I remember when the Fourth meant something. I remember a time in my youth where we travelled long hours to distant lands like West Virginia and Ohio to buy fireworks. This was a time after the guy at the little convenience store in Dunbar Twp. stopped selling “The Good Stuff”. You remember the place? It was right across the street from the Willow Inn. You used to walk in and see the smoke bombs and snaps and sparklers and a few tanks and boats. If you were lucky, they might even have Jumping Jacks. On a good day you would say, “Hey, Fred. Got any of the good stuff?” Fred would smile and disappear behind a curtain and you were walking home with illegal fireworks. That was when the Fourth meant something, when you could get bootleg fireworks from a guy in a gas station off of the main road.
I remember another guy, named Pete. He was a friend of a friend. He was the one guy who was 18 years old and just starting his senior year, again. He was the one who could “get stuff”. He had a tape to tape VCR set up and could get you porn, alcohol, and illegal fireworks; fireworks better than Fred could get.
I met Pete through a friend, as I said. It was right around the time we stopped being able to get the “good stuff” from Fred. This was also right around the time they took the video poker machines out of Fred’s. Which is also right around the time when Fred “went away” for awhile.
With Fred gone, we had mentioned the lack of quality fireworks being made available and my one friend said, “Hey, I know a guy. For $20 he can get you a quarter stick.” I was intrigued. I was also 15 and didn’t know any better. Still, this Pete was an unknown person. He’s probably shady. I was probably dealing with an element of organized crime and didn’t know it. This could be exciting. A man that could get me fireworks. He probably knows a lot of guys with nicknames like “Fingers” and “Boom Boom” He could be a cousin of Al Capone, thrice removed on his mother’s side.
We went to Pete’s house in his Custom Cruiser Deluxe station wagon, $20 in hand. This car was hardly a ghetto hoop dee. We called it the White Beast For Leprosy as it was losing paint everywhere. I didn't care though, I was going to a deal. I felt like I had to hide the twenty somewhere in case we ran into the law. There was probably an undercover vice squad member watching Pete’s house from across the suburban street of the South Side of Connellsville. That was a shady area. It was home to the famous hacker, Billy Driscoll. He took down the Pentagon with a dial up modem and a Commodore 64. At least, that’s what we were all told as kids. He was like Matthew Broderick.
Pete’s house was typical. I think it used to be a dentist’s office when I was really young. It looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place it. He gave me quarter stick and it looked awesome. It was about the length of a toilet paper tube but made with a thicker cardboard, like a form. Both ends were sealed with paraffin and a huge wick stuck out of one. It’s bright red colored indicated doom as great plans were made. My friend Jim and I were going to have to plan the ultimate launch party. This was serious stuff. I wondered if black helicopters would descend upon us when the mushroom cloud dissipated.
We totally missed the Fourth of July that summer due to some unforeseen circumstances involving us taking our other friend’s VW Beetle nearly into the Loyalhanna River. This was the third incident that nearly killed the bug. The other being the great Summer/Winter Olympic run and the Lockout in East Pittsburgh. We made plans to reschedule the launch for another time. During those months we learned more about this guy Pete.
First off, he wasn’t that shady. I mean, to us out in the suprural area of Dunbar Township he was probably pretty nefarious; a world class gangster among us rubes. But, when you put him in a room with real hoods he looks like a pathetic dolt. One of the guys, who was five foot nothing and a hundred and nothing, was able to disarm and decimate another guy, twice his size, who came at him with a crow bar. Another made it an art to wear baggy clothes into a National Record Mart, in July, and get the five finger discount on Ice-T’s “Body Count” album. These were bad dudes.
The evidence mounted. We went out to a club in Latrobe with them and Pete, dressed in late 70s loud pinstriped pants and huge collar shirt, looked like he was Alexander Cabot III from the Josie and the Pussycats cartoon. Seeing how he interacted with others kind of put him in his place as the not-so-important, lesser, wannabe hood among the real hoods of South Greensburg. A few of them, “went away” or “went camping in Colorado” as they called it.
I soon began to wonder if my $20 quarter stick was really going to work. This guy wasn’t the notorious character he first appeared to be. He was actually kind of a dork. I mean I was a nerd but by the time I hit high school I kind of straddled that line between the nerds and the other kids. I could live in both worlds and adapt as needed. This guy was way out of his element among the others. So, it begged the question, “Did he sell me a fake?” Was this like that another hilarious fake deal I witnessed where one of the kids in my class sold an upperclassman a bag of grass clippings and claimed it was “good shit”?
Another year passed and we still had not carried out “Operation: Blow Shit Up”. The timing was never right. We didn’t want to end up in the ER with missing fingers but wanted to have the perfect location with the right environment. We could set it off at the beach but there was a possibility of too many witnesses, police presence, and lack of escape routes. We could set it off at the old ash dumps near my house, but it didn’t have a great location with maximum destructive properties. The only thing that would get destroyed was the ash and cinders. Who cares about that? It’s like a pyromaniac setting a waste basket on fire. Oooh, some paper got burned. No, the pyromaniac sets a fireworks factory on fire. That’s what it wants to see go up.
Eventually, I graduated high school and lived in a dorm on the Pitt campus. I didn’t dare bring the quarter stick to school. So, it sat in a box at the back of my bedroom closet. After college, I got my own place and was tasked with cleaning out my old bedroom. I thought about that closet, “I wonder if that old quarter stick is still in there?” I looked and looked and never found it. I even asked my mom if she ever saw it in there and threw it away. She said she didn’t. Then again, my mom probably wouldn’t know what a quarter stick looked like or what it could do. If she had, she would have thrown it out years ago. This is reminiscent of The Ballad of the Bud Under the Bed.
22 years have passed since I bought that $20 quarter stick that may or may not have possibly exploded when lit. To this day, as I set off crappy fireworks that are either PA legal or simply fountains from a road side stand on 158 in North Carolina I think about what that explosion would have been like. I’d like to think it would have looked like that scene in Bridge on the River Kwai or Force 10 From Navarone. I’d like to think that there would have been a hole in the world after that puppy blew up. Someday. Someday I may find that quarter stick and see the magic of a $20 piece of cardboard with a wick, paraffin enclosed ends and shaved pencil lead inside.
For more hilarious Fourth of July fun, check out Pittsburgh Dad. Those of us born in the 70s and in Southwestern PA will appreciate this.