Posted July 14, 1999 at 2:14 am 5 Comments

When friends embark on a weekend road trip, the matter of deciding who is to ride in the front passenger seat should not be treated frivolously.  With the elevated sense of comfort unique to the “shotgun” position comes a weighty burden of responsibility.

As we traversed rural Pennsylvania in Ethan’s navy blue Saturn, I was proud to undertake the capacities entailed by my position in the front of the car.  For at least half an hour, I scoured the airwaves for acceptable (i.e., non-country) songs amidst the changing array of radio stations.  When an attractive girl passed us in a red luxury sedan, I diligently scrambled for paper and pencil to fabricate a makeshift window sign reading “YOU ARE HOT”.  When Ethan became hungry, I dutifully turned to the back seat and ordered Danny to make him a ham sandwich.  And when we got lost on the outskirts of Breezewood, Pennsylvania, I fell sound asleep, snoring loudly, while Danny scrambled for the road map that had fallen out of my hands.  Without the aid of my direction, Ethan had no choice but to employ his typical navigational tactic of turning right everywhere (the maze traversal algorithm, for all of you computer scientists).   One such right turn brought us off of the interstate and into a parking lot adjoining a squat warehouse building bedecked with giant red signs reading “Phantom Fireworks Emporium”.  Intrigued, we had no choice but to stop inside to peruse the vast and colorful array of incendiary devices.

dansleep.jpg (13928 bytes)
I’m a little worried by the fact that
Ethan snapped this photo of me
sleeping while he was driving.

My own history with firecrackers has been one of conflicting influences.  My parents were rigidly opposed to anything more powerful than a sparkler, unnerving me with tragically horrifying stories of deaf children who had blown their fingers off with firecrackers and could now no longer even communicate in sign language.  Then when I was in tenth grade, I went on a boat trip with Vince, whose parents’ pyrotechnics policy ran more along the lines of “you should hold on to the M-80 until it’s just about to go off, and then throw it, because it’s cooler that way.”  I ended up opting for a rather cautious middle ground, gingerly lighting a fuse and scampering at least three times father away that was strictly necessary.  Since then, I’ve achieved a less skittish attitude, but I like to think that I always treat fireworks prudently, aside from one lapse in judgment two summers ago during which I managed to hit Paulajean’s neighbor’s car with a bottle rocket.  Note to my dad: this didn’t really happen.

Fireworks being illegal in Minnesota, my friends and I made the occasional pilgrimage to Wisconsin in early July to stock up on Black Cats and Roman Candles.  I was always amused by the incredible profusion of firecracker stores that materialized as soon as we crossed the border.  We’d be in a tiny town in Wisconsin, a town consisting of 10 houses, one church, and one bar, but nevertheless it was sure to have at least five shops selling fireworks when Independence Day drew near, all of them quite obviously catering to Minnesotans intending to engage in illegal firework trafficking.  But none of those tiny counter shops in backcountry Wisconsin had prepared me for the Phantom Fireworks Emporium.  This place had shelf upon shelf of fireworks.  Rows of fireworks.   Aisles of fireworks.

One shelf of fireworks stands out distinctly in my memory.  It was lined with massive cardboard tubes, each tube bearing an image of the Grim Reaper shooting blue lightning out of his skeletal fingers, his bare skull grinning emptily.  Below his picture was the word “DOOMSDAY” in dark block letters.  As I stared at the morbid label, it brought back glorious memories of a firecracker we had purchased years ago on one of our illicit voyages to Wisconsin.  The firecracker was called the Black Widow.

The Black Widow was no normal firecracker.  In fact, to call it a firecracker is a shameful understatement.  Firecrackers have warning labels that say “Caution: emits sparks.”  The Black Widow had a label reading “DANGER: PROPELS LARGE EXPLODING FLAMING BALLS.”  When we saw the label, we fell instantly in love.   It cost $25, a substantial investment at the time, but we knew that it had to be ours.  As we drove home, we were practically euphoric with delight at the secret buried in the trunk of the car.   “This,” we gloated with satisfaction, “is something of which even Vince’s dad would not approve.”

After dinner that evening, we took our new baby to the parking lot of an obscure little park on Pierce Butler Road.  Our theory was that the park was isolated enough that police officers wouldn’t be roaming around anywhere nearby.  Delirious with excitement, we set the Black Widow in the center of the lot, lit the fuse, and retreated to a good 10 yards away…

The results were nothing short of spectacular.  You may find it hard to believe that 40 seconds of pyrotechnics could be worth 25 dollars, but I felt as if our money had been repaid three times over.  For the entire duration of those fabulous 40 seconds, we stood rapt at attention, our mouths hanging open and our eyes wide as saucers, captivated by the power and the beauty of the Black Widow.  But when the last flaming ball had exploded, the spell was broken.  We were hit with the sudden realization that we had just lit off a glittering beacon that would draw the police from everywhere within a two-mile radius.  The faintest sound of a siren seconds later (probably just a faraway ambulance) sent us sprinting to our cars and screeching out of the lot and down the road.   We knew then that the Black Widow was to become the ideal against which all future fireworks would be judged.

Phantom Fireworks was selling a number of firecracker candidates that looked as if they could live up to the Black Widow, but since I didn’t have much money to spend, I had to settle for six boxes of sparklers (the influence of my parents, I suppose) and a 12-pack of bottle rockets labeled “Battle of San Kwai Rocket Ship”.  I’ve always loved the names of firecrackers because they’re badly translated from Chinese, sort of like the chopstick label in my February 21 update.   They all have names like “Happy Glow Jade Blossom Spider Snake” and “Magic Chopping Hummingbird Crimson Flower Shark Stick”.  By far the best name we encountered was “Star Ball Contribution”.  We think that the designers probably intended something like “combustion” or “conflagration” but it’s really much funnier when it’s called a “contribution”.

fireworks.jpg (35329 bytes)

lightstarball.jpg (20148 bytes)
Ethan picked up a six-pack of Star Ball
Contributions.  They’re actually really cool.

“Say, what state are we in right now?” I asked the woman at the checkout counter as we paid for our fireworks.  I figured that I had probably been sleeping while we had crossed over a state border, since I knew that fireworks were illegal in Pennsylvania.  When the checkout clerk told me that we were still in Pennsylvania, I was confused.

“Wait, then isn’t this, like, colossally, mind-blowingly illegal?” I inquired.

“No, see we don’t sell to Pennsylvania state residents,” she explained.   “That’s why we checked your driver’s licenses at the door.  Had you been from Pennsylvania, we wouldn’t have let you in.”

“But I don’t get it,” I replied.  “I’m from Minnesota, and fireworks are illegal there too.”

“Well, we expect you to take responsibility for the laws in your own state,” she said.  “We’re allowed to sell to anyone as long as they’re not from this state.”

“So,” I wondered, “what do all the Pennsylvanians do when they want fireworks?”

“Well, they usually go to Ohio.”

“But aren’t fireworks illegal in Ohio?”

“Sure, but the stores over there don’t sell to Ohio residents.”

At this point I started laughing uproariously.  The clerk explained everything as if it were common sense, but I had never encountered quite so beautiful a legal loophole.   Ohio residents went to Pennsylvania, Pennsylvanians went to Ohio, and even though fireworks were completely illegal in both states, everyone was able to buy them.   “What a great country,” I thought.  “This fourth of July, I will blow shit up with even greater national pride in the depths of my heart.” starball.jpg (6808 bytes)


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  1. hahahahaha omg thats hilairous

    Comment by Colin — June 9, 2007 #

  2. Dude i agree its bull shit im from pennsylvania its so F!#ing Gay I live in central Pennsylvania the ohio border is 350 miles away. Screwed up laws

    Comment by Mike — June 20, 2007 #

  3. Firecrackers suck! People who use them suck. They take eyes and hands off. They scare animals. People who launch them don’t shit about freedom, the revolution, or 1776. All they know, is they get a charge out of making noise and seeing things blow. Whoopy doo. What a thrill. Time to break the leggos out. Get a life.

    Comment by nick — June 30, 2008 #

  4. Hey, I take offense at that comment “so F!#ing Gay” — if you’re screwed up, why not assume the responsibility and say it’s “so F!#ing Heterosexual?” Since you heteros are as common as dirt…

    Comment by jim — July 4, 2009 #

  5. Back in the day. No mailbox, bird feeder, or saltbox was safe from the massive power of the giant Chinese firecrackers we used to get from Hawaii. They were 6 inches long and an inch and a quarter wide, and would probably blow your arm off at the elbow if you had one blow up in your hand.

    We never threw those firecrackers. We loved them, though.

    Comment by Xeno — December 16, 2009 #

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