The coming of a New Year was such a celebration when I was a preteen. Lots of years, New Year’s Eve was spent in the freezing cold at the end of my driveway under the yellow glow of a sodium vapor street light. We’d pound our chests and look forward to the adventures ahead. We’d run around in the cold for hours shooting bottle rockets at each other, saving the big stuff for the stroke of midnight. We’d take endless single sheets of the local newspaper and loosely pull the four corners together fashioning an approximation of a paper balloon. Once the four corners were pulled together, they were folded over once, and the fold was secured with a paper clip. The paper balloon was then placed clip side down on the cold pavement and the four corners were set afire at approximately the same time. If the night was exceptionally chilly, the resulting shell of black and grey ash would be propelled skyward by the hot air contained within. The contest was always altitude; whose “S.S. Heater” could rise the farthest before structural problems caused the homebuilt UFO to disintegrate into a shower of tiny orange embers and black ash.
We’d set up our arsenal of pyrotechnic devices we had been hoarding since Halloween. There would be fountains and giant 20 shot Roman Candles. Ground spinners and whistling chasers. Someone might have a small mortar with a half dozen shells. If a mortar did appear, a hole would be dug in the yard and the mortar tube would be buried to ensure it stayed upright while firing. There had been past incidents of free standing mortars tipping over and star bursts ricocheting around in carports and on front porches before exploding into showers of gleaming sparks. There would be strings and strings of Black Cats and Lady Fingers. Everyone had a handful of real M-80’s somewhere on their person. The countdown to 12:00 would commence.
Ah, the venerable M-80. Such a misunderstood firecracker. Even as youngsters, we all knew to get as far away from the blowhard that touted the M-80s he possessed as “a quarter stick of dynamite.” He didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.
Dynamite is a completely different deal.
The explosive in dynamite is an inert material soaked in nitroglycerin. Dynamite gets its power from the speed of ignition and the shockwave that detonation produces (detonation being different from deflagration, which is the process of burning flash powder in a M-80), thus the classification as a “high explosive,” meaning the detonation is occurring at supersonic speeds. Despite all the war movies and cheesy Westerns, dynamite cannot be exploded with a sizzling powder cored fuse. It takes more than sparks to agitate nitroglycerin into detonation. A blasting cap, which can loosely be considered firecracker-ish in nature, is used as a “sensitive primary explosive” to set the “less sensitive secondary explosive” into motion.
The M-80 is merely a small cardboard tube about 1.5 inches long with a inner diameter of 9/16ths of an inch with about 3 grams of volatile flash powder inside. It is sealed on both ends with paper caps. The flash powder is ignited with a three inch piece of 2mm Visco cannon fuse. Flash powder, compared to dynamite, is an extremely slow burning material. Still powerful enough to make a substantial report and take off a finger or two from a feckless user, but in no way as powerful as a similar measure of nitroglycerin.
We all knew the original M-80 was developed as a simulator for the military. It morphed into a semi-legal consumer firework known by class as a Salute. Millions of them were made in the 1960s. M-80s and similar Salutes were banned in 1966 by the US Consumer Products Safety Commission and the Child Protection Act of that same year. None of us in Mississippi in the late 1970s ever laid hands on a M-80 that was legally manufactured in the United States. But if you knew where to look – or even had enough smarts to combine a few common, readily available materials into your own flash powder formula – the stuff that made the big booms could be found with relative ease. Who knows where the ones we bought (because only one or two of us had the smarts to make them and the smarts to refuse to make them for fear of burning their father’s workshop down) came from: smuggled from overseas, or made in someone’s garage or kitchen out in the county, your guess is as good as mine, we managed to score a bag full pretty much every year we wanted them.
We’d save all our spare change and skip some lunches at school to make it happen. Then we’d pedal out to Russell’s Used Cars. It took some cajoling and false promises, but eventually Russell would produce a big grocery bag full of little red tubes with green fuses. I believe we paid a buck apiece for them, and if we bought more than 20, he’d knock the price down to 75 cents per firecracker. He’d make us swear if we got caught with them, we’d keep quiet about where we got them. But no one really cared. As long as simple criteria were met, to wit: we used our fathers’ rules in regards to using guns, power tools, car jacks and other dangerous devices, no one went to the hospital carrying shredded body parts in Ziplocs full of ice, nor was any neighbor’s personal property damaged, un-to wit, we were free to detonate these magical little tubes at will.
A half hour or so after midnight, smoke would hang thick under the sodium vapor street light at the end of my driveway, that is if the flashes from the big stuff didn’t fool it into thinking night was actually day. The street would be littered with bits of craft paper tubes, red rice paper, bottle rocket sticks, and burned up newspaper for days after, till the wind finally swept it all away. The rains always took care of the rest.