Early this week, the signs began popping up in my town. I noticed them first at the busiest intersections, but soon they spread to public buildings, the entrances to subdivisions, and even as a postcard in our mailboxes. This Independence Day my town is going to try something new.
The sale and use of fireworks is legal in the state of Missouri, but each town has its own ordinance regarding them. In fact, many municipalities ban them altogether, which doesn’t seem like such a bad idea when you consider that fireworks are responsible for an average 10,000 injuries in the US every July and cause somewhere in the neighborhood of $32 million in property damage.
But I guess danger is part of the attraction. At least one story about the not-entirely-clear origin of fireworks tells us that between 600 and 900 AD, Chinese alchemists, who were already adept at blowing stuff up, were trying to develop the elixir of life by heating various combinations of sulfurous mixtures and instead managed to scorch their hands and faces and burn down their laboratory. The alchemists made note of the combination that had caused such an incident, warning it should never ever be mixed again.
Then, because guys like to blow stuff up, they proceeded to experiment with it anyway until they figured out that if the dangerous mixture were placed in a tube, open on one end, they could produce pretty sparks that made them say “ooh” and “ah.”
Despite the best “don’t try this at home” warning the Chinese alchemists could muster, fireworks spread through the world and the centuries, getting fancier and fancier along the way, until Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame allegedly set off a display in 1608 and fireworks had officially arrived on the shores of North America.
That was all fine until the early 1700s when the citizens of Rhode Island took it too far. Evidently Rhode Islanders of the day found it hilarious to load up on explosives at the local fireworks tent and pull off all kinds of explosive shenanigans. The more well-mannered citizens of the colony were not amused and in 1731 officials issued the first ordinance in the would-be US banning the “mischievous use of pyrotechnics.”
I wasn’t in Rhode Island in 1731 so I don’t know how the ordinance was received or enforced, but I suspect there were those who went ahead and blew stuff up anyway, probably in the middle night when the well-mannered people were sound asleep, at least until their neurotic dogs snapped to attention and went bananas over the noise.
That’s what our new and improved city ordinance is supposed to address. Because ever since 1776 when John Adams said it should be, the 4th of July has always been a fireworks kind of a holiday in the US. And guys still like to blow stuff up. So what our town has decided is that even though it is illegal to use or even possess fireworks within the town limits, that restriction will be lifted for a few hours on the 4th.
At exactly 5 pm, guys who like to blow stuff up can cross the city line with their trucks filled from their runs a couple miles up the highway to the fireworks tent and scorch their own hands and faces to their hearts’ content.
Not being a guy who likes to blow stuff up, I admit I don’t really get the obsession, but I suppose the ordinance is fair. It gives folks the opportunity to celebrate, hopefully encourages them to practice caution as they should, and demonstrates respectful consideration of those who may have difficulty coping with stuff blowing up around them.
And after our window of allowable fireworks frivolity, law enforcement will be out in droves to lay the smack down on anyone mischievously using pyrotechnics. By then, my neurotic dog and I will be sound asleep.