Kennedy: Boys and fireworks - gotta get that boom boom pow

The annual Pops on the River musical celebration at Coolidge Park honoring America attracted hundreds of people and concluded with a fireworks display on Wednesday, July 3, 2019, in Chattanooga.

There are a lot of things from my 1960s childhood that our two teenage sons would simply not understand.

The list includes Sting-Ray bicycles with sissy bars and banana seats, 45 rpm records, "Gilligan's Island" reruns, bottled milk, rubberized book straps and vibrating electronic football.

Then there is a shorter list of iconic treasures from the '60s that do endure to this day. These include: Icees (the frothy, ice-crystal drink that came to market in 1958, my birth year), the card game called spades and personal fireworks.

Boys have a crazy fascination with fireworks. No amount of Xbox playing or artificial-intelligence wizardry can erase a boy's primal need to explode things into a bazillion pieces.

Let me acknowledge that little girls probably enjoy fireworks, too. But my perception is that girls admire the aesthetics of fireworks, while boys just gotta get that boom boom pow. Every loud bang sends an eye-widening burst of joy juice to a boy's brain.

When I was about 7 years old, my father took me to a fireworks stand owned by one of his acquaintances, a Mr. Westmoreland. The stand was on a state road a few miles from our home in Middle Tennessee.

I remember Mr. Westmoreland telling my dad that he made about $500 every Christmas/New Year's season from his fireworks operation. I remember thinking that $500 was a staggering, life-changing amount of money.

My fireworks budget in 1965 was about $2, which bought a few packs of Black Cat firecrackers, a couple of dozen bottle rockets and a box of sparklers. Our "friends" discount was a handful of M-80 firecrackers, which Mr. Westmoreland dropped into our brown paper bag with a wink.

"Now, be careful with these," he warned ominously of the little red cylinders with side-mounted fuses. "Son, you might want to let your dad handle these M-80s."

Indeed, M-80s were outlawed for use by the general public in 1966. After that, you had to have a federal license to detonate them.

By labeling the M-80s an adults-only firework, though, Mr. Westmoreland had exponentially increased the likelihood that I would shoot them off my 7-year-old self. In fact, I immediately started appropriating my five M-80s in my mind.

I would use one to wreck a carefully arranged battle scene of little green Army men, another to launch a tin can skyward and a third to drop into the storm drain, hoping the underground tubes would have an amplifying effect that would scare old ladies in a six-block radius.

That would leave one M-80 to blow up as a test, and another to save for an emergency, like if the Russians ever showed up on the banks of the Duck River in Middle Tennessee, which, as a child of the Cold War, I assumed was always a possibility.

As planned, I used the first M-80 as a tester. I remember my hand quivering as I held a flame from a little Bic butane lighter to the fuse of the M-80, which I had carefully placed inside a cinder block to contain the blast radius. I remember some neighborhood boys standing behind me making random hissing sounds, which made me jerk my hand away from the fuse - "Stop it!"

Finally, when the fuse was obviously lit, I remember turning and running, beating feet as if my life depended on it - because I wasn't altogether sure that it didn't. After all, the myth and legend of the mighty M-80 was huge in my mind.

I remember the explosion had two syllables - Ka-boom! It was a big bang with a tail - the tail being a ringing in my ears that lingered for several minutes.

Nowadays, our boys usually save a little stash of money for seasonal fireworks. I've noticed that social isolation has made fireworks more of a summerlong thing this year.

I see people on neighborhood social-media sites who imagine every firecracker they hear is a gunshot. People are jumpy.

There are also commercials on TV pushing tight-fitting vests that are supposed to keep your dog from succumbing to fireworks anxiety. (In 1965, I'm pretty sure the thought that fireworks would upset a dog had not yet entered anyone's mind.)

Anyway, today's fireworks purchases involve more money and infinitely more sophisticated fireworks. But there is no mighty M-80.

I realize that handing a second-grader a mini-stick of dynamite was probably not a good idea in 1965 - but it was a heck of a lot of fun.

I fear that in our increasingly risk-averse society, the only fireworks our next-generation kids will see will be inside a set of virtual-reality glasses.

And it really and truly won't be the same.

Email Mark Kennedy at