I Came, I Saw, I Blew It Up

Feature Story

A reexamination of Independence Day through the eyes of a fireworksmonger

by LaRue Cook

With Independence Day quickly approaching, I'm saddened by the fact that I haven't actually lit a firework in at least two years. Honestly, I've been afraid to have anything flammable around a bottle rocket or a firecracker. Heck, even an innocuous smoke bomb sends me for cover.

But when you work in a building that's stocked full with enough combustible contraptions to blow up the west side of Knoxville, you tend to become a bit on edge as fire meets fuse.

See, for the past two summers, I've sweated and slaved as a stock boy at the Fireworks Supermarket off the Watt Road Exit on Interstate 40, which is professed to be one of the largest fireworks retailers in the world. It's open 365 days a year, but I make the trek to Farragut for just five days, those 120 hours leading up to the anniversary of our nation's birth. Although the hours (2 p.m.-2 a.m.) and the manual labor (throwing what seems like 100-pound boxes over my 155-pound, soaking-wet frame) are not something I look forward to, the money I make in the end is enough to cover a three-night stay under the bright lights of Las Vegas (OK, Tunica), where I gamble it all away, instead of watching it explode in the sky.

As I prepare for my next marathon session, I'm realizing that the amazement I once found in twirling sparklersâ"baffled that the illuminated lines remain visible as I zigzag the crackling stickâ"has faded. Fireworks are all around me, and I can't seem to shake that powdery residue or the pungent aroma of aluminum and charcoal. I imagine it being similar to the nausea a Taco Bell employee, who was once a loyal patron, suffers after slathering one too many taco shells with that Grade C beef.

Like most American holidays, I'm always confused by the transformations our celebrations undergo. How unfamiliar they would be to those that began them.

While I stack 500-gram display fireworks one on top of the other and pack as many mortar shells as I can onto the shelves, I notice buggies full to the brim with explosives. Bare-footed kids run up and down the aisles, stopping occasionally to ask, â“Where are the sparklers? Smoke bombs? Tanks?â” I point them this way and that as Dad's tugging on my shoulder: â“How high does this go? Is it loud?â”

â“Well, sir, that goes 1,000 feet in the air, and if you're going to shoot it off near Turkey Creek, then you'll probably be able to hear the boom somewhere on Market Square.â”

â“Not high enough, and not nearly loud enough,â” he says, handing me the gigantic container of gunpowder and scampering after his child in search of something to appease his appetite for pyrotechnics.

This isn't quite what Francis Scott Key envisioned when he wrote those famous linesâ" rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in airâ" prompting Americans to obliterate Coke cans with firecrackers.

And to think, it was a Chinese cook who unearthed this natural phenomenon upon a chance encounter with charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter (apparently all readily available in a kitchen 2,000 years ago) mixed in a bamboo stick. But I would be remiss if I didn't also mention those who believe fireworks date back to around 1100 A.D. at the height of the Song Dynasty.

About a thousand years later, monk Li Tian invented the firecracker in the city of Lui Yang near the Hunan Province. The Chinese use them on holidays, birthdays and funerals to ward off evil spirits, and they still honor Li Tian by making sacrifices on April 18. (The Western equivalent: Fifteen-year-olds throwing M-80s, which are officially illegal, into the river and watching dead fish bloop, bloop, bloop to the top of the water.)

Most of the fireworks that are imported to the United States arrive from Liu Yang, where Li Tian started this whole thing crackling. Oddly enough, Italian families run most of the American display firework companies: the Gruccis, the Rozzis and the Zambellis to name a few.

Even Tchaikovsky's â“1812 Overtureâ” is somehow misconstrued as being a part of our Fourth of July heritage. I can't help but hum the tune while I mop the floors right before closing time. The horns are strident and the strings work furiously as the cymbals crash intermittently, creating a glorious soundtrack to the finale of any fireworks spectacle. Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky didn't give a damn about our War of 1812 or Scott Key. He wrote it after the Russians defeated Napoleon.

But that doesn't stop pyros from playing it at some of the largest fireworks spectacles across the country. Just like it doesn't stop us non-Irish charlatans from masquerading around behind a flashing-green Guinness necklace one day out of the year.

Fireworks are no different. We have people of all nationalities and from all 50 states come through the store. Many are baffled at the thought of a state having no restrictions on fireworks outside the city limits. Not only are we not required to wear shoes in the Volunteer State, ours is one of only 10 states that don't require permits to shoot fireworks. New Mexico, Texas and South Carolina mandated permits for bottle rockets but no other type of consumer firework.

Located conveniently at the 75-40 split, the Fireworks Supermarket is a stop for all travelers, truckers included, to stretch their legs and buy legal fireworks that will become illegal once they cross their state line.

I've witnessed grown men stumble from their 18-wheelers at 1 a.m. to buy sparklers and walk aimlessly back to their truck, waving them as they drive off into the night. Not to mention the recent exodus to Bonnaroo, which brought countless Bohemians as high as what we in the business refer to as a Phase XI bottle rocket. I can't even fathom what a bad trip a multi-colored ball of flame flying through the air must send them on.

I guess we need firework enthusiasts, though, because what would us fireworkmongers do without them? We'd have to sit out in the humid July heat, packed shoulder to shoulder with American flag-bandana clad drunks and actually watch the carnage in the sky unfold.

God bless America!

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