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The Last Windrow: Celebrating the Fourth with a bang


The ominous smell of nitrate hung heavy along the river bottom near the little fireworks shack. It was the week of the Fourth of July near the western Iowa border, and my dad turned the 1951 Chevy into the parking lot in front of the stand.

Bright-colored signs featuring growling gorillas, hissing black cats and fanged snakes adorned the little wooden building that had seen its share of floods over the years. But, outward appearances meant nothing to a kid who accompanied his dad to this place that somehow seemed illegal.

The thought of crossing the state border line to secure a trunk load of explosives was exhilarating, to say the least. I wondered if we might be arrested while transporting the illegal cargo back into Iowa?

During my growing up years the story was told many times around this time of year when the city of Spencer, Iowa, was almost burned to the ground due to a fireworks-caused fire. If I remember correctly, someone tossed a lit cigarette into a fireworks display inside a store in downtown Spencer. The resulting fire caused the Iowa legislature to pass a law banning the sale and use of fireworks "forever" within the state's borders.

I thought to myself that one person caused us all to suffer because of his or her carelessness.

And so, we were forced to become criminals when we satisfied our need to celebrate the Fourth with a bang and a flash and a buzz bomb. I have no idea what the ban did to decrease the use of fireworks through the countryside, but I doubt if it had much effect.

One could purchase the banned fireworks both in South Dakota and Nebraska, and I don't remember anyone ever getting tossed into jail because they lit up the sky above the barns and pasture lands.

Any kid who grew up during those years usually ended up with burned fingers or some loss of hearing due to a fuse that was too short. To be sure, fireworks can be harmful to humans, and we've all heard about instances that did not end up well. For some reason, my brothers and cousins never experienced much worse than a blister or two and maybe a ringing in the ears for a time. We were sternly warned by our parents not to shoot Roman candles at each other and told to keep the little kids away.

Since that time the laws on fireworks have been liberalized to a degree. Our small community featured a temporary fireworks stand again this year. Minnesota has allowed certain fireworks to be sold, although none of them are allowed to leave the earth. Somehow that has not stopped individuals from finding a way to light up the night with their own aerial displays. It seems no amount of money is spared to keep the neighbor's cat hiding under the couch.

I often wondered how the folks who ran the little remote stands ever made any money in that week before the Fourth. They were open almost 24 hours a day and seemed to have an inexhaustible amount of product. And, they were always very friendly and seemed happy to see us.

We once visited one such stand where I saw the guy selling fireworks with a lit cigarette dangling from his lower lip. I wondered about that. Two weeks later we read in the local paper about a small fireworks stand exploding and burning to the ground. It was the same stand we had visited. So much for the profit for the year. I remember it burned his car as well. I'll bet that was quite a display.

So it is that we will experience both commercial and private fireworks displays this week. We'll celebrate the independence of our country with booms and bangs and whistles.

The little fireworks stand on the riverbank is long gone. But I still remember the smell of gunpowder hanging in the air, and I still remember the feeling that I could somehow be judged as a criminal by loading up the '51 Chevy's trunk and crossing back over the border.

Happy Fourth of July! Be careful!

See you next time. Okay?