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JEAN SHEPHERD–fireworks

fireworks

Shepherd told many stories about American traditions. One of his favorite subjects was the 4th of July, and the favorite story is about the neighbor, Ludlow Kissel, and his disaster setting off  a bomb. Another, lesser known Shepherd story is the one about him as a teenager helping out his old man during the Independence Day celebrations.

Fireworks were an integral part of my life as a kid.  There were three things my old man was hung up on.  There was the White Sox, used cars, and fireworks.  He was an absolute nut on fireworks.  He had gone into the business and he was selling them.

There was a law saying you could not sell fireworks inside the city limits, so outside of town, half the cops were selling them.  For miles around you would see these little wooden stands that had been selling tomatoes and pumpkins and stuff suddenly have red, white, and blue bunting and a great big sign that would say EXCELSIOR FIREWORKS.  Excelsior was one of the big names.

They sold fireworks at a stand until the evening when, with his unsold products, the old man had his own display to give joy to the neighborhood:

Everything has been going fine.  Big pinwheels he’s got.  He’s got great American flags that fly up in the air and come down on parachutes.  Everything’s going.  Finally he takes out the Roman candle, which he always loved more than any other kind.  He lights it.  Everybody’s waiting.

r.candle

 Choooo! Off goes the first one, a big green ball goes up and everybody goes “Oooooooooooh!”

10ball candle

At the third ball, just as my old man is winding up, that Roman candle shoots backward—right out the back end of this thing comes a ball—Woooooops!  like that, right up his sleeve and right out the back of his shirt!  He spins around, another ball goes out the front and then quickly two of them come out the back!  He is going on like he is insane.  He throws the damn thing, it flies up and goes into Flick’s backyard, right in the middle of the geraniums.  Boom!  Boom!  Out both ends.  He turns around and he screams bloody murder— his pongee shirt is on fire.  “My shirt!  Oh no, my shirt!”

He runs up the alley and we can see him trailing smoke and flames.  He runs down in our basement and turns on the hose.  People are pouring water on him and then rubbing goose grease on him.  What has to be pointed out is that nobody worries, it’s just natural in the fireworks world.  That attitude toward infernal destruction.

Five minutes later he’s out in the backyard shooting off rockets, shirt hanging out, shirttail tattered, one sleeve missing.  That is a picture of an American celebrating something—but who knows what?

“Celebrating who knows what?”

Beauty?

Destruction?

Liberty?

Power?

Patriotism?!

Shepherd does not answer his own question.

It is an irony, a conundrum, a metaphor of something.

We might guess that Americans are celebrating any of it and all of it:

→the whole uproarious conglomeration! ←

Happy Independence Day!

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2 Comments

  1. Tom says:

    Growing up in New Jersey, where fireworks, Red Ryders, and belt-fed NATO machine guns are considered equally lethal and illegal under state ordnance law, I feasted on those July 4th stories each year. Imagining a place where you could actually buy weaponry as fantastic as a roman candle, a skyrocket, or a “Dago bomb” (not a slur, but a term of endearment) was the stuff of dreams. Shep’s Old Man was always a fireworks nut (as was mine), but I think ownership of the Excelsior stand swung back and forth between him and Uncle Carl with different versions of Shep’s stories. I am looking forward to viewing my grainy old copy of the July 4th WGBH special this weekend (Carl runs the stand in that one).

  2. Gene- think the energy in this story is one of the great attractions. The build up is magnificent and then the explosion and aftermath carry through perfectly- you get to go through a whole day and end on a wild, manic high note- just a classic Shep story.

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