Lileks: Once again: Life, liberty and the case for fireworks

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 3, 2014 - 8:37 PM

How does one write a useless column that changes no minds about a subject that’s quite relevant but matters little? Well, pardon a bit of self-congratulation, but I think I’m something of an expert on the subject, having done it every first week of July for a decade. Here then is the most generic column on legalizing Wisconsin-style fireworks — aka “the Fun Stuff” — you’ll ever read. Print it out and read it next year; it’ll save me some time.

So. I have an opinion about the banning of big-boom rocket-type fireworks that go up in the air and explode. Or fall over sideways and shoot into the garage and explode right by the gas tank of the lawn mower. If you agree with me, what follows is a well-reasoned breath of fresh air; if you disagree, it is appalling nonsense, particularly in light of (insert vaguely relevant recent news story here).

Here is where I state my opinion about fireworks. There are many colorful turns of phrase that use the words “boom” and “shower,” and an indisputable assertion about the beauty of aerial explosives. These are obvious sentiments with which few find disagreement, but I am setting you up to accept my assertions.

Now here is where I acknowledge the opposing side and characterize it rather fairly — but the other side detects a note of sarcasm that makes them defensive and realize that the fairness was just a trick to shield the writer from criticism. Unfortunately, here is a cheap shot, because I’m feeling frisky and think you’re all on my side, for some reason.

Here is where Wisconsin is brought into the issue, and we discuss the wide array of explosives sold freely to people who are wearing U caps and drive back across the border checking the rearview mirror every 10 seconds. Lost tax revenue is discussed right about … hold on … right here. The subject is meaningless for one side, and something the other side doesn’t really care about, but if the point isn’t brought up, someone will write a letter to the editor, and the columnist will read it over breakfast and sigh unhappily.

Having laid out the arguments, it’s time to muddy it up with emotion: waxing nostalgic about youthful experiences. Comical exaggerations are made about the lack of supervision in those days, contrasted with modern, protective sensibilities that stifle the joy and drama of summertime childhood. The wearisome phrase “and we turned out OK” is used. Here is an example:

When I was a kid my dad ran a fireworks stand at the gas station, which in retrospect is like selling explosives at a petrochemical depot — no, that’s exactly what it was. But nothing ever happened because people knew they shouldn’t light off fireworks at a gas station. Well, everyone but me. I threw a cherry bomb in a flooded culvert, and an alarming quantity of frogs floated to the top. After a while they started to move again, which was a relief, because a boy can live with the idea that he gave two dozen frogs a headache, but it’s hard to live with the idea of mass amphibicide.

I also unrolled dozens of Black Cats and heaped the powder on a stone. I’d place a baby-food jar lid on top with a fuse, light it and run away with the certain, immediate conviction I was not only jeopardizing my health but the success of the current Apollo spacecraft mission. Pieces of the lid were later found embedded in phone poles six blocks away.

From these two anecdotes, a conclusion is drawn: Previous laws permitted idiocy, but survivable idiocy, and since this is not being typed with a stick held in my mouth, obviously we turned out OK!

Here the columnist wonders if the column has any point whatsoever. Why not just celebrate what the Fourth is about? It’s a day of celebrating America; a barbecue with friends; a neighborhood parade of bikes and trikes festooned with patriotic bunting; an argument with friends on the meaning of bunting; looking up “bunting” on your smartphone; getting a definition about the baseball term; realizing the conversation has moved on; apple pie; fireworks, going to bed with the contented thought that the summer still stretches ahead.

At this point the column switches to the spectacular nature of community fireworks, run by licensed professionals; some assert fireworks are best left to pros, and others note that citizens were once trusted to be responsible and did not require government sanction. Heck, we didn’t have to wear bike helmets when we were kids, and we turned out OK, except for Hank, who’s still cross-eyed and drools a lot.

Now that we are coming to the concluding portion of the column, an attempt is made to unite both viewpoints with an amusing account of the names of Wisconsin-legal fireworks, with their garish art ­— “The Mother-In-Law,” “Gold Eagle Bomb Liberty,” “77 Trombones,” “Liver Puncher.”

The columnist hopes that ending with a discussion of aesthetics makes everyone forget previous disagreements and end on a note of harmony, as the place of fireworks in our culture is acknowledged.

Wearily, the columnist ponders a last line that provides a “zing” to indicate the column ends with the written equivalent of a snapped wet towel. But the columnist realizes he has written the same fireworks column every year for the entirety of his tenure and nothing has changed whatsoever.

The columnist realizes the futility of addressing the matter anymore, and considers ripping it up and starting on something new. So: This is a column about allowing liquor stores to be open on Sunday, and grocery stores to sell wine and beer. It begins with a —

Oh, never mind. Happy Fourth!

(Note: This is a reprint from 1997.)

jlileks@startribune.com 612-673-7858

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