Fireworks and Unguentine
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.
Every year we would set up our business and we would have five-inchers, three-inchers, two-inchers, we would have cherry bombs, we’d have pinwheels, all set up on the tables in back of us. As a kid, despite being a fireworks nut, I hated working in the fireworks stand. I really hated it. It was hot, all the other kids were shooting off fireworks, and I was standing in there making change.
I can remember that a lot of guys impressed their chicks by buying fireworks. About every five minutes a Hupmobile would drive up with a blonde in the passenger seat. They’d get out, and he was playing the “big man.” He’d say, “Alright, baby, what do you want?” And he’d point out all the big artillery. “Gimme that big one, that great big one. How much is that?”
“Dollar and a half.”
“Gimme two of them. I want two of those big fireworks, gimme rockets over there. You got any Roman candles? Gimme a bag of Roman candles, kid. No sparklers, I want the big stuff.” He’d buy twenty dollar’s worth of the big stuff.
They went driving off and in about thirty seconds, he was just about out of sight when you heard KABOOOOM, KABOOOOM! His car was on fire. He had tried to light a cherry bomb with his cigar—and he had not made it.
There would be a guy walking out of our fireworks stand and get about five feet away. Some big, fat, cigar-smoking butter-and-egg man would have a handful of torpedoes: “Hey, watch this, baby.” WHIZZZ—BOOM! POW! The next thing you know he had four pounds of pebbles in his foot. He’d come limping over, “What kind of stuff you sellin?”
Then I would get out the Unguentine. In our stand we kept eighteen pounds of Unguentine. We had rolls of gauze and tannic acid, because our product was always working prematurely.
Then there used to be the inevitable. A big car would drive up with real rich city people in it. This little skinny kid would get out of the back, and then his father, all dressed up. There’s a certain look that important rich people have when they are in the country or on a picnic. They look vaguely uncomfortable all the time. They’d come over and the father would say, “Timothy, you just choose anything you want. I want you to be happy today.” Little Timothy stands there looking at all the fireworks. You can see he has no more desire to have fireworks than he wants a wart on top of his head. The old man says, “Come on, Timothy. We haven’t got all day, you know. Mother’s waiting in the car. We want to get home and have our celebration.”
Little Timothy says, “Do you have any sparklers?” You go back and get him some sparklers and the old man, of course, is taking over, and he says, “Well, Timothy, wouldn’t you like to have one of those?” Poor kid didn’t know what it was. Big thing with handles on it and it comes with forty-millimeter sights and has a big stock mounting and it’s for blowing up towns. “Wouldn’t you like one of those, Timothy? Wrap one of those up.” Kids pick the little things, like the one with the handle, you squeeze it with your thumb, and the wheel goes around.
The old man doesn’t buy that kind of stuff, he wants big things. Pretty soon they’ve got a load of about fifty dollars worth of stuff and they put it in the back of that great big Cadillac and the kid sits in the back by the bag and they drive off. You can see the kid’s little head in the back and they’re off to celebrate being an American.
More fireworks to come.