FIREWORKS: My History with Fire
I could say I outgrew fire, but that isn't true.
Time is not a running river so much as an ocean that goes dry.
One day you’re daydreaming in a hammock. The next day, you’re worried about paying the rent. Gone is that luxury of endless time. It has become an inverse logarithmic curve, a line that crashes into the ground. I’m not a mathematician. I just know a dead end when I see one.
I grew up on a dead end street. It was my sanctuary and my cage, the place I needed to escape. Luckily, there is only one direction out of a dead end and I knew where to go.
I was daydreaming recently, trying to journey back to a childhood summer, how the hot sun felt, how each day would unfold slowly, moment by moment. I was a tiny fish swimming in that sunlight. A particular sunlight, a feeling of endless time. I had a memory of going on a mission with my best friend to get fireworks when we were 10 years old.
“You think he’s got them?” I said, always the worrier.
“Yeah,” said my friend Roland. He had picked up the info somehow.
Fireworks were difficult to get back then. We had no money, no car and no connections. We heard rumors about where to buy a pack of firecrackers, but we lived in a bubble in suburban Yonkers, New York. We kept probing its contours. We were free-range. Our parents sent us into the day and we disappeared for hours at a time. “Be home for dinner,” my mom would tell me. It’s amazing it took so long for us to find trouble. We were small and slipped between the cracks more easily then. When you’re young and wily, you can run fast and disappear.
By the age of 7, we had sparklers. I don’t remember how they came into my hands. One day, somebody hands you something. They appeared - a thin package the size of a pencil box. Inside were a couple of dozen dull, gray sticks, each thinner than a pencil, made of a substance that was formed onto a heavy wire. You lit it with a match, then held it or twirled it around while it shot off a ball of sparks, fizzling down until it burnt out. You could burn yourself with a sparkler, but that never bothered us. I got used to holding burning objects in my hand. Before sparklers, we had started with punks, which were like incense sticks. You could buy them at the local candy store up on Tuckahoe Road in the same strip mall as the Toy and Sports Warehouse. They sat on the shelves with the candy. We would buy a couple of punks for a nickel, light them and then hold them in our mouths, pretending to smoke. They were a step up from the candy cigarettes we had pretended to smoke when we were 4 years old. My mom worried about germs and made me put scotch tape on the skinny end of the stick. That felt uncool, but I complied.
Years passed, they were endless years. 10 years is a long time when you're 10. We turned 10. We wanted fireworks. We had been pyromaniacs for as long as I could remember. Fire was our first technology and our mystic quest. One of us had a magnifying glass and we would set leaves on fire by holding the glass carefully in the sun. A dark spot would appear, then it would smoke and catch fire. It was exciting. We were harnessing powerful forces.
A family on the other side of the dead end had four boys. They were like a gang and always made trouble. We crossed paths with them, but kept mainly to ourselves, on our side of the dead end. They were stronger and more numerous than we were. They were also more industrious. At one point, they told us they were selling candles they had been making and invited us over to check them out. They made them sound like fireworks. We went to a side window of their house where they had set up shop, like a drive-up bank window, and checked out what they had.
It was all variations on the theme of shitty homemade wax candles with curled-up paper wicks. They had small ones that were cut from egg cartons, bigger ones in dixie cups and, finally, the biggest ones that were made in cat food cans. These things had terrible, made-up names and sold for nickels and dimes and were deeply unsatisfying. They burned slowly when they burned at all. We pooled our quarters, bought some, then went back through the dead end, cut through the O’Dowd’s backyard, and lit them all on fire. They took a long time to burn. We got bored and talked about cars or guns or whatever young boys discuss.
My family went up to the Catskills every summer for two weeks. We stayed in an old farmhouse that a few families rented together and the kids played all day. I would go to the creek by myself and get lost in the moving water, the bugs, the fishes and the wild mint growing along the banks. I dug holes by the abandoned dairy barn and made fire pits out of stones and mud. My job was to burn the garbage. There was little plastic in the garbage then, so we could do that. I would take a brown bag of kitchen trash out to the rusted, old steel drum with holes punched in the bottom, then light it carefully with wooden matches. I loved the smell of burning paper and looked forward to this every day. I hovered around the old ladies in the kitchen and asked, “When can I burn the garbage?” They would speak to each other in Greek and laugh a bit, then give me a bag or two.
One night, we visited some families up the road and a firecracker war erupted. Every explosion made the world stop. The flashes blew up the night. Nothing else existed, just like nothing else existed when I burned the garbage every day, smoke curling up from the can. I was hypnotized by the smoke. At the firecracker battle, one blew up as it left my hand. My hand was undamaged, but I hit the ground and rolled away down the hill, like I had seen soldiers do in war movies.
Roland and I didn’t have the means to blow things up on that dead end in Yonkers, but we liked explosions. We had gotten Big Bang cannons at the age of 7 or 8. He got his first. A Big Bang cannon was a small metal artillery piece, seven or eight inches long, cast iron with a removable piece that went into the breechblock. It worked with a granular powder called “Bangsite” that came in a tube. You put some water into the cannon, scooped up some Bangsite with the ignitor, stuck it into the breech and turned it shut.
This would dump the powder into the water and you could hear it hiss. At that point, you pushed a small plunger. This made a spark and set off the gas inside the cannon. A BIG BANG would happen. Big enough to impress a small boy. Old Mrs. McGrann would stand in her doorway and shake her head and frown at us. She lived alone and her late husband’s putty blue car sat in her garage for years, never moving. Mrs. Glynn would also come to the door, worried, to see what was going. These cannons were loud. Her husband had been in the navy and kept a rotting kapok life vest from the war in the garage. We knew about that life vest. One day he came out to inspect what we were doing. He walked back to his house slowly.
We sat in the middle of our dead end street and blew those cannons off all day long, until we ran out of Bangsite. BOOM BOOM BOOM all fucking day. The neighbors must have hated us. We discovered that Bangsite was inert and you could not use it for any other purpose. It was diabolical that something so loud was incapable of burning or being used outside of the toy cannon. That began a quest to make our own gunpowder. Roland came upon the ancient knowledge that you could make gunpowder with saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur.
We wound up with two bags of chemicals - one containing saltpeter and one with some kind of sulfur. They must have come from someone Roland knew because I had no connections. I provided the charcoal, in the form of backyard barbecue briquets that we spent a long time grinding into powder. You have time for stuff like that when you’re a kid. We used rocks to grind it into a pile of black dust. Our clothes and faces were covered with charcoal dust. We took the three piles of powder and half-assed it, mixing them together in a can. We had no idea about portions or percentages. We worked for hours, then set up a test.
There was a small stump in his backyard and we nailed a plywood board to it, then dumped a pile of our homemade gunpowder onto it and tried to set it off. It caught fire, then flared up five feet for a few satisfying seconds during which life paused. No birds fell from the sky. The wind did not stop. No explosion. Maybe our materials were suspect. The fire charred a hole into the plywood - permanent evidence of our failure. If we had had access to serious explosives or firearms, there is no doubt we would have used them, but we did not and the neighborhood was saved. We walked away from this experiment with a new appreciation for commercial fireworks and a strong resolve to get some.
We knew you could get a long firecracker pack that unfolded, accordion-like, and would blow up forever, and this was called a “mat.” We knew about the lethal degrees of explosives - from small cherry bombs that were red and looked like cherries, to “trash cans,” harder to acquire and more powerful. You could put a trash can under a rock, light it, run a short distance then watch it blow. At the top of the hierarchy, in a mythical class of its own, was the M-80, which we knew was equal to a quarter stick of dynamite and which we also knew could take off a finger if you fucked up. These were the nuclear arms of our childhood and they were difficult to get. You had to go to Canal Street, in Manhattan, or the Bronx or know somebody who was coming from down south. We had only a whisper network and our bicycles.
We heard about a kid on the other side of Central Avenue who sold firecrackers and cherry bombs. The info probably came from Joey Gandolfo. Joey was always in trouble and he rode around the neighborhood on his bicycle like an itinerant young gangster. One day Joey came over to visit and accidentally shot himself in the temple with a pellet pistol. He seemed fine, but we all looked at each other without a word, then he felt the bloody spot on the side of his head and said, “I have to go,” at which point he left the house and rolled down the hill on his bike.
Joey was probably the guy who told us where to get fireworks. We gathered the few bucks we had and set off on our Stingray bicycles. We went down the steep hill towards Central Avenue, which was being widened and improved. There were no underpasses then and it was crossable everywhere. We crossed it and found ourselves in a maze of streets on the opposite side of what felt like the Grand Canyon. We pedaled up different hills and switchback curves through split-levels and ranches. This was 1970 and everything felt fresh.
The adults were living through civil unrest, assassinations and the war, but we were kids and the world was new. Our knees were strong and we were on a mission that day, so we kept pedaling our single-speed bikes up the steep hills of Yonkers. Roland steered us toward some high tension lines in the distance and we finally arrived at the designated intersection. The connection was there - some kid with a shopping bag was sitting at the end of his driveway. He was our age, but seemed much older because he had fireworks. We slowly approached and told him that Joey had sent us. We had a few bucks between us, which bought a handful of firecracker packs and a bunch of cherry bombs. I remember the smell of the dry powder and the crinkly paper of the firecracker packages and their exotic designs.
It was a long ride home. We retraced our path down and then up all those hills. Roland stashed the fireworks and we made plans for where and when to blow them up. I don't remember setting them off, though I know we did. We probably took the explosives to the schoolyard at P.S. 28, where I went to grade school. It would have been dangerous to set them off on our block. We were too visible there.
I could say I outgrew fire, but that isn't true. As a teen, I always volunteered to make the fires for my dad's rare outdoor barbecues. We kept an old Phisohex bottle filled with kerosene on a high shelf in the shed. I would fill the fire pit with briquets, spray them with kerosene, then toss in a match. It would go up with a loud whoosh and flames three feet high. Then, I’d spray more kerosene on it like a fiend, holding the Phisohex bottle with both hands. My dad would say “HEY! That’s enough, it’s lit.” I’d wait for him to disappear inside and then do it again. When we moved into a house with a fireplace, I would split the logs and start the fires. But my need to burn up the outside world had diminished, because I was burning myself up at the time. We smoked weed. Roland and I slowly collected an empty fishbowl of used Bics in his basement. I began to smoke cigarettes. All day, every day, I’d stare at a lighter and inhale on a Camel, no filter, and suck the smoke into my lungs. There was always an ashtray nearby. I smoked other things, as well.
I got older and, despite all the stuff I was smoking, I functioned. I went to school, worked a job, and eventually moved into Manhattan. Chelsea was not a chic neighborhood then. My girlfriend and I found an apartment in a small, crumbling building. It had a fireplace, a holdover from the days before steam heat. I was getting strung out and would burn my garbage in the fireplace instead of taking it down the stairs.
We moved downtown and I cleaned up my act. I went on camping trips upstate and out west and had campfires. I came to value propane camp stoves over wood. Fires are a hassle, it turns out. I enjoy burning stuff and watching the flames, but I hate hauling the wood, reeking of smoke, putting out the fire, and cleaning up the ashes the next day. I’m not saying I outgrew fire, but it became less appealing. I came to appreciate a good candle and I still enjoy a stick of incense, but that’s about the extent of it. Small flames.
I outgrew fireworks. When I began to take long road trips, I was astonished by the fireworks superstores in the rest of the country. Huge places. They felt illegal to enter. I never went into one until I was on a trip with my hot springs buddy, Paul, in 2003. We were going to camp at a remote hot spring in the middle of the Great Basin desert in central Nevada. We were coming from different directions and had a plan to meet that evening at the campsite. He called and asked if I could pick up some fireworks for that evening and I instantly agreed.
We were 50 years old at the time, but the urge to blow stuff up returned, as strong as ever. I knew of a big store at a lonely crossroads somewhere north of Pahrump, in the Amargosa Valley. I got there, walked inside and was shocked at the piles of explosives on endless shelves. I picked up cartons of aerial displays, not so many ground explosives, and bought a hundred and fifty bucks worth of fireworks. I knew it was illegal to blow them up in the desert at that time of year, but I bought them anyway. I drove out of there with three big boxes of fireworks and headed to the hot spring. We had a good time that night, but after an hour, I wanted it to end. It was fun and then it was just a bunch of sparks and explosions.
A few days later, I was heading back east and told a friend back home about our bacchanal. He began to twitch over the phone and begged me to buy him some. They were still difficult to get in New York. I didn’t want to drive across the country with a car full of fireworks, so I told him I would send them to him via UPS. This is also illegal - and possibly dangerous - but I put that out of my head and stopped at another big fireworks place, where I bought a ton of small explosives.
I went to a shipping store and bought a box. I told them I had to load it up with clothes in my car and went to the parking lot. I sealed up the box out there and brought it back inside, gave them a fake return address and shipped it off to my friend. I think he brought them up to his old family house in Port Jervis to blow them up. I drove back across the country with a clear conscience. Life went on with no more explosions.
When you’re young, time is vast and your boat is small. You have forever - endless time in which to sail. This changes the way you think. Lazy days go by while you read and wander. Nothing else matters. By the time you’re 50 or 60 - if you make it that far - time has become a river, not one that you float down, but one that you cross over before you die. The boat is older and a bit leaky. You drag a barge full of stuff. You focus on survival.
Maybe the goal is to retain the thinking of a child, the daydreaming. You can’t keep the innocence - that is impossible and it would be a betrayal to forget the lessons of experience. My goal is to worry less. Worry is a killer, a complete waste of life, a waste of time. Worry weighs down the boat. I don’t seek out the explosives anymore, but I still like to watch a fire. I’m attracted to the flame. It keeps me in the moment. It’s like meditation.
I have never been in a war zone, with real explosives. My relationship with fire is on a small scale and scale changes perception. All those years of watching cigarettes catch fire and smolder, of sucking in the smoke, of lighting pipes and watching the bowls glow like coils on an electric stove; all that campfire cooking - that stuff is nothing compared to real fire, and real fire is deadly business - houses, forests, cities can all disappear. But just as a cat is a small lion, a candle is a tiny wildfire, and it can still burn. Time may be an ocean that dries up, but it’s also a forest that burns down to nothing.
*All photos by Paul Vlachos
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Paul Vlachos is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He was born in New York City, where he currently lives. He is the author of “The Space Age Now,” released in 2020, “Breaking Gravity,” in 2021, and “Exit Culture” in 2023. He currently has a solo photography show PRIVATE/NYC on view at Art Cake in Brooklyn, New York.