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Dan Mackie: A Long Walk for Firecrackers

Looking back on it now, I am amazed at the audacity of our summer quest. We walked for hours to find a criminal enterprise in a shadowy part of town with which we were only vaguely familiar. We had no guides, no maps, only a notion that we should head west until we found it.

The mission was part Lewis and Clark, part Three Stooges. Our grail: fireworks, the small firecrackers we called salutes, the larger ones that could rip open soup cans, and according to legend, blow off fingers. We coveted bottle rockets, Roman candles, smoke bombs and flying things that would sizzle, scream, whirl and bang.

In my home state, Rhode Island, fireworks were illegal, though reasonably common, since many people ignored the ban. We could sometimes get our hands on small amounts, from a father who passed some out, or a juvenile delinquent who sold them with a whisper and a furtive glance. “Hey, you wanna buy some salutes?”

Yes!

The supply was unreliable, since our fathers were more or less honest and occupied with other things. Juvenile delinquents came and went, and might knock you around if they were in a bad mood. Their fuses were always smoldering.

I’d guess we were 12, because we had afternoon paper routes then, and pockets full of change and small bills. We could afford new bike tires, comic books and pocket knifes. We could order dumb things from the backs of magazines, like tiny “sea monkeys.” We were tempted, but skeptical, about X-ray specs, so no one bought them, though we talked about how much fun it would be if they actually worked.

That kind of talk, hazy and languid as the air on a summer day, filled the hours before kids solitarily listened to music with earbuds. That kind of talk inspired our journey. Like Columbus dreaming of a New World, we believed we would succeed if we merely persevered. We’d heard, through oral tradition, that local fireworks came from Silver Lake, an Italian neighborhood on the other side of town. We just had to get there, and then … well, things would take care of themselves.

So one summer day, without notifying parents of any sort, we set out. Although we didn’t think they would approve, exactly, we didn’t think we were doing anything really wrong. At long as we were home for supper, or by dark at the latest, our time was our own.

I don’t remember if two of us traveled, or three. If Stephen King was telling this, we would have found a dead body, or been chased by evil clowns, but it wasn’t like that. The first part of our walk, along cement sidewalks, passed by sights we knew well: our church, our school, a convenience store. We walked by little shops that repaired TVs and radios, hair salons, law offices, a ball field, the entrance to a city park, a movie theater where we’d watched Saturday matinees. There was no fast food, just cafes and fish and chip joints that opened on Fridays because Catholics didn’t eat meat on that day.

No one paid us mind, unless we lingered too long in a store razzing each other or looking at comic books. We wore blue jeans, and T-shirts. We were generic American kids with generic clothes, generic haircuts and generic freckles.

After awhile, we were in terra incognita, territory we had traveled through while riding in the back of family sedans or station wagons (sans seatbelts), and had taken in only through car windows (when we had wriggled out of the hated middle seat). We walked for hours, and took a turn that turned out to have been correct. I think it was the Silver Lake Cleaners, or Silver Lake Barbershop, that tipped us off that were were nearly there.

So now what? My friend Mike, who could be brash, volunteered to seek directions. He went into the barbershop and asked where we could find fireworks. The barber, a fastidious little man with a moustache and a balding head, yelled at him in English and Italian. Someone in a bakery just waved him away. A clerk in a little market yelled at us again.

But someone pointed toward a corner, and a garage nearby. We walked in that direction, and saw a thick man dressed in gray pants, a black shirt, and slicked-back hair (this image could be memory, or imagination fueled by a Sopranos episode). He smoked a cigarette, and looked this way and that. We asked if this was where they sold fireworks. He waved us in.

It was a big garage, as stuffed from floor to ceiling as a warehouse at Christmas. I don’t imagine we were typical customers; they might have been indulging us. Even crooks liked kids, sometimes. We soon spent what money we had, and walked home with our bags of ill-gotten goods.

What we hadn’t calculated was how far we had traveled. Looking now at Google maps, I see that it could have been six miles, or seven. That would be up to 14 round-trip. By the time we arrived home we were dragging. We were spent, deflated balloons, kites without a breeze. We didn’t have anything resembling hiking shoes, just flat sneakers,which allowed your arches to droop and your feet to ache.

But we made it, and no one asked where we’d been, or why were were late. That was par for summer.

I suppose my tale would be more uplifting if we learned a good lesson about safety, but, in fact, we had a ball setting off firecrackers and the bigger explosives. Despite the cherry bombs, I still have 10 fingers, which have come in handy in my career as a touch typist.

One time a policeman pulled up in a cruiser as we were setting firecrackers off in the street by my friend’s house. He told us to cut it out, but his weary look suggested that he was responding to some old lady’s noise complaint and that he didn’t care and was only trying to make it to the end of his shift, and then retirement in a beach house where he could listen to the sound of the surf. We waited a decent interval, and started up again.

I liked the bottle rockets best, not being much taken with destruction. I put one in a glass Coke bottle and aimed it forward and upward: a flicker of light heading to the heavens and then a pop. That was enough spectacle for me.

I should feel obliged to tell kids not to make a journey like this, but that’s hardly necessary. Now kids don’t go unwatched unless there is something amiss. They are better off for the vigilance and worse off, too. No one seems relaxed, and adventures are entirely planned. We planned our days on the back of candy wrappers. We didn’t expect bad things to happen, and for the most part, they didn’t.

The writer can be reached at dmackie@vnews.com.