Monday, July 4, 2011

Up the Lake: Fireworks

Kids Having a Blast
Light Fuse and Get Away

The official Up the Lake season begins on July 4th weekend. As it’s in a secluded space, distant from most of civilization, and (most importantly) there’s no TV, fireworks have always been a major part of the summer. When we were growing up, Nick, Skip, and I usually managed to beg, borrow, or steal several packs of firecrackers for ourselves. As these came in precious, limited quantities, we would always carefully unwrap them, and use them one at a time. This allowed the demolition to last as long as possible. We would also use them only on interestingly destroyable items, often saving some complex toy or model all winter long, in order to bring it to an impressive doom at the hands of our creative, destructive, tendencies. Once supplies were truly low, we would have long committee meetings, sometimes for hours, to determine the worthiness of an item’s artistic merit. These meetings would often degrade into arguments, provoking us to waste some of our precious stash by throwing them at each other.
Many brave army men gave their all on these rocks...

Unfortunately, the quality of the ‘crackers we got often meant slow fuses. To prevent the Wile E. Coyote like result of having someone throw your explosive back at you: we were forced to hold it until the last second. (This frequently caused the Wile E. Coyote like result of having it go off in our hands, complete with dilating pupils, the little “oh no” sign, and big throbbing fingers.) Several summers, thanks to the previous generation of Up the Lake violence prone children, we were able to get enough munitions so that anything not nailed down, well hidden, or faster than us, was soon subjected to a scientific analysis of its resistance to a small, well-placed charge, and a bored boy’s imagination. (Again, there was no TV.)

“Why,” I hear all the concerned parents ask, “were you allowed to do this?” Well-

One: Because of the insulated nature of Up the Lake, above average childhood freedom was available,


Two: The parents often didn’t know the size and power of our arsenal.

“Surely the adults had control over the arsenal,” the whiny, time out giving, modern type parents cry.

Don’t get me wrong, traditionally, even though it was the older teens and early twenties crowd handling the fireworks show; originally it was done in the open area of the campsite where the 4th of July party was. Those years, all the adults could keep an eye on the weapons locker. (This made it far easier to get at the beer, but since some of those adults will read this, and a Bronx born Italian woman still packs a mean right cross well into her eighties, I won’t mention it here.) The party/show tradition came to a truly impressive ending one year at the hand of a cute little gem called “Small Bees.”

Small Bees consisted of a pocket sized cube which held about a hundred little roman candle shots. The fireworks were being handled by a couple of Joes, and a Nick. (The reason for all of these duplicate names, I believe, is our Italian families had older relatives with names like “Juvanina,” “Googie,” “Archangelo,” and “Mush”. Once a traditional name was used, that’s who everyone got named after.) They were the generation of campers, kids, vandals, whatever, that came before my age group. It was because of them that we got away with as much as we did. The levels of destruction they caused previously were so great, that if our exploits required calling less than three insurance companies, we were usually all right.

To continue: one of these firework engineers lit the small bees on a rock which was less than flat. After the first ball flew majestically into the sky, the little box fell over. Suddenly, our friends the Small Bees became large, violently angry, teamster hornets. Not only was it firing randomly into the crowd, but, with every shot, it would also turn and re-aim itself, like a raging, explosive belching Hasbro spinner, at a new target. Instantly, everyone tried to duck and cover, tables got flipped sideways, like bunkers, depositing dinner in festive patterns on the ground, and chaos reigned for several minutes. Barring one grandmother’s pride, which was dealt a fatal blow after she was nailed in the can, the only casualty was the campsite display. The show was banished to the lake side ever after.

That first year of unsupervised pyrotechnics allowed us several daring raids on the older guys’ stockpiles. We got away with many firecrackers, and even a bunch of penny rockets, even though they threw approximately the same amount of explosives at us as was dropped on Dresden, Germany in the closing years of World War Two. We attempted to learn to throw the rockets. When the original owners did this, it would greatly add to their distance traveled, height attained, and general spectacle. When we tried: a slightly less impressive result was attained. The rocket would spin lazily through the air, and fire off, either back at us, causing us to scatter like seal pups when the Orca hits the beach, or go directly into the lake. A penny rocket under water blows some sad little smoke bubbles, and then makes a faint flash and timid “whump” noise. Unfortunately, we weren’t supposed to have them. In order to keep our secret we were forced to shoot most of them into the deep in this pathetic manner. Even more unfortunately, upon noticing the new patches of short, stiff, red seaweed, springing up in the swimming area like the Triffids, we got busted anyway.

The surplus of firecrackers did allow many new experiments, much to the dismay of our toys, and the local wildlife. We blew the bejeesus out of my Lone Ranger doll, then wrapped him in tape like a mummy, and buried him, intending to dig him up the next year. This creative, if pointless plan failed when my grandmother threw the map away, and I couldn’t find him...

Until: he washed up fifteen years later and the little face staring up out of the ground scared the hell out of my sister. (I got in the “Big Brother Hall of Fame” for that one.)
Returning to the scene of the crime, where he lay buried from 8/19/1976-7/24/1991.
We were also able to use the firecrackers as valuable time saving devices. We often caught sunnies (small, stupid fish, which can be caught with no pole or bait, just a string and hook, or sometimes spit), and cut them up to catch for bigger fish and turtles. Valuable seconds were saved by using firecrackers instead of knives, “Flick your Bic, and clean your fish.”

NOTE: Although a Jumping Jack produces an impressive “fire breathing dragon-fish” effect, the animal remains whole. Also this trick does not work with an M-80. All that’s left after the blast is a fraction of a second whiff of fish scent. (Did I mention there was no TV?)

Doing the displays down at the beach lead to a yearly competition with the people living on the other side of the lake. My cousin brought up one of the guys who did the Brooklyn Bridge anniversary display. We won that year. The opposing shore was shooting off some rockets, when suddenly a blast from our side turned the ENTIRE sky into a purple blossom. As if admitting defeat, their shore produced a lone, impotent, green Roman candle ball, which dribbled into the lake. This display, however, only partially redeemed my cousin’s past.

It was the end of the Seventies, when the Dukes of Hazzard wasn’t just a show, it was a religion. My cousin, Richard, claimed to have bottle rockets (the wrappers proudly displaying the Stars and Bars) that would, “Whistle Dixie and explode into the confederate flag.” This was, by far, the coolest thing any of us had heard of, in our short, TV filled lives. To say those rockets were somewhat of a disappointment would be like saying having a flatulent, electrified monkey glued to your forehead would be somewhat inconvenient.

They did not whistle Dixie.

They did not make a flag.

They did not make any form of display at all...

They didn’t even clear the bottle.

Every last one of the dozen or so alleged rockets went “hisssssss...bang” without attempting to be southern, or move for that matter. Even after the Brooklyn Bridge guy, when Richard was around near Independence Day, the conversation always turns to the infamous rebel rockets.

The undisputed king of up the lake fireworks, for all time, was Sweeney’s friend (What else?) Joe. Beside the standard assortment of rockets and bombs, he would also bring these coffee can sized things with names like “Monkeys and Birds with Napkin Rings in the Treetops.” They set off incredible displays of sound and color, highlighted and choreographed, and often lasted for several weeks. Sweeney accidentally lit one off upside down one year. While it was less impressive looking, it did drill a hole in the beach large enough to park a Volkswagen in. Joe’s devices are also responsible for the year that, once and for all and with great finality, our side triumphed in the cross-lake firework war.

While Sweeney and Joe were lighting the pretty stuff, they gave a stash of large bottle rockets to some Joes and a Nick. The sticks on those babies were over two feet long, and the rocket itself looked like several rolls of quarters end to end. They fired one from the boat launch out over the middle of the lake, where a nice flower burst pattern developed, and our naive neighbors across the way cheered. From over at the dock we heard some Joes and Nick, like refugees from The Longest Day,

"change angle ten degrees,”

“fire in the hole”...

That rocket air burst about impressively over the other guys’ beach. Those poor souls obviously hadn’t dealt with us enough, because they let loose thunderous (if unsuspecting) applause. Meanwhile, on our side:

"change angle five degrees,”

“fire in the hole”...

The sucker landed right in the middle of their beach. In the multicolored flash we could see them starting to scatter.

Then the shelling began.

Some Joes and a Nick conducted shore bombardment for several minutes, while we watched our soon to be complaint filing neighbors run aimlessly around in the occasional flicker of festive explosions. What amazed me is that they stayed on the beach, at least until Sweeney fired off the BIG bottle rocket, although the bottle was never built that could hold this beast. The rocket part alone was over a foot long, and the diameter of the knob on a baseball bat. The stick was as tall as some of the shorter people currently playing duck and cover across the way, and had to be rammed into the earth. When lit, huge roaring gouts of flame poured out the back, as it sat in the sand for a while, building the required power level for launch velocity. Then it tore out of the ground, flew completely over the lake, and vanished over the horizon, still roaring like a Saturn V. There were several cries from the people on the other side (which cannot be reprinted in a family essay) as they withdrew from their, now war torn, lake front. Our displays never reclaimed the glory of those years. At last report, the BIG rocket was sighted somewhere over Tierra del Fuego.

Up the Lake Index


Brian said...

Honestly, would we even have a holiday with out stuff blowing up?

Jeff McGinley said...

This country certainly woulnd't have a holiday without blowing stuff up...and Up the Lake wouldn't have an afternoon without it!

Thanx for commenting.

Bruce Fieggen said...

Reminds me of New Years eve in the Netherlands. The normally staid Dutch buy an entire paycheck's worth of rockets and literally fire these across the busy roads at each other, laughing hysterically as they maim their neighbors.

Ten people die a year from these displays but they let off the year's accumulated steam in one crazy night.

Jeff McGinley said...

Somehow, in the 80+ years of Up the Lake, we've managed not to kill anyone, which keeps everything funny. Thanx for posting.