4th Of July
The shake roof on the house across the street was on fire. Fire engines were pulling up. My 5-year old son stood in our driveway next to his last birthday present, a little red flyer fire truck. He wore it’s accompanying plastic red fire chief’s hat and shouted in his little plastic red bull horn.
“Put that fire out!
I hid in the garage, guilty of arson. It was an accident but if house domeocide is compared to homicide it was negligent roof-slaughter.
The Fourth of July was my favorite holiday, all American, watermelon eating, barbecued chicken, family get togethers near the longest day of the year. It was celebrated without church guilt attendance and with fireworks.
Fireworks meant firecrackers. The evening’s fireworks were enjoyed but the real excitement was firecrackers we set off.
Firecrackers, like guns, is a male thing. Their explosive bang, a claim of power but it’s deeper than that. Inserted in apples, a firecracker becomes a hand grenade. Stuck in dirt it’s an excavator. They can be thrown, set off in water, tied to kites and used to blow up bugs. With water in a bucket, inserted in a hole atop a tin can, it’s a rocket launcher.
Not all boys are afflicted with a firecracker obsession but most suffer to some degree. My male siblings were affected, the older an acute case, the younger with a mild dose. I was an acute case with a high fever.
It could be hereditary. Our father introduced us to firecracker stories of his youth and was the original procurer of them for us.
In Santa Clara, California during the 1950’s, just about all fireworks beyond sparklers were illegal, especially anything which went bang. Despite illegality there was a large contraband trade. Like illegal drugs, you just had to know the right person. Due to their bang report, it was easy to find those who had the right contacts.
Firecrackers came from China, the original source of gunpowder. China back then was not China but a tiny Portuguese colony enclave on China’s coast, Macau. All the illegal fireworks had on their label, ‘Made In Macau”. It was my first international geography lesson.
Due to the China connection, the primary source for our firecrackers was San Francisco, Chinatown. In late June, Dad took us to Grant Avenue there and after walking up and down the street we were soon approached from behind with the whispered word.
With an affirmative reply a dealer would disappear in a back ally and return with a brown bag. Inside were packs of 16 with a Camel brand label. The price was 25 cents a pack, not cheap but the margin had to be high to cover the seller’s sales risk.
Dad squander $5 for 20 packs. The firecrackers were carefully untwined and judiciously blown up individually around our yard. By the time the 4th came, we’d already used up half our stash.
There was the danger of the law of course. The big meanie was the Fire Marshall, Mr. Rodgers. If he swooped around the corner and caught us, he’d confiscate our firecrackers which he gave to his son, Wayne.
Their illegality added to the pleasure of the explosion retort and the upsetting of some adults. The illegality, the Chinatown connection, finding a contact and making the deal was all part of their mystique joy. The labels were also an attractive art form. The wrapping paper was of various brilliant colors and semi-transparent. The induvial firecrackers had their different colored paper covers. Their wicks were braided together around a thin string. If dissected, an individual firecracker revealed tightly bound newspaper strips with Chinese writing. The silver strand up gun powder could be combined with others to produce a bigger bang.
A firecracker was more than a retort, it was a work of scientific human advancement packaged in art.
As I got older, closer contacts for firecrackers were discovered. Fachino Trucking was on the edge of San Jose’s little combined Chinatown/Japan Town. His trucks traveled through firecracker legal states and shipped them in. A friend and I rode our bikes there on a rumor of his illegal shipping. Shy, after the entry door closed behind us, we asked the secretary if the owner was in. She motioned to him at his desk. We whispered to him, by now sure we had been misinformed, if he sold firecrackers. He said.
“Huh, I can’t hear you.”
“Can we buy firecrackers?”
“What? Speak up! I can’t hear you.”
“DO YOU SELL FIRCRACKERS!”
“Shhh! The Fire Station is across the street! You want us all to go to jail!
He had his fun, the secretary laughed but we bought 10 packs each.
In 1958 I started high school. Firecracker fever had abated in puberty. It reignited at the end of my sophomore year, June, 1960. At 16, I’d just got my driver’s license and was no longer bicycle bound. Able to travel afar, I decided to be a firecracker dealer and make some fast money. With a co-conspirator, we put in $50 each to go to San Francisco, Chinatown for a big hit. Our scheme was to roam the Chinatown until asked if we wanted firerackies and buy wholesale then sell retail.
Still carless, we needed the family 1953 Buick to get to San Francisco. Our concocted excuse for needing it was we wanted to go to a Giant’s baseball game at Candlestick Park.
This turned out to be a mistake. My younger brother, Rick, loved baseball but no one would take him to a baseball game. To use the car, the parental qualification was we had to take my younger brother with us. Rick could not be trusted to be a co-conspirator. He trusted adults, he trusted parents, worse, he was idealistic.
So, we didn’t clue him in. He was all excited about going to the game but probably more excited an older brother was paying attention to him by taking him along. It wasn’t until I pulled over on the side of the Bayshore Freeway, he became aware his ball game attendance was complicated. While cars whisked past, I pointed toward Candle Stick Stadium, told him to get out and walk to the game.
He was shocked, his happy puppy dog day turned sour but I explained we had to run an errand, didn’t want him to miss the opening pitch and we’d meet him in the stadium or after the game. It was a weak lie. We didn’t physically push him out of the car, just verbally, probably the only one who walked to the stadium.
Free, our logistic acquisition difficulties began. As a new driver, unfamiliar with the street layout of San Francisco, it took many turns to find Chinatown. It had shrunk to just Grant Avenue due to Asian immigration exclusion. Even the 7 ruling Tongs were declining in membership.
We acted as obvious firecracker customers and stopped in a few shops declaring our need. After an hour, about ready to give us we heard the magic words behind us.
“You want firecrackie?”
In negotiations, he wanted a retail price of 25 cents a 16-count pack. It took a lot of mixed Chinese and English gestations to settle on a whole sale price of 12.5 cents. For the first time, we saw bricks. A brick was 80 packs. With a little last haggling by the car trunk in an ally, we purchased10 bricks, 5 for each of us.
With a trunk full of stash, we drove about until finding the on ramp from Broadway to the Embarcadero Freeway and back to the Bayshore. At the Candle Stick Park exit we drove to the stadium. The game was already over. Driving around the stadium we found Rick, bewildered why it took so long to meet him. We knew the game score from the radio and convinced him we’d seen the last half of the game and it was his fault he didn’t look in the right places among the throng to find us. At home, the trunk discreetly emptied, it was a mission accomplished.
All that remained was retail. We pushed the product at Santa Clara High School at 3 packs for a $1, 7 for $2 and 20 for $5. The danger was getting caught. We sold only during the last 3 days before summer break. By the time administration heard firecracker retorts, wondered what was up and started hunting down the cause, it all until September. My ill begotten gain became part of the $300 purchase price of my 1953 Chevrolet which eased the stigma of being seen by peers driving the family Buick.
Thereafter, 4th of July school years, overseas years, career years, marriage years, slid past firecracker less. Like some diseases, however, firecrackeritus while dormant, erupted again.
July 4th, 1976 was the bicentennial. It was going to be BIG. It was BIG.
Life is skewed by little decisions, although unimportant when made, they frame your life experience. I needed a part for the family station wagon. I decided to go to a wrecking yard to get the part. The owner was the brother of my co-conspirator of high school firecracker sales. At the wrecking yard counter, purchasing my pulled part, with grease blackened hands ringing up the sale, he asked if I wanted to buy some firecrackers or M-80s.
“Jimmie, for you 10 packs for a dollar. M-80s two bits each.”
“Wow, that’s cheap. Where’d you get them?”
“Some guy came buy and sold me couple of crates of firecrackers and bags of M-80s.”
“Can I get in touch with him?”
“Let me see.”
He shuffled throw a stack of business cards and gave me a phone number. I left with a purchase of 20 packs and the phone number.
When I called, he was nervous who I was but trusted the wrecking yard referral. We met at a self-storage warehouse in Newark. It was filled with crates of firecrackers, bottle rockets, quarter and half pound rockets, Roman candle sticks and bags of M-80s.
Despite illegality, prices were cheap, very cheap. The opening of Red China had put “Made in Macau” out of business. If purchased by the crate it was 2.5 cents for a pack of 16 firecrackers. All of it was made in China, shipped to Oakland for transshipment to states which allowed fireworks and waylaid to Newark. Only the M-80s were not made in China. They were made in San Francisco, Chinatown by the Wah Chang gang. Chinatown in the 1970’s, after removal of Asian exclusion immigration had exploded beyond Grant Avenue and it was Wah Chang turf.
A crate of firecrackers with 12 bricks of 80 packs cost $25. I bought 4. A bag of 72 M-80s was also $25. I bought 4. A package of 560 bottle rockets was another $25 or 4 for a $100. With a few Roman Candles and bigger rockets, it was another $100 for a total acquisition of $400.
One crate of firecrackers, a package of bottle rockets, a bag of M-80s and a few bigger rockets were stashed for eventual future need by existing son and future spawn.
Retail was semi-wholesale to friends and those I worked with at the Assessor’s office. It was minimum purchase of a firecracker brick, a 144-bottle rocket bag and 20 M-80s. Sales were brisk but the constant complaint was the M-80s were just too big. It was true. Set one off in the street and soon a patrol car would swing by.
I also became my best customer. Firecrackerites fever reemerged. My favorite was the bottle rockets. I’d send a few up for the joy of their scream up and sky retort. That was my undoing.
Pepsi and a cigarette were my diet staples. With the bottle empty, I plopped in a bottle rocket with its wick hanging on the lip cusp, put the cigarette fire to the wick and whoosh, the rocket shot skyward and popped above. Satisfied with my declaration of importance I’d returned to the house.
It wasn’t until the wail of the fire trucks I was aware things were amiss.
Looking out the garage window I saw the shake roof across the street aflame and knew it was from my bottle rocket. Like drugs, there’s users and there’s dealers. With my stash, I dealer. With the M-80s and larger rockets, big bad dealer.
The fire department was involved with putting the fire out, not yet the cause of it. The wife’s little 914 Porsche was in the garage. The station wagon was in the driveway. It was close but with a little grass trespass, the 914 could be stash loaded, squeeze past the station wagon and be parked down the street to avoid dealer incrimination. The 914 has a mid-mounted engine and rear and front trunks. Loaded, there wasn’t enough space to close the lids tight.
A glance out the window revealed the fire out and a Fire Marshall was picking up the little used sticks which supported bottle rockets.
The jig was up. It was time to confess, confess to a lesser offence.
With the 914 partially concealing dealer evidence, I spread out user evidence on the garage work bench. No M-80s or larger stuff but a partially opened bag of bottle rockets and a dozen packs of firecrackers plus a powder burned Pepsi bottle. Easy evidence for a user conviction.
The scene set, I exited the front door and boldly approached the Fire Marshall.
“Sir, I think I caused of the fire. I set off a bottle rocket.”
“It was more than one based on the sticks I see.”
“Yeah, I bought a package and have stupidly showed my son how they scream up and go bang.”
“Is he the one wearing the fire hat?”
“Yup, that’s him.”
“You’re going to need to fix the roof.”
“I understand and agree it was caused by me.”
“I need to make a report. Will you sign it?”
“Of course, because it was me.”
“Is there more fireworks?”
“Yeah, on my work bench. Do you want to see them?”
“I want to confiscate them.”
I led him through the house to the attached garage. The wife was cowering in the bathroom, assuming I’d be arrested.
In the garage I gathered up my user fireworks and handed it over while he busied with his report writing. On place of employment he asked.
“What’s the address of your employer?”
“70 West Hedding, San Jose,”
“That’s my work address!”
“Yeah, it’s the County building. I’m on the 3rd floor, Assessor’s office. I think you’re on the 5th.”
“I am. Where’d you buy them?”
“We went to San Francisco and had lunch in Chinatown. On the way to the garage someone from behind approached and asked if we wanted to buy fireworks.”
He wrote it all down but knew Chinatown was a dead-end lead. Finished with his report he noticed the 914 with sprung rear and front trunk hoods.
“Cute car, what’s wrong with it?”
“It’s not mine, wife’s, cute but somethings always wrong with it.”
Starting to panic I thought of a diversion. I’d forgotten about another pack of firecrackers I’d put on a shelf to save because they were different, a pack of 48 of Peony brand.
“Oh, almost forgot, there is another pack of firecrackers. After this I don’t want any around.”
I reached up to the self and handed the pack to him with the words.
“Let’s go back in the house, I’m worried about my wife. If you’re not going to arrest me please let her know.”
“Jim, as long as you pay to fix the roof across the street, I’m not going make a big case out of this.”
As we went into the house relief swept through me, I was a user, not a dealer. Retrieving the wife, she further disarmed the Fire Marshall by scolding me. I signed his report and we shook hands as he left, case closed. Closed but too close for comfort.
I discovered my homeowner’s insurance 100% covered my act of negligent stupidity. Firefighters when invading the house to ensure the fire didn’t enter the living area exposed it as a drug house. It was sold with a patched roof to nice new neighbors.
I held a fire sale and sold retail at whole sale price. The residual saved for future generations wasn’t appreciated. Firecrackeritous isn’t hereditary for sons and grandsons. Despite reducing inventory every July 4th,, there remains lots left. I’m totally cured.
Author Notes: Don't play with matches or firecrackers