Bursting with Pride

The Herald Palladium

By WILLIAM F. AST III

July 4, 2010

I believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other…

– John Adams

Laws that ban fireworks are probably the most widely ignored laws in Michigan.

At no time is this lawlessness more evident than on and around Independence Day. Michigan law forbids any consumer fireworks that leave the ground or explode, but you can step outside on many nights and feel that you’re in a war zone, with firefights and artillery barrages raging around you and anti-aircraft explosions filling the skies.

How did it come to this? The laws banning fireworks are prudent, because fireworks are dangerous, no question about it. Every year many people are injured, maimed or even killed by fireworks.

Why risk injury when you can enjoy a professional fireworks display?

Well, probably because setting off your own fireworks is fun. Making lots of noise is fun.

Also, it’s the Fourth of July, when Americans celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the great document that said “nuts” to perfidious Albion and told the aristocratic British overlords where to get off. What better way to symbolize our disdain for tyranny and our support of freedom and free trade than setting off a string of firecrackers made in China?

And, after all, no less an august personage than John Adams urged the use of illuminations – a 17th century term for fireworks – to celebrate Independence Day. Who are we to disobey the wishes of a president and a Founding Father?

The glorious past

As a boy, there was no greater thrill than having your dad or a favorite uncle disappear for a few minutes on July 4 and reappear with handfuls of fireworks. There were almost always disapproving frowns from mothers and aunts, who always issued a stern safety lecture, but apparently they realized there was no sense trying to get their men to suppress their inner juvenile delinquent when it came to fireworks.

Later on we boys developed our own sources. I honestly can’t remember what they were – a friend of a friend who’d traveled to some fireworks-friendly state, probably. But we were rarely without a stash of firecrackers somewhere.

There was the holy grail of fireworks lovers, the ne plus ultra of explosives, the queen of battle, the baron of bangs – the cherry bomb and its close relations, such as the M-80 and the Silver Salute. It was awe-inspiring, powerful, and extremely, extremely dangerous. It’s more like a piece of dynamite than a firecracker.

There was the workhorse of fireworks, the common firecracker. Versatile and reliable, it was (and still is) sold in blocks and strings. The strings make for a lovely sustained series of bangs.

The ladyfinger is a smaller version. Sophisticated and refined yet still packing a solid punch, its small size allowed creative variations of uses.

Everyone loved bottle rockets. They are small rockets on sticks, and have the name because one puts the rocket in a pop bottle to launch them. Oh, yes, leave the bottle on the ground. Do not hold the bottle in your hand. Not a good idea, if only for the sake of not burning your hands.

‘Almost overwhelming’

Police this time of year are inundated with calls complaining about someone setting off fireworks.

“Oh, yeah,” said Lincoln Township Police Chief Dan Sullivan. “I think everywhere there’s a population, you’re going to get them. It’s happened in every department I’ve ever worked in, around the Fourth in particular – to the point where it’s almost overwhelming. It’s a constant flow of calls.”

Police responding to such calls often simply warn the perpetrators to knock it off, Sullivan said.

“Unless we catch them in the act, we tell them to cease and desist,” Sullivan said. “There’s so much of it, especially with the out-of-state places they can buy fireworks. It’s difficult to seize all of it and cite everyone. It’s unrealistic.”

Sullivan said he hasn’t had to look into many fireworks injuries, fortunately. But when there are injuries, that’s going to be forwarded to the county prosecutor for possible action, he said.

Users need to be extremely cautious if children are present, Sullivan said. Even legal fireworks such as sparklers can cause serious and painful burns, he said.

“Keep the children away,” Sullivan said. “Everyone wants their children to have sparklers, and I can remember doing that with my kids. But M-80s and cherry bombs? No, no, no.”

One of the less obvious dangers of fireworks is fire, Sullivan said.

“An explosion is one thing, but if people are using Roman candles and if the ground cover is not recently wet, you could have some fire issues on top of everything else,” the chief said.

Across the border

It’s true that fireworks that are illegal in Michigan aren’t far away. In fact, just drive across the border into Indiana.

If you drive south on LaPorte Road from New Buffalo, you’ll find three fireworks stores right across the state line, obviously there to serve Michigan buyers. Business was slow on the rainy days in June, but was picking up handsomely as July 4 approached, proprietors said.

Inside the stores are rows and rows of aerial shells, firecrackers, ground displays and fountains. There is “Crazy Evil,” an obvious nod to violent video games, the “Heart Attack,” which urges people with cardiac issues to keep their distance from its heart-stopping ending blasts, and the proudly patriotic “This is America.” For the thrifty, the stores offer “Buy One, Get Ten Free” bargains.

There are blocks upon blocks of Black Cat firecrackers, believed by many to be the most reliable brand. There are small novelty items – a tank that, when ignited, rolls forward in a shower of sparks and then shoots its cannon, a frog that does who knows what when lit.

These stores are places where no one argues with the “no smoking” policy.

Drive farther afield into Indiana, and you’ll find enormous warehouse-sized stores dedicated to selling fireworks.

Obviously there’s a lot of revenue involved. State Rep. John Proos supports a bill that might dampen the explosive flow of Michigan money into Indiana for fireworks.

“Every year we watch Michigan’s hard-earned dollars go to the benefit of other states that surround us,” said Proos, R-St. Joseph. The bill, which he co-sponsored, would “eliminate the trunkloads of fireworks that people get from other states” and produce more revenue and badly needed jobs in Michigan, he said.

The bill, which passed in the House in May by a 79-28 vote, would legalize the sales of such items as firecrackers, Roman candles and bottle rockets in Michigan. Right now, sparklers and toy noisemakers are about all that can be sold here.

Proos said the bill would require fireworks be sold by reputable dealers from permanent buildings, although non-profit groups would be allowed to continue tent sales.

Rep. Harold Haugh, D-Roseville, said the bill could raise more than $5 million a year through fees and licenses for cash-strapped Michigan.

The Associated Press said some lawmakers have received automated phone calls opposing the legislation. Haugh dismissed them as likely coming from out-of-state interests that don’t want to lose the business they now receive from Michigan customers crossing the border.

The bill is now before the Michigan Senate. “I have no idea what will happen with the bill” in the Senate, Proos said, though he added it passed with “strong bipartisan support in the House.”

And what does he think about fireworks personally?

“I’ve loved fireworks since I was a kid,” Proos said. “It was always fun enjoying sparklers, or larger stuff when my parents would allow it.”

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