The Sounds of My Youth

TNT Fireworks Supercenter, Easton, PA
TNT Fireworks Supercenter, Easton, PA

Out the front door and turn right. Head north up Lincoln Street toward Beach Avenue. Pass manicured lawn after manicured lawn and see the large tudors and dutch colonials nicely set back from the street.  In the early 80’s there were two cars in every driveway, as I’m sure there are today if not more.  Larchmont is home of some of New York City’s most successful business people.  When I grew up there in the 70’s and 80’s, people’s wealth was quietly reflected in their homes.  Back then the ostentatious display of wealth was largely frowned upon.  Things have changed.

At the top of the block, the name changes to Addison Street.  Go up the hill and just before you arrive at Chatsworth Avenue Elementary school take the first right.  Arrive at one of the few alleys which exist in Larchmont. Behind what used to be Playtime Toys, one could occasionally find a certain n’er-do-well who sold serious fireworks out of the trunk of his car.  The passing of the years has blurred his face beyond recall, and I don’t think I ever knew his name.  I definitely knew the car though, a black Chevy Chevelle SS 454.  It was known in the day as a muscle car- a term with class implications and overtones of seedy behavior.  No parent was ever thrilled to see their teenage daughter dropped off from a late-night date getting out of one of these.  You heard this car coming long before you could see it, and the sight of it confirmed a parent’s worst fears and removed all doubt about what young Becky had been up to. 

I have no recollection of how I was introduced to this purveyor of refined overseas products, but I became an elite customer. 

I remember the first time he popped the trunk open so I could finalize my purchase.  I must have been about sixteen years old.  There weren’t just a few things scattered here and there, the trunk was overflowing with hundreds of colorful packages wrapped in a crinkly waxed colored paper with crazy names like, “Thunder Bomb,” “Little Demon,” and “Screaming Mimi.”  Surreal graphics reimagined the fireworks as black cats, devils, and atomic blasts.  Each of them promised all variety of visual and auditory delights.  These were not your grandma’s sparklers and ladyfingers, but grosses of bottle rockets, firecrackers by the brick, Roman candles, a menagerie of dynamic rockets promising monster displays of showers of sparks and orgasmic mayhem.  There were also M-80’s and Blockbusters which were the firework equivalent of heroin: The Hard Stuff.  I started with the bottle rockets.  He sold two kinds, with report, meaning a small explosion at the end of its journey, and without report.  A bottle rocket without report is a total waste of time if you have delinquent tendencies and aspirations such as I did at the time. 

It only took a week or two for me to want to up my game and graduate to M-80’s.  It turns out that bottle rockets were the gateway to the hard stuff.

If you’ve never been properly introduced, the M-80 is a serious bit of business.  A thick red cardboard tube the size of your thumb with a green fuse coming perpendicularly out of its middle.  M-80s were designed by the United States military to simulate explosives and artillery fire for training exercises early in the 20th century. It got its name from the 80 grains (roughly 5 grams) of flash powder it promised. You really need to pay attention when you are dealing with them.  Pro tip: Be sober. Those who do not respect their power, and even some of those who do, lose multiple fingers or even whole hands.  I used to buy them by the bagful, which is to say about twenty at a time. I challenge you to show me another way a sixteen-year-old could unleash such fury and rattle the gates of hell for under $10.00.  The sound could be heard across town, leaving scores of teenagers to immediately connect around one common thought, “That’s an M-80.”

The urban myth about M-80’s is that they were the equivalent to an eighth of a stick of dynamite. I always believed that this was true until I Googled it recently. What it is really is three to five grams of tightly packed kinetic and very cathartic energy capable of – and this is verified – ripping that new mailbox down the street clear off its post and shredding it and all of its contents into motherfucking oblivion.  Just ask Andy Dallos.  Andy and I were friends of convenience for a spell during high school. We had a mutual friend, Chuck, who took it upon himself to test this mailbox theory as so many had before him.  Without too much thought of consequence or conscience, he dropped an M-80 in the Dallos’ metal mailbox one fine day after school.  The mailbox was securely anchored to the stucco entranceway by the front door. I’m sure it had enjoyed a peaceful if boring existence as a mailbox for many years before Chuck decided to drop a tightly packed eighth ounce of fury and white-hot testosterone into its unsuspecting belly.

The nearby village echoed its roar, and milliseconds later the mailbox lay in twisted and blackened pieces throughout the front lawn. Insult to injury would have Mr. Dallos run over the undiscovered remaining pieces with his lawnmower that following weekend as he cut the grass.  I can imagine him flinching every time the lawnmower faltered and shook momentarily as he ran over yet another piece of twisted metal that viciously shot lethal pieces of shrapnel around the lawn and into the street. The unmistakable sound of the furiously spinning lawnmower blade making violent metal on metal contact with the remaining shards of his mailbox makes me chuckle even today.  Further insult would undoubtedly include the heinous scar where the mailbox was once obediently affixed to the outside of his house.  It took three weeks to patch the stucco, repaint the surrounding area, and mount a new mailbox.  It was not quite a seamless repair, as the new paint didn’t quite match the old; a lasting and nagging reminder that something nefarious had occurred here, something without a hint of provocation.

I enjoyed an odd satisfaction from Chuck’s antisocial and destructive behavior and I’m not sure why Andy let him off so easily, as they remained close for years afterward. I guess he needed the friend.

My favorite method of igniting M-80’s was to light them while holding a tennis racket between my knees.  As the first sparks spat out of the lit fuse you could feel your heart pounding and a flood of adrenaline surge through your body leaving a taste like tinfoil in your mouth.  Looking at this lit bomb in your hand heightened all of your senses and the rest of the world fell away in deference to the danger and impending climax of the moment.  In one swift motion, I’d drop the lighter on the ground and grab the tennis racket from between my knees.  A quick backswing followed by a powerful follow-through launched the nasty bugger well above the tree line where it detonated announcing all of the angst, rage, and fury of teenagers everywhere finding their voice and allegiance in the deafening explosion. It was critically important to check the tennis racket strings immediately after hitting an M-80 into the stratosphere because there was always the off chance that the naughty thing would actually jam itself between a couple of the racket strings. You don’t want to be caught searching the sky for the M-80 you thought you just launched only to discover that it was stuck in the racket strings planning its best strategy for separating flesh from bone.  It was unlikely to occur, but it’s wise to check.

Fast forward to 2012.  I now have my own mailbox to defend, but at the moment I am driving with my wife and son back from a weekend scuba diving trip at Dutch Springs in Pennsylvania.  Just before passing over the state line to New Jersey, we see a billboard for a fireworks store promising “Easy-on/ Easy-off” access.  As we zip past the exit I am locked in an internal debate as to whether or not to revisit this chapter of my youth with my wife and son in tow.