Jun 14 2012

My Little Town 20120613: Fireworks

(8 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River.  It was a rural sort of place that did not particularly appreciate education, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.

One advantage of living in a little town is that I could set off fireworks.  Arkansas has a quirky law that allows sale of fireworks only a few days per year, a week or so around New Year’s Day and a week or so around Independence Day.  I would get my parents, when I was little, to stock up.  Later I would stock up myself.

I have seen lots of folks who have been injured by fireworks (when I was little, many of the consumer protection rules had not been put in place).  Until adulthood I was never injured by any kind of firework (I DID come close a few times).

This shall not be a chronological treatment, because I am going to discuss the only serious injury from fireworks that I ever had.  It was with sparklers, of all things!  Those are supposed the be the safest kind of firework, and in some jurisdictions just about the only ones that can be sold.  These were the old design, with a steel wire dipped in the pyrotechnic mix, not the newer ones where the mix is filled into a paper tube.

This was around 1990 or so, when the former Mrs. Translator and I had three small boys.  I wanted for each of them to be able to wave a sparkler, so I put three together and applied the flame to the tips of all three.  As soon as the were alit, the flame front rushed down the channel betwixt them, severely burning my hand (I was holding them by the dipped part, just above the bare wire).  I had NEVER seen sparklers burn so fast!

Later, after I became a professional pyrotechnician I learnt the reason for that.  Military pyrotechnicians have known for decades that with a gassy delay train that ambient pressure has a very strong effect on burn rate.  Sparkler mix is very gassy.  It turns out that there is a very nonlinear relation betwixt the rate of burning and the pressure that the mix experiences, with higher pressures greatly accelerating the rate of burning and lower pressures greatly retarding it.

When I put the three sparklers together, I made a channel in the middle that developed very high pressure upon ignition, and the flame raced down to the bottom of the mix in less than a second.  Normally a sparkler will burn for minutes or more, depending on how long they are, but under these conditions they were done (but only around the channel) in under a second.  I did not even have time to throw them down!

Professional delay train developers try to formulate mixtures that give off as little gas as possible.  It is not possible to design a mix that gives off absolutely no gas, because air is always entrained in the final mix, and the heat from the combustion of the ingredients makes it expand, and all delay trains are hermetically sealed to prevent moisture from damaging the mix.  However, we can come pretty darned close by using materials like metals and silicon that burn to liquid or solid products rather than carbon dioxide and nitrogen.

Now for the early stuff.  When I was really little of course I could only watch my parents and brother set off the fireworks for fear of injury.  When I got a little older I was able to hold a sparkler, later a Roman candle and ignite those tablets that make lots of black ash that are called “snakes”.

I am guessing that when I was ten or so my parents trusted me enough for me to light the fuzes (note that fuze is specific for pyrotechnics, fuse is used for everything else).  I loved firecrackers the most, but loved all fireworks.  Back then, firecrackers really had some punch!

I was never the type to light a whole string of firecrackers at once.  I might light one of those small packs of a dozen or two, but NEVER one of the long strings!  I was much more creative for that.  One of the things that my cousin Mike and I discovered was to take a tin can, put a firecracker under it with just the fuze exposed, and light the fuze.  Those cans would fly high into the air!

Later we learnt to take TWO cans, one just small enough to fit inside the larger one.  We would poke a hole in the solid bottom of the smaller one and push a firecracker in it almost all the way, just so that the very “top” of it was held by the smaller can.  Then we would put the open end of the smaller can into the open end of the larger can and light the fuze.  Those went much higher than simply putting a firecracker under a similar sized can!

The reason is that the larger can essentially acts as a cannon barrel, allowing the pressure from the firecracker more time to act on the smaller can.  We had lots of fun with those.

One of our favorite things, and this came later, after the former Mrs. Translator and I were courting and even after we married, was bottle rocket battles.  Instead of just lighting the fuze and lobbing the bottle rocket at each other, we had a much more elaborate procedure.  My nephew still recalls the fun that we had!  By the way, I just left him a voicemail and hope that he calls me soon.

In any event, we used two person teams.  We had half a dozen aluminum tent poles that were straight and open at both ends, so one person of the team would be the shooter and the other one the loader.  The way that it worked was that the shooter would take aim at another team, and the loader would put a bottle rocket in the tube and light it.  Sometimes we would get a “hit” on an opposing team member.

The fun thing about it was when there were three or more teams.  Because of the risk of being fired on by a team other than the target, the random factor was really fun.  This might sound like a dangerous passtime, but we took a couple of precautions.  For one thing, we always wore eye protection.  Unless you are holding a bottle rocket in you hand when it “reports”, the only risk of real injury is the eyes.

The other precaution was to have a considerable amount of distance betwixt teams.  Bottle rockets are notoriously unstable in their flight path, so a 50 foot separation would almost always guarantee a miss.  However, sometimes we got hits.  The challenge was to find the optimum distance for the bottle rocket to “report” just as it hit a member of an opposing team.  I know that it sounds dangerous, but no one was ever injured more than a little powder burn, usually on the arm or chest (it was hot, and a lot of the men went shirtless).

Another Independence Day, when I was smaller, my cousin Mike and I were going to set off a really big box of fireworks.  We had it all, firecrackers, bottle rockets, Roman candles, sky rockets, and others.  It would have taken at least an hour and a half to set them all off if things went right.

I was talking with Mike’s mum, my mum’s only sister, not long ago and she jogged my memory.  I had forgotten about this escapade until she reminded me.  He came over just before dusk (my yard was just a bit bigger than his, so it was a better place for shooting fireworks).  He lived just across the street, sort of catty cornered to to my house.

About ten minutes later he was back home.  My aunt asked him if he and I had gotten mad at each other because she expected him to be a whole lot longer getting home.

He told her that we were not mad at each other, but that one of the fireworks hit the box where all of the other ones were and that they went up in a spectacular but short lived blaze of glory!  After she reminded me of that, I remember that Mike and I just ran away as fast as we could when we saw the box begin to ignite!  It was spectacular, because the rockets and the Roman candles were aimed at random directions, and we did not know where they would hit.  I am guessing that I was about 12 then, so he would have been ten.

I have one final sort of funny fireworks story.  After I was old enough to booze and drive (which I have not done in DECADES now) several friends and I were in my 1967 Camaro (which I still have) with three or four gross of bottle rockets on the deck just below the rear window.  I was driving, and now and then one of the passengers would take a bottle rocket and shoot it out the window.  As I remember, there were five of us (about the overflow capacity of a 1967 Camaro) riding around.  I disremember names (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

Things were not out of hand until the five of us finished up the next round of beers, augmented by things that I will not mention.  One of the passengers decided that it would be a good idea to put a gross of them in a random mailbox (a rural route one).  I thought that it was a bad idea, but was outvoted.  Sure enough, karma was kept.

Not five minutes after my friends set the fireworks off in the anonymous mailbox, someone in my Camaro either dropped a cigarette or had a bottle rocket go awry, something ignited ALL of the bottle rockets that were sitting on the deck just inside of the back window of the car.  It looked like lemmings jumping off of a cliff to see my friends dive out the passenger side door as the rockets erupted in fire and smoke on the deck behind the rear seats!

I foolishly tried to grab them and throw them out of the car, but the rockets shooting towards my face made me give up pretty quickly.  I did have the presence of mind to roll down the front windows (in a 1967 Camaro the rear windows are pretty skimpy) so that most of them could be ejected from the automobile.  After the two minutes of so that seemed like an eternity we were able to reenter the car and drive back home.  I still regret setting the mail on fire in the mailbox, but even after beginning to restore the Camaro I still keep the burnt deck facing as sort of a trophy to remember NOT to give bad karma to anyone.

That just about does it for tonight’s installment.  Please feel free to comment and tell me what you think.  I also encourage you to add your own stories about being little or coming of age.  I know that I enjoy reading them, even though you might not come from a little town.  I also know from feedback that other readers enjoy your stories as well, so please do not hold back.

I have two personal items to share tonight.  The first one is about me.  This is the first blog that I have written since my wrist dropped back in early March with no brace on my right hand.  The nerve damage is healed, so only muscle weakness remains from the 12 or more weeks of disuse.  I have written parts of blogs without it, but my muscles were too weak to write an entire one until now.  I guess that I am pretty much well, and I am happy for that.

The more important thing is to ask everyone to keep the former Mrs. Translator in your thoughts.  Tomorrow she gets a knee prosthesis, and that is quite a major surgical procedure.  She has had problems with her knees for decades and finally one just got so bad that it had to be replaced.  Her new beau will be with her, or at least in the waiting room, whilst the surgery is done and Youngest Son will be with her the next several days.  Please join with me in wishing her well, and godspeed for a full recovery.  Even though we are no longer together, I still love her very much and wish her nothing but the very best.

Warmest regards,

Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith

Crossposted at

Daily Kos,

Docudharma, and


1 comment

  1. Translator, aka Dr. David W. Smith

    remembering distant memories?

    Warmest regards,


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