The Fourth! Let's blow stuff up!
By Dennis Domrzalski
(Editor's note: This is an excerpt from up forthcoming book, Disturbers' Row. The book is about growing up Catholic in the city of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s and dealing with crazy and abusive nuns. It's also about the freedom we had as kids to roam our blue-collar neighborhoods--no adults needed or wanted--and the freedom we had to just be kids. It's an era and attitude that is truly over. This is a typical Fourth for us. I hope you enjoy it--Dennis Domrzalski)
Besides the last day of school, the greatest, most magnificent and most looked-forward-to day of summer was the Fourth of July, a day when it seemed that every rule ever written could be broken without consequence, a day when kids and adults mingled and celebrated as equals, and a day when anyone who wanted to was free to experience the ultimate and absolute peak of human joy and existence: the thrill of blowing stuff up.
There was no more joyous, fun and free day than the Fourth. The anticipation started weeks, even months, in advance, and it started with the few kids in every neighborhood who knew how and where to get fireworks, and who actually got them. And not just wussy things like sparklers and punks and tiny firecrackers that made hardly any noise. No, they got real and dangerous explosives: cherry bombs, M-80s, silver salutes, aerial bombs, firecrackers that could actually destroy stuff, bottle rockets, Roman candles, and all kinds of other things that made huge and glorious amounts of noise and that they weren't supposed to have. And they got massive quantities of them that the other kids could buy: grosses of silver salutes and M-80s, countless bricks of firecrackers and boxes and bags of other stuff.
For the kids around Springfield and Harding it was Steve Domrzalski and Eddie Meister who had the connections to get real fireworks, and the other kids viewed their ability to procure explosives with awe. It was a mystery as to who their suppliers were, and that and the fact that they were buying stuff that was basically illegal added a sense of danger and excitement to the mystique and made their ability to get fireworks something special.
Every summer, though, it was a question of whether the guys would actually be able to get fireworks The people who sold them to the kids changed every year, so new suppliers had to be found. They always were found, and there was never any shortage of things to blow up or stuff to blow them up with.
The Fourth of the summer before was one of the greatest the kids had ever had in terms of fireworks. It had begun a few weeks before the big day when Steve and Meister stopped their bikes near the alley on Altgeld between Harding and Springfield to show off some of the goods they had already bought. Out of brown, paper shopping bags that hung on the handlebars of their twenty-inch, Stingray bikes they gently pulled out—as if they were incredibly precious and fragile items—a couple of bricks of crackers, and two white boxes, one with a gross of M-80s and the other with a gross of cherry bombs.
The other kids were nearly insane with excitement, wonder, awe and envy. A brick of crackers contained forty packs of fifty crackers, for a total of two thousand, and a gross of M-80s was a dozen dozen, or one hundred and twenty-four pieces. They had never before seen so many fireworks, especially the powerful M-80s and cherry bombs. And they nearly fainted when they listened as Steve and Meister said, almost in unison:
“We got a lot more stashed away. And we're gonna get a lot more before the Fourth.”
They were going to be able to blow up the entire city!
There was stuff that kids who didn't have suppliers, or the nerve to find any, could buy and stockpile. Boxes of rolls of red caps could be purchased or stolen from the dime store on Fullerton. So could blue-tip, strike-anywhere stick matches, and so could bags of cracker balls—small, round paper balls that exploded when thrown onto the ground—and so could things called snakes, which were black, charcoal-like pellets that burned and expanded into long, puffy strings of ash.
Kids also collected anything they thought could be blown up and destroyed: empty coffee cans; model planes, cars and ships they no longer wanted; stuffed animals; dolls; cardboard boxes; old books; rusty pails; old leather school bags; plastic pencil cases; worn-out shoes; telephone books; and, well, anything.
By the time the Fourth had come around, Steve and Meister had bought enough fireworks to sell all the kids they knew in the neighborhood whatever they wanted, and they sold it at a nice profit for themselves. On the morning of the Fourth the kids gobbled down their breakfasts, got the stashes of fireworks that they had carefully hidden—usually in the basement or attic—so their parents wouldn't find them, and walked and ran with their paper shopping bags full of explosives, matches and things to destroy to the alley by Altgeld. There were eight of them, including Steve and Meister and Dennis and Masciola, and although it was only nine in the morning, they were excited and ready to start blowing stuff up, making noise.
They talked and compared their bags of explosives to each other's and tried to claim the biggest supply for themselves, but that title always went to Steve and Meister, as it should have. Then they tried to make a plan, but that was useless because when roaming the alleys and streets on the Fourth of July with the intention of destroying things, there was no such thing as a plan, only opportunities that presented themselves at random. But they had to start somewhere, and Masciola got things going.
“Let's get Don't Make It The Noise's garbage cans, or maybe his doorbell or mail box,” Masciola proposed. Without even acknowledging the idea, the guys instantly turned and headed down the alley to Don't Make It The Noise's garage where his fifty-five-gallon-drum, city-supplied garbage cans were in the back yard by the alley fence. One of the guys lifted the metal lid off the can while another got out a silver salute and lit it with a stick match. When it seemed that the light had taken to the waxed green wick, the kid tossed the salute into the garbage can, the other kid plopped the metal lid back on and they all ran like hell. And then, KABOOM! The thing had gone off and had probably started a small fire in the garbage can and Don't Make It The Noise was sure to come out and threaten to call the cops on everyone.
The guys stopped in another alley and laughed like crazy knowing that they had made Don't Make It The Noise crazy. Steve got out a coffee can and a cherry bomb, put the can over the explosive in the middle of the alley and lit the wick. The kids ran and hid behind garbage cans and telephone poles and when the thing exploded it sent the can so forcefully straight up that it lodged in a telephone wire! That, thought the kids, was damn good destruction. They figured they had disrupted phone service in the entire neighborhood and were proud of their accomplishment.
Next they saw an old concrete garbage container, the kind of which had been built by the thousands in the early part of the twentieth century. They were about four feet tall, square with hinged metal lids on the tops that people lifted up and tossed trash into. They had hinged metal lids on the bottom of the front sides that faced the alley, and when the garbage men flipped those lids back they were able to shovel garbage out of the containers and into their garbage trucks. Those containers were sort of indestructible, except when smashed with a sledgehammer, but it was always fun to try to damage them. For the concrete garbage containers, nothing but an M-80 would do.
The M-80 was sacred to the kids; it was the most powerful firework they could get, was truly dangerous, and to have even a couple of them was a sign that you were somebody. No one knew exactly how much gun powder an M-80 contained, but kids, always eager to exaggerate and believe what bigger guys said, told each other that it was the equivalent of an eighth to a quarter-stick of dynamite. The things looked menacing. They were red cardboard tubes an inch-and-a half-long and about a half-inch in diameter with a green, waxed wick coming out the middle of the tube. The wick was an inch-and-a-half-long, and when the thing was lit there wasn't much time to get away.
The guys lifted up the lid to the garbage container, tossed in two M-80s and backed away slowly, knowing that they didn't have to run because the concrete walls of the garbage can would contain the blasts. When the M-80s exploded the metal lid on top of the container blew back violently and the kids figured that three M-80s jut might rip the lid off. So they tried, and the same thing happened. The lid blew back but wasn't ripped loose.
Next they went to the house of a guy who a couple of years earlier had refused to pay them after he had agreed to a deal for them to shovel snow from his sidewalks. They had gotten a truly sweet revenge that cold winter day, and they had gotten it in a big way by shoveling the snow back onto the cheapskate's sidewalks. In fact, they put a lot more snow onto the sidewalks than they had taken off. The guys were still angry at the cheat. So they put a cherry bomb in the mailbox that was screwed into the front wall of his house, ran down the front steps and down the sidewalks and figured that when the bomb exploded the mailbox had been ripped from the wall.
Every guy had a model car or plane he no longer wanted, and so they went to an alley, put some regular firecrackers in the cars, lit the fuses and ran for cover. The plastic models were blown apart and the kids marveled at the destruction and at how many tiny bits the models had been blown into.
A thick Chicago phone book was next—laid open on top of a cherry bomb. The spine was ruptured and the alley was littered with thousands of pieces of confetti from the blown-apart pages. Then came one of the simplest but most satisfying efforts at making noise. The guys got out rolls of caps—long, thin red rolls of paper with dots of gunpowder or some other explosive on them that were put into toy guns—laid them on the concrete and then pounded them with baseball bats they had brought along. The noise from a single roll of caps exploding at once was simply spectacular. When two or three rolls went off at once, or in rapid succession, it was incredible and the kids cheerfully claimed afterwards that the explosions had left them partially deaf.
Open apartment building and house windows, which were everywhere in hot, muggy July, presented the guys with targets for their bottle rockets. One guy would put a rocket in an empty glass soda bottle, aim it the best he could at an open window, usually across the street, another guy would light the wick and they'd both laugh as the rocket squiggled off toward its target. Almost none of the dozens of rockets they fired at windows ever made it in, but a few did, and when that happened the guys ran like hell, laughing all the time.
They walked to Koz Park where Steve reached into his shopping bag and pulled out their masterpiece: a homemade bomb that was as long as four M-80s and an inch in diameter. He, Dennis and Masciola had spent the previous night in their basement cutting open cherry bombs and silver salutes and emptying the explosive powder onto a work bench. When they had accumulated enough powder, they filled a long, thick and sturdy cardboard tube with it, packed it down and sealed the ends of the tube with wax. They then drilled a small hole in the top of the tube, inserted a long, waxed wick and sealed it with wax. The guys had no idea whether their homemade bomb would work, but they did consider the operation a major success because nothing had blown up while they were working on it.
Steve taped the monster explosive to the wooden backstop of the green chain-link batting cage at one of the baseball diamonds and lit the fuse. The guys ran as fast as they could, and then, good god! The loudest, most terrifying explosion they had ever heard knocked them to the ground. They were dizzy, their ears were ringing, their vision was blurred, their heads were spinning and the world looked yellow. They were at once excited and scared. They had basically made a stick of dynamite and blown it up in a city park! That, they figured, could get them into big trouble. As they wobbled slowly to their feet the guys saw kids and adults streaming out of the park house, and people coming out of their houses on the streets that bordered the park, apparently to see what had happened.
“I guess it worked,” Steve said softly to the others.
“Man, that was boss,” Masciola added. “We should make more of 'em.”
The guys were dying to see what damage their bomb had caused, but they didn't dare look right then because it seemed that half the neighborhood was out looking toward the park and trying to see what had happened. So the guys stumbled around the park a couple of times, trying to regain their balance and eyesight. When the commotion had died down and everyone was back inside, they headed to the batting cage. They had indeed made a real and powerful bomb! A big chunk of the wooden backstop was blown out and splintered, and several sections of the chain-link fence were twisted and bent and cut. They had caused real damage!
The guys worried that they would be blamed for the damage, but they calmed down after realizing that the evidence of their hard work—the bomb—was gone, exploded! No one could pin anything on them!
They headed to OLG and the church steps where they threw a few cherry bombs into the street close to the curb. One of the explosives rolled underneath a parked car. The guys didn't run because they figured the cherry bomb would blow up the car's gas tank, that they'd never be able to outrun such an explosion and that they were as good as dead. So they waited, hoping their deaths wouldn't be too painful. Then the cherry bomb exploded and nothing happened. The gas tank didn't explode and the car didn't catch fire. The guys were relieved, but they ran like hell.
Shoes, schoolbags, toys, plastic and metal pails, more coffee cans, cardboard boxes and anything else the guys could find were blown apart that morning and afternoon as they roamed the neighborhood. One of the craziest things occurred when they saw a kid from another block in his back yard. The kid had strict, fun-hating parents who kept him sheltered and isolated and who had ordered him to stay in his yard by himself that day, which was pure cruelty. But he too wanted to blow stuff up, and when the guys came to his alley gate the kid showed them a model car and asked if he could buy a cherry bomb or two from them. They tried to explain that a cherry bomb was too powerful to be wasted on a model car, but the kid persisted and the guys, feeling bad for him, gave him three cherry bombs for free.
They hung around the alley behind his garage for a while to see whether the kid would escape his prison for at least a few minutes and get into the ally and blow up his car. They were about to move on, figuring the kid had wimped out, when they heard an enormous blast and the sound of shattering glass coming from the kid's garage. Then they saw smoke coming out of the broken windows. The kid had blown up his model car with a cherry bomb inside his closed garage and had blown out the windows! The guys didn't stick around to see what had happened to the kid. If he died or was maimed, they didn't want to catch the blame.
They met up with kids from other blocks and had a couple of firecracker fights, throwing lit crackers at each other. They lit four or five packs of firecrackers at once and pretended they were being shot at by enemy machine gunners, lobbed cherry bombs and silver salutes into vacant lots as if throwing hand grenades into enemy foxholes and destroyed as much as they could and made as much noise as they could.
No one really cared about the noise because that's what was supposed to happen on the Fourth. Some adults complained, and those whose mailboxes were destroyed or whose windows got a bottle rocket, weren't happy, but most remembered what they had done on the Fourth when they were kids—and what they were going to do that evening with their own fireworks—and they approved of the mostly harmless destruction and the glorious racket.
How glorious that racket truly was. What began in the morning as scattered explosions as kids blew off their stuff built steadily throughout the afternoon and evening until by ten o'clock it was a nonstop, roar of booms and pops and explosions as tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of fireworks were going off in the city each moment. There were three-and-a-half-million people in Chicago and it seemed like every one of them was lighting fireworks at the same time. There were massive booms everywhere from heavy-duty boomers that were part of official city, church, neighborhood and company fireworks shows. They came from thousands of aerial bombs that shot rockets into the sky that exploded into giant and beautiful starbursts. Those big boomers were exploding and creating dozens of red, white and blue starbursts every few minutes. It was like the sky was on fire and an entire city of three-and-a half-million people was being bombarded all at once.
After it got dark was when most of the real booming and bombing and fireworks began. There was nothing like the sensation and the primal thrill of illuminating and piercing the darkness with massive explosions. The darkness conveyed a sense of security in that it basically concealed one's identity so that if something did go wrong, well, no one could see who was responsible. Around eight, just as it was getting dark, the guys walked back to Koz Park to experience one of the neighborhood's great Fourth of July traditions: the burning of a small mountain of car tires. No one knew when the tradition began, but it had begun and it was the thing to witness and to be part of.
All year long a group of older guys collected and stored old car tires, and at dusk they began rolling them out of their garages and basements to the middle of Koz's four baseball fields where they piled them up. The amount of tires differed every year, but if they had twenty or thirty tires it was a big deal. From about seven-thirty onward the park started to fill up with people who came to watch and celebrate the big and to speculate on how big it would actually be.
After dark, the tires were torched, and within minutes they were fully engulfed and a column of thick, black, oily, smelly smoke was rising from the pile and stinking up the surrounding neighborhood. The fires lasted twenty minutes at the most because someone always called the fire department to come and put them out. When a fire truck arrived and began driving onto the field toward the blazing tires, a chorus of “Boos” arose from the spectators, most of whom wanted the fire to go on all night. In just a few minutes, a year's worth of work was extinguished under a high-pressure stream of water and the darkness closed in around the pile of smoldering rubber. Sometimes attempts were made to relight the tires after the firemen had left, but that was considered a dumb thing to do because if the fire guys had to come out a second time, they would be sure to notify the cops and demand some official harassment of the perpetrators.
With the bonfire extinguished, the guys made their way to another of the neighborhood's great traditions: the fireworks extravaganza, party, celebration—whatever one wanted to call it—at the Malcheks' house on Lawndale. It was there that the four Malchek brothers and their dad, along with a couple of neighboring families, threw the biggest residential fireworks parties anyone had ever seen.
The fun began after dark when the Malcheks and their neighbors planted red railroad flares in their front lawns and lit them, their roaring tips of fire and orange glows acting as welcoming beacons for any and all who wanted to join in the fun. For about a quarter of a block the street-side curb in front of the Malcheks' and their neighbors' homes had been cleared of cars to make an area where any type of firework, bomb, rocket or other pyrotechnic could be blown up, launched or set on fire.
A constant stream of adults and kids flowed to and from the curb to the Malcheks' and the other wooden front porches as everyone took turns lighting things. There were Roman candles, rockets, aerial bombs, M-80s, cherry bombs, firecrackers, things that shot five feet into the air and twirled around, snakes, cracker balls and pretty much anything and everything that exploded and made noise.
The biggest thing was to see how much noise could be made at once, and so things were sort of synchronized with people at the curb lighting off pack after pack of firecrackers at once or in rapid succession. A dozen packs of crackers going off at once was astounding. Once, about ten kids and adults lined up and lit M-80s, and the subsequent Boom! Boom! … Boom! … Boom!Boom! … Bu!Bu!Bu!Bu!Boom! was magnificent and surely could have woken the dead. After a half hour of massive and continuous explosions, a fog-like cloud of gunpowder smoke shrouded Lawndale, the sharp, acrid odor stinging people's eyes, noses and throats. No one complained. That was the price of pure fun and joy.
The Malcheks' party was like thousands just like it that went on throughout the city. After a few hours and hundreds of thousands of fireworks going off, the city itself was engulfed in a giant cloud of smoke.
The Malcheks' affair, as did the parties across the city, began to taper off at around eleven o'clock, and Dennis and Steve and the other guys headed home after nearly fifteen hours of adventure, excitement and fun. They were tired, but not weary or exhausted; they were too excited to be exhausted. And when they climbed into their beds and pulled the covers over themselves, they drifted off to sleep to the sounds of tens of thousands of fireworks going off every moment.