Why I love illegal fireworks

Mark Judge Journalist and filmmaker
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About three times a year, I break the law. I drive from my home in Maryland to Pennsylvania to legally buy fireworks, then I drive back and illegally light them off.

This tradition began last year. I had a challenge with a serious illness, and when I began pulling through it I wanted to light some fireworks. Note: I did not want to blow stuff up, draw the police, or torture kittens. More than anything, fireworks are about beauty. And like the wider culture war, there is an important struggle going on in the country between the patriots and killjoys about whether they should be widely available.

Even though most fireworks have been illegal in Maryland for years, when I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s there was a common-sense libertarian ethos that ruled. In the summer we would drive to South Carolina or Florida, and once over the border we would stop at a store to load up. The trunk would be stuffed with Black Cats, Cherry Bombs, bottle rockets, missiles, aerial repeaters and assorted offenders. I’d keep the stuff in a box in my room (I know, I know, safety; but it was the 70s). The system worked something like this: every few weeks – or more frequently in the summer – we would go outside and cause about fifteen minutes of chaos. If we did it infrequently, and at reasonable hours, the neighborhood parents never did anything. It was a perfectly self-policing society.

I still have a very vivid firecracker memory from August of 1979. I was 14 and about to start high school. We were expected to have summer jobs when we were fifteen, so it was my last summer of pure, rich freedom. After three months of rattle and hum–and whiz and bang and hiss–I had single roman candle left. After discarding the directions–the classic “light fuse and get away”–I fired it up and held it out, pointing it towards the apple orchard behind our house. I watched the red and blue fireballs trail off over the trees, and felt a kind of holy sorrow; my stash was depleted, yet I was deeply sated and satisfied. I had gotten my ya-yas out. There was also the pure, metaphysical beauty of the fireworks themselves. I recently saw some photographs of the universe in an issue of National Geographic, and I noted the similarities between the colors of the Milky Way and those of the 5 Ball Laser Candle. Perhaps the lure of fireworks has its roots in our beginnings as what Carl Sagan called “star stuff.”

After that night, fireworks seemed to slowly disappear. It was the 80s, the beginning of the era of the obsessively observant parent. That turned into the 90s, the era of the obsessively observant and neurotically overprotective parent. You could get some stuff in Virginia and D.C., but it was nothing with a report. Occasionally someone would halfheartedly fire up something that promised “a shower of sparks,“ but while the colors were pretty there was no real charge. Soon it was down to burning snakes, which look like charcoal tablets and mostly hiss and smell bad. Then sparklers, those harmless mini-novas of joy, were banned in Montgomery County, Md., where I live. Fourth of July’s were spent at quiet barbecues, and the loudest noise on New Year’s Eve was from champagne corks. Then, in 1996, my father died. I was going through his old desk drawers when a small red and yellow packet caught my eye. A pack of Black Cats, the Cadillac of firecrackers. I remembered that dad, a bird lover, used to use Black Cats to scare away, well, black cats. One night I went out to the backyard, where I had launched my roman candle years before, and exploded dad’s last pack.

Then, for several years, silence. Then came 9/11, and after that the use of fireworks began to rise. According to Julie Heckman of the American Pyrotechnic Association, use of fireworks eventually doubled. “It just took off after 9/11 she told me. “Why? Patriotism.” She also notes that as use went up, injuries went down. “Usually you’d expect injuries to go up, but we now have the safest fireworks in history.” According to the APA, a kid is more likely to get hurt fishing than torching some Black Cats.

By the mid 2000’s, certain states began to liberalize their laws. In 2008 I was diagnosed with an illness, and when I got home from the hospital I found myself wanting to do things that brought me simple joy. I watched favorite old horror movies, went to see jazz greats, and ate rich Indian food. And I wanted to light firecrackers again. As it happened, a trip to South Carolina would not be necessary. Pennsylvania, about an hours drive from my house, had passed a bizarre yet brilliant law in 2004. It was possible to by fireworks there provided that you were not a resident of Pennsylvania. You read that correctly. If you were from Maryland or New Jersey or any other state, you could drive to Keystone Fireworks, a store literally five minutes from the Maryland border, and load up on all the Thunder Bomb firecrackers, Fat Pig fusillades, smoke bombs, Texas Rockets and 500-gram cakes you could fit into your car. If you lived in Pennsylvania, you were restricted to the minor, fireworks, the “shower of sparks” stuff. To use a street metaphor, Pennsylvania had become a dealer to us addicts. As we all know, dealers sell, but they don’t use. According to the law, you were not supposed to light the stuff once you got back to your home state. This is like telling young boys not to jump in puddles.

One morning when I was beginning to feel well again, I made the drive to Keystone Fireworks, just south of Gettysburg. As you approach the exit for the store you pass the historic Catholic college Mount Saint Mary’s, which has a 25-foot golden statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary atop a 100-foot pillar overlooking the highway. As a Catholic, I felt as if I was receiving a special indulgence for my pilgrimage.

I came to the front door and was met by a clerk. “Good morning,” he said. “in state or out of state?”

“Out of state.”

“Right this way,” he said. There was a small section of the store for Pennsylvania residents to get their burning houses and snakes, and the rest of the warehouse was dedicated to the heavy artillery. I loaded up a cart and headed back home.

Since then, I have employed the rules from my childhood. Every few weeks, and usually on the weekend and at reasonable hours, I conduct a small war in my front yard – or, if I have particularly high-caliber stuff, I go up to a baseball field nearby. I like to think that I am now providing some of the magic that I enjoyed as a child. This past Halloween, I was at the baseball field and I unleashed a Willow Rocket into the lower stratosphere. When it exploded, a lovely starburst of red and indigo, I heard a group of young trick-or-treaters in the distance cry out with joy. They’ll remember it the rest of their lives.

Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism and Rock and Roll, forthcoming from Doubleday. His YouTube page can be found here –http://www.youtube.com/user/MarkGauvreau