A Boy's Fourth of July

When she was four or five, I used to tell stories to my goddaughter (who is soon to be 18) and her older sister. The stories always began - because good stories always announce themselves the same way - with a serious claim of antiquity. I would always say: "When I was a boy and my brother was a boy . . ." And the story would unreel from there. About the time I jumped off the garage roof. About the time my brother ran away from home (he was two). About the Christmas my brother got a train set and the mysterious light the train made on the wall as it went around the track. About our dog who played ball with herself.

I haven't told my goddaughter and her sister any of these stories in many years (although allusions to some of them appear in our conversations in the way that something half remembered will surface for a moment and then drift into reverie).

For many years on the Fourth of July, I would visit my goddaughter and her sister and their parents, who live a short walk from my house. And there would be fireworks after the burgers and beer, when it got dark.

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In my town (unlike most cities in Los Angeles County), so-called "safe and sane" fireworks are still allowed. These are pretty tame by comparison to the firecrackers, sky rockets, and the things you can buy in other states (and only illegally in California). "Safe and sane" fireworks pop and squeal and shower colored sparks. They don't explode with a window rattling concussion. They are suitable for a few minutes of adult play with fire while little kids look on.

Until real sparklers were outlawed (for their propensity to burn hands and ignite dry grass), they were the one firework for kids to play with. Today's version of a sparkler, in a cardboard sleeve and without the red-hot wire of the real kind, sprays colored fire wanly for a few moments before going out.

But when I was a boy and my brother was a boy, you could still buy real fireworks - firecrackers, cherry bombs, and sparklers - in fact, everything but rockets and the explosives called "salutes" that routinely took off the hand of a careless boy. That would soon change, but in the years around 1955, you could go to a fireworks stand and later mess around with blowing things up on the Fourth of July. My brother and I did and not always under adult supervision.

Tiny firecrackers came in flat packs looking like machinegun cartridge belts and with their fuses braided in strings (as illegal ones still are). Lighted, the strings snapped and rattled like antique musket fire, leaped into the air, and generated a cloud of smoke. A single, larger firecracker could take apart the plastic model of a World War II battleship.

It's possible that there were boys who made and studied these plastic models out of a sincere appreciation for naval architecture and military history. I never met one.

The old Fourth of July in L.A. - when I was a boy, etc. - was loud, unmanaged, smoky, hazardous and sometimes lethal. Today's fireworks are expensive and something of a bait-and-switch (setting aside the heavy explosives sold on the black market).

This Fourth of July, my goddaughter will be attending a barbeque. Her sister lives in Orange County. Neither is much interested in fireworks. But I'll go over to their parents' house. Perhaps one or two other friends will show up for a low-key cookout. And after, I'll walk around the corner to one of the fireworks stands my city allows and buy a box of overpriced gunpowder mixed with aluminum dust and other colorants. When it gets dark, we'll set off our fireworks, along with families up and down the block that still have small children. The fountains will shine and sparkle for ten or twenty seconds each. Some of the more expensive ones will pop and snap brightly before guttering out.

Probably no one will light up what passes for a sparkler these days, except out of misplaced nostalgia.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Victoria. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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