Bombs Over Memphis 

The rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air ...

We were on the back deck, and from the sound of it, we were surrounded. We poured ourselves another glass of wine, resigned to our fate. Peabody Avenue surely couldn't hold on much longer. There was obviously a major incursion happening north of Union, and the dark skies to the east were lighting up every few seconds. The night was filled with whistling surface-to-air missiles, large-impact concussion strikes, and the rat-a-tat-tat of close-quarters combat. It was becoming obvious that our pathetic two-year-old stash of four Roman candles, 14 sparklers, and a package of ladyfingers was inadequate for the task before us.

Then we heard the distant, throaty rumble from the western front. The big guns down on the river were firing up, assisted by a brigade at AutoZone Park. Whooomp! Whooomp! Huzzah! The city was saved! Yes, the battle went long into the night, well into the morning of July 5th, but it was just clean-up action. Supplies were running low among the citizenry. We'd made it through another Memphis Fourth of July.

Seriously, is there any other city in America where people light more fireworks than Memphis? There is no doubt in my mind that millions(!) of dollars of explosives were detonated by private citizens in Memphis and Shelby County last weekend. In Midtown, the evening of July Fourth sounded like the 2003 assault on Baghdad. There's no little irony in the fact that there are probably more people breaking the law on our nation's Independence Day than any other day of the year.

Apparently, the thinking in these parts is that the only way to top a bad guy with a Chinese bottle rocket is a good guy with an Excalibur "Artillery Shell Peony." And indeed, there is some similarity here to our ever-lasting debate over firearms laws, in that the genie is out of the bottle. Shooting fireworks in the city is against the law, but they're really easy to get and fun to detonate, and the police have little to no chance of curtailing the activity. It's a very loud crime wave.

Everyone who's done it or been around it knows the drill: Light a fuse, run away, then watch the missile rise into the night and go boom. Everybody shouts, "Whoa!!!" and scurries out of the street for a few minutes until the coast is clear for another round. The teenagers a block over from me were setting them off every five minutes, like clockwork, Monday night. I couldn't see them, but I knew their methodology.

It would be interesting to track the consequences of our yearly orgy of illegal explosives — the mutilated fingers, the burned eyes, the concussed eardrums — not to mention the thousands of traumatized dogs (and the corollary of in-house dog pooping), and the many combat veterans suffering PTSD.

Not that it would stop anybody. When you can buy fireworks that rival those fired at the civic fireworks show at Mud Island, the temptation to escalate is too much to resist for some people. I don't like it much, but I get it.

When we were kids, we knew that if you could convince the itinerant fireworks-stand guy you were over 15 (not a difficult task), you could buy M-80s and cherry bombs, which had waterproof fuses. We'd pack them in mud, throw them in the Salt River, and watch them explode under water. It seems a long time ago, a more innocent time, but the principle was the same.

It just costs more to buy a thrill these days — and to celebrate America's independence, of course.

Bruce VanWyngarden

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