For a few years, my dad ran a fireworks stand. This was North Dakota in the '60s, so you can imagine we had the good stuff. Not fizzly hissy bottle rockets, but serious rockets that would drag a cow half a mile if you tied it to its tail.

The stand was at Dad's gas station, which seemed to be not just tempting the fates but mooning them. I always wondered if Mom expected to hear a thump — followed by the china clinking in the cabinet, then silence, then sirens, then a phone call.

When we blew up stuff, we took care. If you put a firecracker in your cousin's pocket, you used nothing larger than a ladyfinger. If you had a bottle-rocket duel, you stood at least 10 yards apart. If the rocket was the size of something Wernher von Braun would invent, you did the countdown in German. We all survived.

I don't advise repeating the experience, and it's a good thing children no longer have access to things with fuses that usually are reserved for dislodging a tree stump. I have my memories, but even better, I have my fingers.

As the years have passed, the urge to blow up things has declined. "There are pills for that," you say, and you're probably right; I could find a medical professional, and unburden myself: "Doc, maybe it's just a function of age, but I don't have the urge to spent $17 on a cylinder that barfs a rainbow anymore. The thrill of watching an illicit rocket streak into the sky and land on a neighbor's roof is gone. The visceral frisson you get when you light the fuse and know you've got to get away — I can't say as though I really care. What do you think?"

"First of all, I'm an optometrist. Second, I don't think you can feel a frisson in your viscera. It's more of a topical sensation. Now. Can you read the bottom line?"

Yes, I can, and the bottom line is this: I'm in the fourth stage of a fellow's Fireworks Phase. There are four eras of fireworks in your life, and they mirror your passage through time. They cannot be run out of sequence, as you'll see.

Phase one: Early childhood. Oh, you might think it's the most magical time. Great flowers bloom in the night sky, and the world is filled with wonder. Maybe. What it usually means is your parents suddenly become confusingly odd people with a contradictory message.

Before the 4th: Fire is dangerous! Don't touch! Stay away! Don't play with it! You'll burn the house down! On the 4th: Here is a metal stick coated with poisonous magnesium; you hold it while I light it, and then it will throw sparks everywhere. There. No! Hold it at arm's length. Don't look directly into it. Have fun. Venerate the founders.

There's also those little black disks you light, and dark foamy snakes crawl out, because apparently George Washington was a Satanist, or something.

Phase two: Childhood experimentation. You could buy a brick of Black Cats and unroll each firecracker until you had a nice pile of raw gunpowder. What next? Why, tape a green plastic Army Man to the lid of a baby-food jar, duh, and send him into the stratosphere, preferably while humming "The Green Beret" song.

Phase three: Dad, the showman. The kids of friends and families assemble in the backyard for your show, which consists of boring legal stuff you bought en masse at Target in a shrink-wrapped box, and it's nothing but fountains. If there's any phrase that sums up a disappointing fireworks show, it's "nothing but fountains." You should live your life so you don't think, on your deathbed: eh, nothing but fountains.

That being said, this was the best, to be honest. Every year, the kids would chant "Chicken Laying Eggs!" and I'd bring out a box of cardboard chickens that expelled flaming pellets from their hindquarters. To this day, when those kids are at an Indian restaurant and the waiter asks if they want it mild, medium, or spicy, they say "Chicken Laying Eggs."

Phase four: Passive consumption. The kids are grown, and there's no one to impress with your backwards-scampering skill after you've lit the fuse. You realize you have reached an inevitable state in life: You will cede the thrill of danger in exchange for someone else assuming legal liability.

Why not? The pro shows are the best. You are content to look, to ooh, to ahh, to marvel at the art of painting the sky. It's another 4th, and it's a beautiful summer in our marvelous state, and we're all united in our appreciation of the holiday, and you've only one simple thought in your grateful heart.

How long is this going to go on?

But that's immediately supplanted by wonder and awe, as you hear the roar of the crowd and the celestial detonations that remind you of all the 4ths you've ever known. And then another thought, another simple truth, floods your marveling mind.

Traffic getting out of here is going to be murder.