atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#462: The Fourth of July--confessions of a pyromaniac

I'll be working tonight.

I don't really mind, since I don't usually go out to see fireworks displays these days, and most of my celebration of the 4th centers around lighting bootlegged package fireworks.

I live in Illinois, where most class B fireworks are illegal. You can buy sparklers, smoke bombs, and "poppers", the little things that go "snap" when you throw them against a hard surface. And that's all.

However, I live about six miles from Indiana, where you can buy all manner of class B fireworks. There is a store about a twenty-minute drive from here (when you factor in traffic and traffic lights) which frequently has "two-for-one" deals at this time of year on everything in the store (and they let you mix-and-match, so if you buy one item for $5, you can get an entirely different item free with it, as long as it costs $5).

In Indiana, fireworks that don't explode or fly are legal; all the others are prohibited by state law. But there is a loophole in the law: people can sell all kinds of the stuff, as long as the buyer understands that he must take the fireworks out of the state of Indiana "within five days".

Illinois police of various flavors do keep an eye on the cars and who is buying what, and people get pulled over inside the Illinois state line. When that happens, the fireworks are confiscated but usually there are no arrests. If you're dumb enough to make a beeline home with your purchases, you run that risk.

Ever since businesses started exploiting that loophole and selling fireworks, I have made it a point to buy fireworks, because I love them.

Fireworks have "always" been illegal in Illinois--as long as I can remember, that is. One 4th stands out in my memory from when I was a little kid because Dad gave me and my brother some firecrackers he'd found in his closet. Wow! Firecrackers! I vividly remember my brother putting four firecrackers, with wicks twisted together, under an aluminum cup, and lighting the fuses, and boom the cup went about 15, 20 feet in the air. The bottom of the cup was bulged outward. That was awesome.

Otherwise, 4th of July celebrations were tame. My parents didn't go to fireworks shows--we watched them on TV. Usually I could cadge some money from my parents, here and there, to go buy snakes and smoke bombs at the drug store. On family trips to Florida, Dad would never let us buy fireworks in Tennesee. If we went to see my aunt in Missouri, we couldn't buy them there, either.

Dad was always worried about fireworks being illegal. He was never worried about us getting hurt--at least, he never said so, and I think he would have said so if he had been--because he knew we understood the dangers. His worries centered on having the cops show up and maybe fine us or take someone to jail.

And then in 1977 or so, my sister's husband (or husband-to-be--this was thirty years ago, so I'm a bit fuzzy on the details) who lived about a six miles from Missouri brought fireworks when he came up from that area. My sister told my brother and I that he was going to, and we were eagerly anticipating it. I had a crazy dream that my sister's hubby had smuggled the fireworks into Illinois by putting a fishing rod into the package.

One night, before the 4th, I wanted to light some things, so I picked out a few items including this neat-looking fountain and, with Dad's permission, put it on the back patio and lit it. And foom! this magnesium-flame-bright fireball shot into the sky! Awesome!

...and Dad pulled me inside and closed the curtains and shut off all the lights. *sigh*

Still, there were a few things which Dad thought were okay. Ground bloom flowers, which are entertaining, and some small fountains; nothing that shot into the sky or exploded, though. He kept his sailboat at a marina in Indiana, and so he'd stop at a stand and buy a few little things, and those were okay because they didn't make a lot of noise or attract any attention.

But, when I was around eighteen, a friend of mine led me to this landscaping place that was selling everything, even firecrackers and bottle rockets! Since I could drive, had access to a car, and had some disposable income, I started buying fireworks. Dad was always chiding me not to light them continuously. I was fortunate enough to have a friend who lived out near Monee, in the middle of a farm field, and so we'd all gather there and light stuff off.

Still, one year (1990, I think) my parents were gone on the 4th, and I spent hours systematically trying to get rid of all the fireworks I had accumulated over the past several years...and I never so much as saw a single police car. I think they had more important things to do.

Even in recent years Dad's paranoia continued. I'd go light a single roman candle, and then Dad would advise me to stop for a while...while World War III was taking place around us, in miniature, as other celebrants in the neighborhood set off their stashes.

The banning of fireworks is a stupid nanny-state law. Most people have the sense to use fireworks safely. But class B fireworks aren't all that dangerous in the first place; they make noise and shoot sparks, and that's about it. Now, class C fireworks, those will kill you if you mess around with them...but I'm not talking about those. Those are for the professionals to muck with; they're big and powerful and designed for big fireworks displays, not for your back yard.

When I was young, there were older kids in the neighborhood who always got fireworks around the 4th. One evening I wanted one of them take bottle rockets, hold the stick, light the fuse, wait, and then throw the bottle rocket. It would ignite in the air, and then fsst-bang.

I tried that in 2005. It was fun. At one point, something distracted me after I'd lit a bottle rocket, and what happened? Did I have to go to the burn ward? Did I blow off my hand?

I noticed some odd warmth on my hand, looked, and saw that the bottle rocket was going. "Oh! Shit!" I said, and tossed it aside; it went bang. And the same thing happened again in 2006.

You can hold a lit firecracker in your hand, and when it goes off, it won't hurt you.

--mind you I am not talking about M-80s here. An M-80 is, what, 1/8 of a stick of dynamite? That will take your hand off. Let's not be foolish, people. I'm talking about a "ladyfinger"--

Fountains, by their nature, are more dangerous, because there's more stuff inside them. They can cause some nasty burns...but what moron will hold a fountain in his hand? You get the best effect by watching them go off from a distance.

Reading a magazine on high power model rocketry, I learned of a technique used by pyros: it's called a "flower pot".

What you do is take a mortar tube and pour gunpowder in the bottom. Not a lot. Then you run a fuse into the gunpowder and add all kinds of package fireworks to it. You back off a way, light the fuse, and wait. And then, foom!--the gunpowder ignites, and simultaneously blows the fireworks out of the mortar and lights them. You get this spectacular display of snapping, crackling, spinning, and what-have-you.

I tried it once, in miniature. I had some gunpowder left from a few rocket experiments--I'd gotten some from my rocketry club buddies--and a small Pringles can. I hooked up a model rocket ignitor and set up the camcorder. When I pressed the button, foom!--a handful of firecrackers and jumping jacks flew out and fzzzzzpowpowfzzz. The audio track from the videotape also includes me saying, "Wow! Wow!" because I had not expected such a spectacular result.

The point that I'm trying to make is that the illegality of fireworks is a stupid, nanny-state law. Some idiots did some stupid things and got hurt, and the rest of us are suffering for their stupidity.

Every year some nanny organization stages a demonstration of "how dangerous fireworks are". And they inevitably go out of their way to maximize the apparent danger of fireworks: they put a Cuckoo-Cukoo (a type of fountain) right under a child-sized doll's nose. "Look at the burns on the dummy's face!" Well, yeah, and if you put the business end in your mouth it'll probably kill you, sure. Yes, if you put an M-80 under a watermelon, it makes a spectacularly messy explosion. (Where do these guys get M-80s, anyway? I don't know of any place that sells them.) Yes, a sparkler can set your clothes on fire if you're stupid enough to hold your sleeve next to the thing.

But you know, there is no substitute for caution. Fireworks present a hazard, yes. You should have a hose handy, and you shouldn't be liquored up when you're setting them off. (None of my friends drink, so that was never an issue for me.) If you exercise just routine caution and don't do anything stupid, you'll be perfectly fine. (Unfortunately, for some people, caution is anything but "routine".)

My favorite example is non-fireworks-related. On some news magazine show they were promoting bicycle helmets. They had this woman on with her brain-damaged son, who was in his late teens. It seems he had been riding home one afternoon and tried to beat a train, and failed, and bounced his skull off one of the rails. "If only he'd been wearing his helmet," the woman said tearfully, "he'd be all right now!"

I may be looking at this wrong, but it seems to me that he wouldn't have been injured if he hadn't tried to beat the freaking train. Regardless of whether or not he was wearing a stupid helmet, if he had just waited for the train he would be fine. Safety equipment is no substitute for caution.

I'm all for safety, believe me. I wear my seatbelt--I won't own a car that doesn't have them. I drive near the speed limit most of the time. I'm not interested in extreme sports and I never even learned how to ride a wheelie on a bicycle. Although I would like to have a road motorcycle, I just don't like the statistics on motorcycle injuries and fatalities, so I probably will content myself to ride my dirt bike once in a while, off road. (With a helmet on.)

But life is not perfectly safe; understanding that does not keep me from having fun. I understand the hazards of fireworks, so I am careful, but I still manage to enjoy them.

As for Illinois law....

If you want to buy fireworks in Indiana, and then get them back to your home in Illinois without making a donation to the police, it's pretty simple. You have five days to get the fireworks out of Indiana. (Never mind that you're planning to break Illinois law, so breaking Indiana law shouldn't be all that big a stretch. You're not going to spend five days in Indiana anyway, right? The point is, you don't have to get them out of Indiana immediately.)

Don't be in a hurry. Go other places in Indiana. Go to the Harbor Freight store in Schererville and browse for a while. Go to the Hooters next door and get some wings. See how far south that one road goes, and see what's down it. Sightsee; make an adventure out of it. Stop and take pictures of those round barns. Go over to Cedar Lake. Jump back into Illinois far from where you bought the fireworks, and then drive at or about the speed limit all the way home, obeying all laws and traffic signs. (For crying out loud, wear your seatbelt if you're the kind of person who usually doesn't.) Don't give the police an excuse to stop you, and don't come into Illinois within ten miles of where you bought the fireworks. (Twenty is better.)

If you bring fireworks into Illinois the police may stop you and confiscate them, but usually not arrest or even cite you. If you are in your back yard and lighting them, generally they will leave you alone unless your neighbors complain. The way to avoid that is by--again--being reasonably conscientious and not setting their pets on fire or blowing up their geraniums. And laying off the fireworks when it starts getting too late.

The bootlegging of fireworks into Illinois has become so commonplace that the municipalities pretty much shrug them off; as long as no one gets hurt and there is no property damage, the most you generally have to worry about is a cop coming by and saying, "Hey, it's time to stop that stuff now." Be honest, don't try to snow him and convince him that "some kids" were in your back yard for the past three hours lighting bottle rockets and Black Cats. He won't believe you and it might annoy him enough to make all the paperwork seem worth the effort of citing you for something.

I generally obey the law. I won't defend my pyromania by saying "oh, it's a stupid law and it deserves to be broken"; it is a stupid law but it is the law. No, I just like fireworks, and I break that law knowing that there may be consequences of my actions, and I am prepared to take those consequences if need be. I am not very worried about them, because the most likely consequence is having my "stash" confiscated. Second-most likely is having a police officer tell me I have to stop lighting fuses now because there have been noise complaints.

But the way the fireworks laws are enforced, I don't expect the latter to happen very often.

Generally I light the fuses out south of Monee, where a friend of mine lives. He's right next door to farm fields; we go down his street a bit to a high point, where there's a nice breeze, and we light fuses for a few hours. The nearest house is 1/4 mile away, and at that distance the loudest firecracker I buy will make a muted pop. (We generally stop before midnight, anyway, and never do it on a work night.) We stop all activity when cars go by--not for fear of cops, but for safety reasons: I don't want any of my fireworks getting into someone's car and causing an accident or fire. And we pick up all our trash when we're done.

And generally, there are no problems. I've had a few first-degree burns over the years, and some friends have; but generally if everyone lit fireworks the way I do, maybe they'd be legal in more places than they are.

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