Collecting Dud Fireworks to Make M-80s

by

12/30/2023

Neighborhood: Brighton Beach

Fireworks meant many different things to me as a kid.

They were what you saw on TV when Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops performed the “1812 Overture.” Fireworks showed up over Popeye’s head if he kissed Olive Oyl or if Bluto punched him in the face. On special occasions, fireworks would be in the night sky when my dad and I walked down the boardwalk from Brighton Beach to Coney Island on a Saturday night during the summer.

But of more importance for me were the fireworks neighborhood kids would set off during the early summer months of June and July.

Basic fireworks, bottle rockets, Roman candles, M-80 block busters… In the 1970s, they would go off endlessly from June to July. Where everyone got their small arsenal was always a mystery, since fireworks were (and still are) illegal in New York City. Through the neighborhood kid grapevine we heard rumors of being able to buy fireworks in Chinatown or Little Italy. Someone said there was a place in Sunset Park where somebody’s friend of somebody had a stash of fireworks they were selling. Others had heard that if you drove to Pennsylvania there were places you could buy fireworks legally and just drive them back to NYC. But for a basic neighborhood kid with limited resources, all those options were off the table. You either scored a small pack of fireworks from an older kid in the neighborhood who felt like selling to you or all you could ever hope to set on fire were sparklers, smoke bombs or those paper “snap and pops” you tossed on the ground to make them snap and maybe pop.

But if you’re poor you are oftentimes resourceful as well. And my pal Howie was resourceful, creative and cool.

Somehow Howie was one of the only kids my age who could get packs of plain fireworks without hassle. Sometimes he’d have snakes and smoke bombs, but you could score those easily at any newsstand. But plain old fireworks were more fun and versatile, and Howie had those too and was happy to share them.

Thanks to his fireworks we’d blow up all kinds of stuff on the dirt service road in front of our apartment buildings: Bottles, plants, cans, twigs, old toys, new toys… You name it! We blew it up as best as we could.

Sometimes we’d be more daring and toss lit fireworks at each other. Or maybe light up one or two fireworks in the laces of someone’s sneakers. One day Howie dared me to get some fireworks shoved between the laces of my beat-up Keds, I didn’t hesitate to say “Yes!”

Howie shoved the fireworks in, struck up a match, lit the fuse, took a few steps back and covered his ears. I was excited — and so nervous — that I just stuck my leg out a bit. But I forgot to cover my own ears. After the fireworks shoved in my sneaker blew up — and the small puffs of smoke rose from my sneaker — I felt like I was a part of a new cool crew of elementary school kids. The whole thing left me proud, and my ears ringing for the rest of the afternoon.

After my sneaker adventure, we blew up the last few fireworks we had and then started hunting for duds; fireworks that burned their fuse but had failed to blow up. If you ripped the duds open, gun powder would pour out and you could light it up with a match to just watch the gun powder flare up and burn. But this time Howie wanted to collect the duds and keep them. “Why?” I asked and Howie replied, “Collect enough of them and I’ll show you!”

So that’s what we all did: collected duds and gave them to Howie. After a while he had a huge handful, but that’s when his mom showed up in front of his building and shouted for him to come home for dinner. He shrugged at us and shoved the duds in his pocket. We asked, “When are we going to see what you’re gonna’ do with them?” He shrugged once more and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll show you!” And with that he went home, while the rest of us meandered around a bit before heading home ourselves.

Flash forward, maybe a week or so later, we’re all hanging out on that same dirt service road again blowing up random stuff. Heck, we even ran out of matches at one point to which I proudly stated, “I’ll get some!” I ran home and flew into our apartment’s kitchen and told my dad that I needed to take the whole box of Diamond kitchen matches. “What?” he said. My dad looked stunned but before he could say or do anything I was already out the door and running down the stairs as he and my mom talked in Yiddish about what just happened.

I was out of breath when I got back to Howie and the other kids, but I proudly passed them the box of Diamond kitchen matches. The other kids were impressed, since we usually just used cheap, cardboard matchbook matches that one of us scored from a nearby newsstand. Using real wooden matches seemed like a luxury. Everyone was happy that we had something to light the firecrackers with.

We started off blowing up firecrackers like we normally did but then Howie said, “Check this out,” and he pulled a larger, thicker, red firecracker out of his pocket. Someone asked if it was an M-80 and he nodded to which we all gasped a bit and asked to look at the holy object as he held it in his hand. The body of the M-80 was red, but the edges were rough; as if it was hand cut. “Where did you get it?” I asked. “Get it? I made it!” Howie proudly said. “All those duds we collected. I scraped the gunpowder out of them and put them in here.”

It was kind of stunning to think about how many fireworks it took to make this homemade M-80. It was stubby and thicker than a grownup’s thumb. Regular everyday fireworks were small, thin and only had a thin center of gunpowder to them with the bulk of the size taken up by the paper that wrapped that thin core. This M-80 had a thick core that was filled with gunpowder and the cardboard wrapping that core was relatively thin.

“So let’s blow this thing up!” Howie said, and we all smiled and agreed. But what to blow up? Nobody could decide. Just blowing it up in the dirt seemed like a waste. And soda cans seemed too small. But someone found a huge, empty, plastic 2-liter soda bottle and it seemed perfect! It was one of those plastic soda bottles they sold in the 1970s that had a separate black plastic bottom and there even was a cracked hole in its side from where someone had stepped on it — or maybe a car ran over it — that was just big enough to shove the M-80 into. It was perfect.

So, Howie shoved the M-80 into the cracked hole in the bottle, adjusted the fuse so it pointed out and told us all to step back a bit. “Maybe even more,” he said, “This thing is really going to blow up.” We all looked at each other and then looked around us and decided the best thing to do would be to hide between parked cars.

We were all in position and Howie knelt down and backed off a bit from the bottle as well. He was going to light the fuse but also needed to run like the wind the second the fuse was lit so he didn’t get hurt. He crouched down, stretched out, lit a wooden match and reached his arm out towards the fuse. The second it was lit, he ran like crazy to get behind a car. We all looked at him run, covered our ears, and then looked back to the bottle with the M-80 in it.

You could see the M-80’s fuse was lit and smoke rising. Then the fuse seemed to disappear into the smoke and the smoke seemed to stop for a second or so. And just when we though the fuse had fizzled out? BOOM! It all exploded in a huge, loud flash of smoke and dirt.

I uncovered my ears and slowly stood up. The bottle was gone and the dirt just below it was dug out and a bit concave. The only part of the bottle that remained was the black plastic bottom, somehow still intact but a bit mangled.

Everyone else stood up and all of us were blown away by the power of that M-80. “Wow! That was great, Howie!” said someone as Howie proudly looked at the dirt home and smiled a bit.

Some of the older people in the neighborhood — who always sat in front of buildings or were endlessly shopping for produce — came by to look and threatened to call the cops. We weren’t worried about the cops because we were just kids and the old people always yelled at neighborhood kids about random nonsense anyway. But we were definitely worried about our parents finding out what just happened, so we all split and headed back to our homes.

Before we went our separate ways, Howie gave me back the box of wooden kitchen matches and thanked me for them. I said it was no problem, took the matches and headed back home.

Of all the fireworks I had seen until then Howie’s M-80 block buster was by far the most impressive. He had made it himself, out of stuff other people just discarded and tossed into the trash. Howie gave new life to something others considered worthless.

***

Jack Szwergold is a skilled web developer who has worked for Artforum and the Guggenheim Museum. He founded the Onion’s website in 1996 and currently works for the New School.

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