Firecrackers were THE most illegal and at the same time most sought after item in our neighborhood. The only drugs we knew of were aspirin and cod liver oil. No local hood was gonna ‘bust a cap in yo haid’ to steal your dope, they would much prefer to kick your ass and take your lunch money, probably to buy firecrackers.
The first thing we learned in Firecracker 101, was that there is something called a split fuse. A split fuse is when you light the fuse on the cracker and the fuse burns in about .000000001 seconds, causing the firecracker to explode instantaneously. We were wise to this and could mostly recognize the condition prior to lighting the fuse. But there was always that small chance that we missed something, often resulting in missing fingernails and blackened palms.
No one knew where to get fire crackers. There was grapevine gossip that a certain discount clothing and shoe dealer, named Andy Mahays, was the source of all illegal activity in our town, including black market firecrackers. He also sold mass quantities of work shoes and flannel shirts, but we all knew that to be a cover story for the far more lucrative fire cracker trade.
One day, accompanied by a local hood that we had “befriended” named Greg Henderson, we walked into Andy’s store in search of said explosives. Andy was not a handsome man. Rather, he was a short, fat, balding man who was barely able to walk. He spent his entire day glued to a stool in his basement discount store, waiting for his prey, kind of like Jabba the Hut. On this particular day, he was in a very jolly mood. I assume this was from either receiving a load of stolen shoes that had fallen off a loading dock in Brooklyn, or from having just eaten a small child. He seemed to know Greg quite well, and after a brief discussion and the exchange of a handful of nickels, he pulled a paper bag full of firecrackers from a nearby hiding place, and handed a few packs to Greg. Andy did of course use an old Jedi mind trick to ensure that we did not reveal him as the source of the firecrackers. That involved a promised trip to the Tryon Boy’s School and a beat down by all of the juvenile delinquents that lived there.
After handing over a percentage of the take to Monsieur Henderson, we were on our way to firecracker Nirvana. We headed down to Vaughn’s Creek to see if we could blow a few crayfish out of the water. Nothing is more conspicuous than a gang of about ten kids all huddled together and staring fixedly at something in the middle of the huddle, unless all of the kids are in football uniforms. The spot we had picked for our firecracker fun was right next to a bridge that was about fifty feet from a couple of houses. We blew off a few firecrackers and were having a good old time, when the police cruiser pulled up. Since I had the bag in my hand, I dropped it over the rail of the bridge and turned to watch my prize float away under the bridge. In my haste, I had missed the creek, and the bag instead landed on a large pipe that was attached to the bridge. It was at just about this time that the policeman started asking where the firecrackers were. The ever helpful Mikey Reed shouted “There they are!” and pointed at the bag sitting on the pipe.
It’s funny how I can remember this all in such detail, but cannot remember what the consequences were. I think it may have involved a trip to the police station. I am pretty sure that my mother would have gotten me released on my own recognizance, since I was only about 10 years old. I also must assume that I did not squeal on Andy or Greg, as I am pretty sure I would not be typing this commentary if I had.
Why is human kind so attracted to and repelled by dangerous and illegal stuff? There are multiple opinions and views on this topic. The Libertarian viewpoint would be “Why is anything illegal?”, while the Darwinian viewpoint would be that “Young men are attracted to dangerous stuff in order to weed out the weak and feeble.”. I suppose that things are illegal in an effort to protect us from ourselves. But this hardly explains the reason for the legality of 151 Rum, staplers, and Skoal smokeless tobacco.