“Gramma, wuuuhms (worms), pops!” giggled my three-year-old granddaughter, calling from western Kansas. It’s July 3, so I realize her parents have taken her to buy childhood firecrackers such as black snakes and those little poppers that I, our daughters, and now our grand love to throw on hard ground. Sure enough, my little caller’s mother confirms that’s what happened. This is G’s first year to enjoy these holiday favorites, and she wanted to share her excitement.
This sweet, unexpected phone call sent me down memory lane to my own first visits to firecracker dealers. It’s been long enough since those shopping trips that the recollections count as antiques. I still remember the feel of silver coins, probably dimes and a nickel, in my hand and the sense of importance as my parents took my brother and me to select patriotic noisemakers.
Back then, folks didn’t have air conditioning the way they do now, so we were hot before we started shopping. It seems the stands were always under some kind of awning, perhaps old military tarps left over either from Korea or WW II. I recall stepping into the shade and appreciating cooler temperatures in the dim, gunpowder scented interior. The bad part was it made it harder to see kid- friendly fireworks displayed on homemade plywood and saw horse tables.
While I was older than our granddaughter when I picked out my first 4th stash, I still needed to stand on my tippy toes to peer at the dazzling merchandise with pictures of black cats and Chinese letters and wrapped in crinkly cellophane. Our parents guided us to sparklers, snakes, poppers, and a string of tiny ladyfingers they would help us light. Miracle of miracles, when we handed the clerk our sweaty change, she gave us each a free punk.
Once we bought our treasures, our father selected some surprises of his own. He was partial to Roman candles and cherry bombs, which were legal then. As we climbed into the furnace-like car to go home, he made it clear that we were not to touch his fireworks. After I met a boy who’d had a Roman candle burn and scar his chest, I understood why Dad was so emphatic about this.
Back home, the oven-hot sidewalk became our launch pad. Our parents sat on the porch step, watching us arrange little black kernels that would become long, spiraling, snakes. We oohed and aahed watching them writhe and stain the cement black and grey. After those were ash, it was time for a popsicle and pockets full of poppers that we threw from distances and close up. We even stepped on them to make them explode.
After our stash was shredded tissue, our dad helped us use our spicy smelling punks to light one ladyfinger at a time and throw it safely away from our bodies. He had us save one string so we could hear a bunch pop at one time. When we’d had our fun, he would light a cherry bomb or two far enough away from us that we were safe, but close enough the explosion vibrated our eardrums for a spell.
After dark, we slurped bowls of mom’s homemade ice cream and watched dad launch his Roman candle display. While these don’t compare to modern pyrotechnic displays, they were magical to late 50s and early 60s youngsters. To end the evening, my brother and I waved lit sparklers and danced wildly about the yard.
We must have fallen asleep before our parents carried us inside. I’d be so surprised to wake up on July 5th to a yard full up burned up snakes, exploded popper tissue, shredded firecracker paper, and torched sparkler skeletons. Cleaning up wasn’t nearly as much fun as lighting them.
I’m so glad Little Miss G called Gramma about her wuuuuhms and poppers. I enjoyed her excitement and my memory.