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American Pie: Things That Go Bump In The Night

...I think that many kids of my age, including myself, never developed an enthusiasm for celebratory pyrotechnics such as exists today, and I don’t recall ever marking Guy Fawkes’ night with a bonfire after VE Day. We’d seen destruction by fire on a scale seldom experienced, and had an intimate knowledge of the power of explosives...

Because of war time memories of flames and destruction John Merchant is still disquieted by explosive celebrations.

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I was 6 years old when Britain declared war on Germany; too young to have much memory of Guy Fawkes bonfires and fireworks. After the declaration of war, blackout restrictions were imposed, making it illegal to show any lights after dark, thus putting an end to bonfires and fireworks for the duration of the war. Since I had no recollections of previous celebrations I didn’t miss it.

At some point in the hostilities we could buy indoor fireworks, consisting mainly of sparklers and a strange product from which a gray, snakelike ash would emerge after the fuse was lit. Needless to say, we didn’t get too excited over that, but the sparklers were more festive.

They consisted of a piece of wire that had been dipped in a paste containing, I think, sulfur, saltpeter and iron filings, and then left to harden. They were difficult to ignite, but once they were going, provided a bright display for about a minute, and we could hold them in our hands, which was a bonus for the young arsonists that most children are at that age.

When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, many neighborhoods celebrated with a bonfire, which in retrospect seems strange, given that many people, including ourselves, had seen their cities burned to the ground by German incendiary bombs. But we went through the motions anyway, even though it was hard to assemble enough combustibles to create a real blaze.

Most homes in my neighborhood were heated by open coal fires, or by coal fired boilers. Coal was rationed during the war, and the allocation was never enough, especially during the severe winters of that time, so supplies were eked out by burning anything flammable. Our houses were close to a large wood, and the fallen trees or branches seldom lay on the ground for long, being quickly gathered up by competitive foraging parties.

In the end we managed to scrape together a pile about 10 feet high, consisting mostly of unwanted furniture and garden clippings. It proved to be difficult to ignite, and since petrol was rationed, the few people who had cars were not about to contribute such a precious commodity to something as frivolous as a bonfire.

The flames eventually took hold, but by that time many people had drifted away, and we kids were left to do we knew not what. There were of course no fireworks, so we stood around aimlessly until only the embers were left. We were less than impressed. After all, it would be hard to compete with a High Street full of burning trams, or a department store in flames.

I think that many kids of my age, including myself, never developed an enthusiasm for celebratory pyrotechnics such as exists today, and I don’t recall ever marking Guy Fawkes’ night with a bonfire after VE Day. We’d seen destruction by fire on a scale seldom experienced, and had an intimate knowledge of the power of explosives.

When I came to America in the 1970’s, firework displays were mainly reserved to mark July 4 - Independence Day. Their use and power has increased since then; the rockets fly higher and the bangs get louder with each passing year, despite the fact that some states have banned them.

Four states: New York, New Jersey, Maine, Delaware and the District of Columbia have a total ban, six states have restrictions, and forty states allow them. States where their sale is permitted that are adjacent to those where they are banned, have made quite a business out of the discrepancy. Their major arterial roads are lined with vendors whose garish storefronts are designed to draw in the disenfranchised.

It seems now that just about any occasion in the US warrants an explosive celebration: almost any national holiday, a birthday, the arrival of a new baby, the opening of a store, whatever. Whilst I have to admit that the rockets provide quite a spectacular display, and if I want to I can easily ignore them, but I find the mortars and other, purely explosive types, disquieting. Some approach weapon strength, and are just a little too reminiscent of crouching in our air raid shelter wondering if the next one would have our number on it.

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