powder until it sparked, and then step on it to hear it explode! Waste not, want not.

As years passed and people became more affluent, they got crazy and the Fourth of July became plain dangerous. I remember older men setting up trash pails in the middle of the street, starting bonfires in them, and then just standing around throwing hundreds of dollars worth of fireworks into the fire. Where's the fun in that! Neighborhood blocks became like war zones and you couldn't drive in the streets. Every year it seemed there was a story in the papers about some brain-addled Guido, emboldened by 14 beers, who would try to hold an M-80 in his hand until the last possible second. His nickname today...stumpy. It got so bad that the cops could no longer ignore it. Street patrols grew frequent, and if you did not heed the warnings, they confiscated your fireworks and took you to jail.

Because of these morons, Fourth of July celebrations have become pretty tame in New York City neighborhoods. Police now respond to complaint calls, and you run a real risk if you want to set off fireworks in the street. The nature of the holiday was changing; neighborhood fireworks were a thing of the past, to be replaced by elaborate, pyrotechnic displays put on by professionals like the Grucci family, and held in public venues, like the one sponsored by Macy's near the Brooklyn Bridge. They are spectacular sights to behold, with beautiful, multi-colored plumes of fire lighting up the sky. They are especially enjoyable when accompanied by patriotic John Philip Sousa marches playing in the background.

As an adult, I can understand the need to limit access to fireworks, especially to young people. I also freely admit to enjoying the Grucci family shows that have now become a staple of Fourth of July celebrations. What I'll probably never feel again though is the exhilaration of lighting the fuse of that cherry bomb sitting under an empty tomato can, and then running like hell, taking cover behind the parked green Chevy, and peeping out to see how high the can would fly. Farewell sweet youth.


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Heck, you could have waited one day, and joined me on my birthday, the 6th of July!

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

You mention the Gucci Family. They lived around the corner from my parent's home in Bellport, L.I. One year the factory blew up, killing one of the family members, and nearly destroying my parent's home! There was an implosion in their house, and glass ware was thrown out on the lawn! One outer wall was blown outward, along with other damage.
Good blog.

Jim Pantaleno said...

Hey Joe:

Maybe we can get together for lunch to celebrate our birthdays this year. Wow, I think I remember the explosion you mentioned...too close for comfort! Stay well.