A father-and-son story of high explosives
Editor’s note: Biff America resurrects a classic holiday column in honor of Independence Day.
When I was a child (late ’50s, early ’60s) cherry bombs were the Cadillac of fireworks. For those who don’t remember, cherry bombs were a powerful firecracker encased in a red shrapnel-like container. The explosion they produced was capable of blowing up cans or mailboxes, producing delight and disfigurement in both children and adults.
Like lawn darts and the Chevy Corvair, cherry bombs were legislated out of existence years ago. I’ll grudgingly allow, it was the right thing to do. But when fireworks light the July sky, I know I’ll fondly recall cherry bombs, warm Boston summers, and a man who many people called crazy – my father.
Fireworks were technically illegal in Massachusetts when I was a child. No matter, the local cops would turn a blind eye to those who had them unless someone complained, property was damaged, or someone blew off a finger.
Fireworks were not hard to get. Newsstands and tobacco shops would sell them, from under the counter, to anyone old enough to have money. But even then, over 40 years ago, cherry bombs were difficult to find.
My father used to have a long-haul truck driver friend pick up a couple of dozen on his way through Florida in order to have some on hand for Independence Day. Even though my brothers and sisters and I would be armed to the teeth with firecrackers, bottle rockets, M-80s, pinwheels and Roman candles, we needed the cherry bombs to blow up the relatives.
A Fourth of July tradition in our family was to light a cherry bomb under the bedroom windows of friends and relatives in the early a.m. hours. We called it “blowing them up.” My father would fill his flask, load the kids in the car, and “blow up” six to ten victims on any given holiday. He used to pay special attention to those relatives on my mother’s side of the family, whom we didn’t much like.
When my five siblings and I reached a certain age, my dad would let us place the bomb and light the fuse. I remember being delighted when I was commissioned to “blow up” my godmother, who always would give me a necktie for Christmas.
My father was considered a bit of an eccentric back then. He was a former boxer, a gambler, enjoyed a little whisky, and during the Depression managed come up with enough money to buy a house; no one ever knew how he did it. He was raised poor, ascended to middle class, and once had a drink with Jimmy Hoffa. He wasn’t very affectionate towards his children, but when my new bicycle was stolen two weeks after Christmas, he went out the next day and bought me a new one.
And he was the only parent I knew who let his kids “blow up” the relatives.
As my brothers and sisters aged, they outgrew the pleasures of the bombings. Every couple of years we would lose one who thought the prank was “immature,” “queer,” or some other such adolescent designation that connoted un-coolness. Being the youngest, I participated well into my teens in the yearly reign of terror. The final years found just my father and me carrying on the tradition.
I nearly missed the extravaganza in my 12th summer, due to a ruptured appendix. I was two days out of the hospital, hot with a fever, when my father, much to my mother’s dismay, picked me up and placed me in the back seat of the family car. I didn’t get to light any fuses that year, but while being carried back to my bed by my father, who smelled of gunpowder and whisky, I felt like the luckiest boy in the world.
In the terms of today’s mores, placing explosives, kids, and Jim Beam in the car was irresponsible. But then I was the envy of all my friends. The world was a less responsible place then.
Between then and now, we’ve outlawed cherry bombs, made driving while drinking a serious crime, and mandated seat belt and child restraint use. Any parent who broke those laws today, especially en route to commit an unlawful discharge of explosives, would be considered a bad parent. I’m glad I was a kid when parents were held to lower standards.
My old man died just short of 90. The year before he passed away, I happened to be home on the Fourth of July. As I remember, the holiday was uneventful. The two of us sat in the sun, missed my mother, and watched the Red Sox on television. It was a calm day for a guy who has a history like my dad’s. But that’s the beauty of growing old. You sit back and take pleasure in the woman you loved, the bets you won, and the people you’ve blown up …
Biff America can be seen on KRSN television, heard on KOA radio and read in this and other fine newspapers.
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