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The Cracker Barrel: Boyhood Fourth

We kept up the frenzy until we ran out of things to blow up, then gorged ourselves on the picnic fare every family had prepared. Hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, beans, all washed down with pop or Kool-Aid and followed by a bowl of ice cream or a giant wedge of watermelon or a handful of homemade cookies, everything tasting so good that you wanted to keep eating until, like a cherry bomb, you just exploded. Photo Illustration.

What follows is a chapter of my newest book, "Looking Back," to be published in early August.

Back in the 1950s, summer unfolded slowly and seemed to last much longer than its allotted three months. One of the high points was the Fourth of July.

From mid-June on, you'd see rickety stands along the highways advertising all manner of celebratory explosives, and the prospect of igniting them began burning in your head like a long fuse. I can remember staring in silent awe at lavish displays containing every sort of firework imaginable. From snakes and sparklers and bottle rockets on up through firecrackers and cherry bombs and M-80s to Roman candles and pinwheels and flares and cones and stars and waterfalls and fountains and aerial bombs and salutes, the variety and size of the offerings made my head spin.

As the Fourth neared, adults would commence warning us about the dangers of setting off explosives. You could lose an eye or a finger or some other body part, they said. You could go deaf or blind or both. You could inflict harm upon your best friend or one of your siblings or the family dog or cat.

We'd listen with half an ear, our minds dreaming of blowing a tin can a hundred feet in the air, or plopping a lighted cherry bomb in crabby old Mrs. Yetter's mailbox.

On the actual Fourth, explosives boomed from every quarter, as if the town were under wartime siege. We ran from place to place, lighting and throwing ladyfingers and firecrackers and cherry bombs, faces red from exertion and back-blast, ears ringing, fingers seared from match burns and ill-considered proximity to glowing punks and flaming fuses.

The air gradually filled with a faint gray haze and the smell of burnt powder was everywhere. We kept up the frenzy until we ran out of things to blow up, then gorged ourselves on the picnic fare every family had prepared.

Hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, beans, all washed down with pop or Kool-Aid and followed by a bowl of ice cream or a giant wedge of watermelon or a handful of homemade cookies, everything tasting so good that you wanted to keep eating until, like a cherry bomb, you just exploded.

Later, after the mandatory wait of one hour, we went to the beach and spent the afternoon splashing and swimming and having horseback fights, and later yet we stumbled home, half delirious with joy, stuffed ourselves with yet another round of food, and eventually found our way to Aunt Bert's house, next to the empty lot in which the family display of fireworks would be discharged.

By dusk the uncles in charge had pounded a piece of well pipe into the ground from which to launch the skyrockets and aerial shells. They started with small stuff and worked their way up, and with each detonation a chorus of oohhs and aahhs filled the night air. The older folks and those unwilling to endure mosquitoes watched from inside the cottage and joined in the litany through the window screens.

The sky erupted with geysers of sparks and colored flame, red and orange and yellow and green, blue and purple and silver. With each new explosion the outburst of sounds from the audience grew louder until at the end, following the detonation of a final stupendous bomb that lit up the sky and threatened to break our eardrums, we all burst into applause.

The day was done. We picked up our blankets and chairs and headed home. Another Fourth had come and gone.

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