Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Fireworking Down South

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Fireworking Down South

Article excerpt

A door slammed shut, startling me from a sleep too light and too brief. Struggling to get my bearings, I raised up on my elbows and peeked out the passenger side window of my pickup truck. A yellow ball, brilliant and unrelenting, shot rays through a canopy of pine needles. It was already light, already hot, and I was already in a bad mood. The parking lot of Red Rocket Fireworks, the outskirts of Rock Hill, South Carolina, the Fourth of July.

I had spent most of the dark morning hours in descent, skimming the interstates from Beckley, West Virginia, to Rock Hill, fleeing the Alleghenies in a mad dash to the Piedmont, downing too many Mountain Dews and Chick-O-Sticks at seventy-five miles per hour, only to arrive two hours before opening time at the cavernous Red Rocket warehouse. A person in the fireworks business is rarely surprised by anything, and arriving at work to find a man in combat boots and a sweaty baseball cap sprawled in the seat of a pickup hardly qualifies as extraordinary. So I was invited in, offered coffee (which I declined in favor of a Mountain Dew), and given a seat on a vinyl chair the color of a ripe persimmon. The assistant manager, wearing a pink golf shirt and khaki Duckhead shorts, took my order, which I had scrawled on the blank side of a four-by-six note card. His subsequent phone call to an unidentified warehouse worker struck me as odd, even in a business as far off-center as fireworks. "I need a monkey driving a car, one hen laying eggs, two cuckoos, a fairy with a flower, one climbing panda, one cock crowing at dawn, and whatever we've got in the way of a Jupiter's fire or a thunder blast or a big bear." I could imagine the disconnect an innocent passerby might have experienced upon hearing such nonsensical spew. Fireworks speak is like the names of football plays, or military instruction manuals, or the banter of social-science graduate students: it just doesn't make any sense taken out of context, and the context is so esoteric that explanation to the uninitiated is an exercise in futility.

My mission in South Carolina on this muggy Independence Day morning was a simple one: to load as many cases of fireworks as I could into my long-bed pickup so that the good folks of Beckley, West Virginia, would not have to celebrate the anniversary of our severance from the British crown in peace and quiet. I must confess that this was a noble mission, no matter how you look at it. Whether it was patriotic idealism or capitalism that fueled my quest, by early afternoon I was back in Beckley, and by nightfall most of the boxes were empty. All around Raleigh County, monkeys were driving cars, hens laying eggs, pandas climbing, fairies flowering, thunders blasting. A mighty good time was had by all, and I sat on the bed in my room at the Pagoda Motel counting money and watching SportsCenter.

Today, just short of the Fourth of July, by the side of the road in the dancing shade of a cottonwood tree, she saw the stand with a banner that read: FIREWORKS FOR SALE. Gloria Turner slowed to a stop and read the smaller print underneath: BIG BANGS FOR LITTLE BUCKS. The words, blown out of a painted volcano, were sailing up and out of line.

--"The Cracker Man" by Helen Norris (1)

There is nothing inherently southern about fireworks--they were, after all, invented by the Chinese some twelve hundred years ago--but southerners have long held an affinity for fireworks shared by few other American regional groups. (2) In the United States fireworks displays are as ubiquitous as the flag. We use industrial-strength displays to celebrate everything from New Year's to ethnic holidays to political rallies, and few of us can remember the last time we saw a home-team homerun that failed to light a spark or two. Sure, we all watch fireworks. In the South, though, we use fireworks; it's a hands-on affair (unless you live in Georgia, but more on that later). Teenagers stage bottle-rocket wars, farmers fight varmints of the air and of the ground with M-60S and whistle chasers, small children torment pets with backyard firecrackers, and toddlers wield sparklers like tiny light sabers. …

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