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The Fourth of July


June 28, 2001|By AL KALIN, Special to this newspaper

KAABOOOOM! … As I slowly regained my senses my chest hurt, my ears rang, my left arm was numb and I could smell smoke. It was the Fourth of July and my trail bike was on top of me, the engine still running.

An adrenaline rush quickly brought things back into focus and I pushed the motorcycle off me. Swatting out the flames on my shirt, I staggered to my feet with the bike and raced for home, giving a wide berth to two girls nearby on horseback who I suspected had just shot me. This was the zenith of a life addicted to fireworks.

Early memories go back to our Victorville ranch, just before the Fourth of July, when my aunt and uncle returned from a trip to Texas, their car loaded with fireworks. Only 4 years old, the bright colorful contraband lured me like a moth to a flame.


My older cousin Glen, whose broken arm was in a cast, secretly showed me some stolen cherry bombs hidden in his sling. As we played near the creek the next day, I watched in fascination as my other cousin, Tom, helped Glen pack wet clay around one of the cherry bombs. The green fuse was lit and Tom lobbed the cherry bomb into the stream. Smoky bubbles gurgled to the surface, marking the spot where the cherry bomb had sunk. A muffled "WHUMP" was followed by a 20-foot geyser of water, black mud and green stuff. I buzzed with excitement as I picked strands of wet moss and watercress from my face and arms. This was the start of my addiction.

That evening the clan assembled at the lake for the fireworks show. As the adults set up the contraband, we all waited anxiously. Rockets, Roman candles, firecrackers, bright red cherry bombs, M-80s and sparklers of every color imaginable were unloaded from the car.

When the show started I was so excited I almost wet my pants as colored fireballs burst from the Roman candles. My ears rang from the explosions and aerial bursts lit up the sky. When there was a lull in the action someone would light a pack of firecrackers and all 500 would go off in seconds like a battery of machine guns.

When all the explosives had been exhausted, the sparklers were broken out and the fun continued. That is until Cousin Tom, who was barefoot, stepped on a white hot sparkler that seared itself into the sole of his foot. The third-degree burn put a damper on further celebrations that night but my enthusiasm for fireworks continued to smolder and secretly I envied Cousin Tom's foot brand.

A few years later, while visiting Cousin Tom in Coachella, he flushed a cherry bomb down the toilet. The severe whipping I observed being administered to him was one I'll never forget. The toilet? It cracked in half. The plumbing? Workers had to jackhammer through the bathroom floor and replace 10 feet of cast iron sewer pipe.

Discovering Mexicali had fireworks, I tried to bribe our irrigators into smuggling fireworks across the border for me. Some did, most didn't and I suspect my mother and the ranch foreman had a hand in the failure of my fireworks smuggling ring at age 9.

But God bless the U.S. government. They came to my rescue when ducks invaded our alfalfa fields during the winter. Fish and game officials loaded us with hundreds of cherry bombs, M-80s and rockets meant to scare away the ducks. A few of the rockets and cherry bombs never made it to the fields. I was set for life.

It's fair to say I blamed the government for my predicament that day as I finally made it home on my motorcycle. Somehow, two cherry bombs had exploded in my shirt pocket as I drove around Cattle Call Arena lighting cherry bombs and throwing them from my motorcycle.

The force of the explosion ripped through the back of my shirt pocket and turned my chest into mincemeat. The blast tore out the seam on one arm of the long-sleeved shirt as it traveled down my arm, causing second-degree burns the whole length. The collar held and the blast exited past my neck, causing more second-degree burns on my face and neck.

I made it home and staggered in the back door, my face blackened and my shirt still on fire. My mother took one look at me and fainted, but Grandma laid me on the kitchen counter and started putting out fires and cleaning wounds. Dr. Yellen arrived and dug one unlit fuse from my belly and the other from my arm. He bandaged me up and proclaimed I would survive if I didn't do anything else stupid for the next few years.

I can't tell you I learned my lesson. My urges were dampened somewhat but every year as the Fourth of July draws near, memories come flooding back and I search for undiscovered stashes from years past.

Outdoor Tales writer Al Kalin can be reached on the Internet at

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