The View From 1776

The 4th of July When We Were Still E Pluribus Unum

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Bob Stapler recaptures the joyous celebrations of our national holiday, before Vietnam and the cultural civil war that divides the nation today.


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4th of July without Fireworks - A Remembrance

By Robert W. Stapler

When I was a kid, the 4th of July meant parades with floats, veterans marching, flags flying, and speeches by town notables.  But more than anything it was about fireworks. Not just the big display over by the lake, but also every kid in town with a pocketful of firecrackers, cherry bombs, M2’s, stick rockets, snakes, and every other noisome pyrotechnic we could lay our hands on or make.  It was the freedom to get a little wild and dangerous.

We’d have firecracker battles in which all the kids in the neighborhood would choose sides and lob a mix of crackers and mud in every direction.  Of course, we’d be just far enough apart the ‘bombs’ would fall short, but the exhilaration of imagined battle was alive in us.  The big kids were our generals and we’d jump to orders as well as any seasoned veteran.  Someone would, invariably, ‘borrow’ a flag from a yard, and we’d rally to it.  We’d play half the day like this in a running battle that would start at one end of town and range through schoolyard, playground, ball-field, woods, grocery, movie-theater, creek-beds, bridges, swimming-pool, gas-station, church-yards, and trash-dump.  The heat of July was pale compared to the heat within us, so that we were impervious to the rivers of sweat streaming down dirt streaked faces.  We were expert in guerrilla tactics we imagined the stock warfare of minutemen and Continentals.  We’d find large sticks to aim like muskets, augmented with screams of “pow, pow” and “aghhh, ya got me!”  We’d fall down in make believe deaths so exaggerated women came running to see if we were really hurt; only to be startled when we jumped up and ran away screeching with hilarity.  Old men, veterans of ancient wars, would cheer us on encouraging us to be brave.

I was the maker of anything pyrotechnic.  For my eighth birthday, my parents gave me a used chemistry set.  I set up my ‘laboratory’ in the basement and soon exhausted the ‘tame’ experiments packaged with the kit, but wanting much more.  I wanted to do chemical magic that would be eye popping fun.  I learned to mix clear chemicals that would change colors, erupt from beakers, create vast clouds of noxious vapors, or boil away to nothing.  I learned which chemicals when added to sawdust or cellulose burned red, green, yellow, blue-white, or purple.  And I learned how to make things that went boom!  I couldn’t get enough of explosives and propellants.  By the time I was ten, I knew how to make magnesium flares, fulminate of mercury, gunpowder, hydrogen gas, and nitroglycerin. 

When I was nine, I became interested in rocketry.  President Kennedy had just announced his program to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and I wanted to be a part of it.  So, I read all I could about Goddard, Von Braun and Chuck Yeager.  I sent $6.50 plus handling to Estes and got my first rocket with three cartridge engines.  I carefully sanded, assembled, and glued the pieces together, painted it cherry red, tested the parachute deployment, borrowed a car battery, found a suitable site, and was ready for my first launch.  I was not disappointed.  My rocket flashed into the sky faster than eye could follow, and I had to strain to see it against a bright autumn sky that swallowed it whole.  For a moment I thought it must have gone so far it would never return.  Then I saw the secondary charge puff and the little parachute popped out; but it was tangled in shrouds and, instead of floating gracefully back to earth, it tumbled onto hard packed dirt.  Two fins were broken, the fuselage dented and the paint badly marred, but I didn’t care.  It had flown straight, fast, and furious.  It had strained to break free of the bonds of gravity, even to the point of risking injury.

I built dozens of other rockets, each bigger and more complex than the previous.  Some were multistage affairs to get greater altitude; just as our country’s multistage rockets were used to put satellites and, finally, men into space.  I took to putting little passengers in my rockets: crickets, spiders, tree frogs, mice, &c.  Some of them did not survive the trip, but that just made them heroes who I, and my cadre of friends, would bury with honors.  I also started adding telemetry to record temperature, pressure and ionization (a photo cell).  Of course, at the altitudes I reached, these varied not at all from ground readings.  Still, I could congratulate myself for being a thorough going junior scientist.  I even got one of those rocket cameras that allowed me to take birds-eye pictures of my neighbors from unsuspected height.

It wasn’t long before the novelty of assembling someone else’s rocket paled.  I wanted to build my own rockets and learn how to design the things; make them entirely from scratch.  Most of it was pretty obvious.  But what about the propellants used in the little cartridges?  What was in them?  How much was needed of each ingredient?  Do you just stuff it all in and light a fuse?  Of course, the first thing I did was to try to disassemble one to see what was inside.  I got a utility knife and dissected it down the middle.  It took awhile to get through the casing, but I was rewarded with my first look inside the mystery of solid propellant rocket engines.  The outer casing was a thick, stiff cardboard, denser than most wood.  I did not know it then, but it was made with resin and fire retardant to contain the fierce heat and pressure of the burning fuel.  Inside the casing was a cement-like material that is the actual propellant.  There were three parts to it I latter learned were propellant, delay, and ejection charge for the parachute or to ignite the next stage.  The propellant had a funnel shape at the bottom and a hole up the center to provide the fastest, most efficient burn.  I didn’t know all this looking at the thing and had to find books on the subject. 

My local library didn’t have anything and I was pretty frustrated.  Then, one day, my dad took us to the university where he’d just gotten a job as a steamfitter.  It was summer and my parents thought it a good idea for getting us out of the house.  While he was busy and my brothers were checking out the dairy and athletic facilities, I wandered off to the engineering library where I found what I was looking for and much more beside.  I thought I’d found heaven.  It was after dark before my dad found where I’d vanished to.  I was scolded for having disappeared, but he let me tag along again as long as he knew where I was.  I was soon mixing compounds and trying out other types of rockets.  I built magnesium-sulfur rockets, gunpowder rockets, and nitrate rockets. I had to learn to pack, shape and core my propellants.  I learned to make and use treated wadding; both to retard and to accelerate my burns.  I had a lot of miscarriages, but also some spectacular successes. Later, I built a few liquid fuel rockets, but never got quite the same results.  I tried pressurized alcohol, but, although it made a blinding flame, it had no real thrust and merely burned to death on the launch pad.  From the university, where I’d made some friends, I got damaged parts of real liquid engines to study.  Fortunately, the fuels and oxidants needed turned out to be expensive or restricted.  Besides, had I succeeded in making a real liquid rocket my parents would have had a fit.  Interestingly, my dad showed me a simple liquid rocket I’d never have guessed at.  He took an empty CO2 cartridge, filled it with R-22 refrigerant, stuck the cartridge in a length of pipe (launch tube), and then uncorked it.  It flew as fast and high as one of my solid rockets.  And, so simple!

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On a bright 4th of July in 1963, I came to the annual battle of the revolution armed with an assortment of homemade grenades and rockets.  It took a wagon and two extra kids to carry them all.  Besides this arsenal, the other kids had their usual collection of purchased armament.  It promised to be our grandest battle yet.  We staged the battle at the town athletic field where we’d be well away from property and fussy adults.  The field was wide and flat with sloping areas going up on three sides and down on the fourth.  A drainage creek bordered one side of the field with a wood on the slope.  Another slope was a grassy knoll that served as our primary area to launch the rockets.  The two opposing armies formed up on the far side of the field at right angles to me, where they could occasionally infiltrate commandos into the woods for a ‘sneak’ attack on the flanks.  Bombs were made by scooping mud from the creek, mixing with straw from the high sunburned grass, allowing it to dry to a half mud cake, and sticking an M2 or cherry into it.  These would explode showering mud on all of us.  We learned to roll them more than toss them to keep them from coming apart too soon.  I made my grenades to be all flash and smoke, but otherwise fairly harmless.  That is to say they had no more ‘bang’ to them than, say, a cherry bomb.  This was largely a matter of not packing them too tight.  They were no good for sticking in mud, but had a different use.  They were about the thickness of a cigar, wrapped with treated grocery bag paper, surrounding a mix of wadding, charcoal, phosphor, sulfur, a pinch of magnesium, wick, and wound together like a blanket roll.  They were hollow at the center for even burning, and burned for over a minute after half exploding to make clouds of dense, smelly smoke.  I handed out equal numbers to each side.  The rockets were made to burst above our heads, whistle with ear satisfying screams and pops, and provided a greater sense of battle.  With my wagon I cruised the edge of the battlefield launching random rockets.  It was tacitly understood I was there to provide stage effects and not be molested as one of the combatants; at least until the rockets were exhausted after which I was fair game.  I was the wizard of the magic, and, for the moment, the hero of the revolution. 

Later that year, two days after my 13th birthday, Jack Kennedy was shot dead.  With him, my exuberance for rocketry died, or maybe I was just leaving childhood behind.  It’s hard to say from this long remove.  But, things were definitely changing; both in my world and in the larger one outside our town.  Before that moment, all things had seemed possible.  Afterward, caution and pessimism took hold and it would be years before I, again, felt that enthused about a sitting president (i.e., Reagan).  We moved that year, so I don’t know if our town tradition continued or died out with all the rest. 

The firecrackers, rockets, and the rest are outlawed now.  Only six states still allow unlicensed possession of anything more dangerous than a sparkler, and, even those that do, limit fountains to 20 grams and aerial rockets to mere squibs.  Roman candles, M2’s, and cherry bombs are non-existent.  Any kid over the age of seven will tell you he’s not the least interested in sparklers.  Where’s the fun in that?  Where’s the freedom?  I know we must protect property and keep children safe, but I sometimes think we go too far.  No doubt I was lucky I never harmed myself or others, but, then, safety never held half the attraction of risk.  If I were a kid now, there is no way my parents would indulge the things I did.  My creativity, imagination and spunk would be stifled.  Playing at war is frowned on so that heroes are found only in the common-place rather than the extraordinary, and so our kids have little practice in what it means to be heroic.  The kids of summer are gone, they are trapped in air-conditioned cocoons designed to insulate from discomfort and risk alike.  The younger ones we park in front of televisions wired with all sorts of captivating entertainments that teach them to be adept without ever taking risks.  The older ones hang out in conditioned malls where the only option for rebellion is to be obnoxious; ignorant of the unfettered mischief we enjoyed.  Summer itself is banished, only allowing a minimum exposure to its caustic rays for aesthetic preference.  When I ask other adults about this, invariably it was okay for us but not now.  I can’t imagine a childhood without the freedom to get a little crazy or hazard a little invention.  And, I can’t imagine a 4th of July without sweaty, hazard exposed children running joyously amuck.

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The Freedom Battle

Day breaks in searching beams
turns dank to haze on glistened glade
burnished orb rising banishes night
creatures startle, and shadows fade

Small boys stealing from over-warm beds
ripe with adventure of glory’s capture
brave feats enact from recounted tales
of genius, honor, sacrifice and rapture

Emerging in ones and twos, forming clusters,
clusters become ranks, and ranks formations
generals and sergeants reflexively elected,
the flower of each determined nation

Taking up arms, wherever found,
barking sticks about the ground,
cap-pistol, air-rifle, and water-guns enjoined
to hot-fused devices of arresting sound

What ingenuity spawned, what magic learned
transforms mud, grass and popper to exploding grenade,
child’s wagon to war-wagon, bicycle to mount,
and rope wound spade to cannonade

A banner found (or more likely stolen)
Brave lads! Rally ‘round Old Glory!
Regiments converge on this, their pennon
hearts race the faster to her wind whipped fury

Marching madly about the field,
seeking advantage, their foe to yield,
taking measure of each other’s guarded mettle,
and oft bellowed score yet to settle

Salvos exchange and hearty bluster
banners rise and riotous boys muster
headlong they hurl into the fray
making their names this famous day

Muskets level and vocally discharged
Ranks fall, yet ... made new arise,
persuasions of death, all but disguise
scorning eternity, this deathless race

Mortar to targets fly and burst
scattering formations in disruptive glee
spattering retreat with muddied ‘gore’
that riddled boys in mock horror flee

Rocket’s high boom, above the brawl
warriors wince and note the blast
parsing victory in graphic scrawl
refusing ground, by burst made fast

Ebb and flows the battle rage
bright, scorched hours, the lighter made
flagging boys rally from reserves of power
but, at last, admit their war’s nigh over

Handshakes and backslaps, twixt erstwhile foes
resurrecting friendships that none’s master perceive
Yet, each believing, it was they this fine day
assuredly the greater honors achieved

And, as the sultry orb retreats to darkness,
boys on meadow all fallen down
recount the day’s wonder amidst rocket’s splendor
painting heaven with their July 4th renown.

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Bob Stapler is a mechanical engineer living in Columbia, Maryland


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