Through most of grammar school and high school in Pittsburgh, Dave Merkel was my very best buddy. Our little borough of Overbrook had endless opportunities for fun and adventure. We hiked and camped, hunted and fished, and were the first to hit the pond on Simmons farm naked on a sunny April day. Although that first dip usually lasted only about 15 seconds in the 40 degree water, it raised our status with the other boys of the neighborhood.
It was 1948, and Pennsylvania had long since banned exploding fireworks. However with diligent searching, Dave and I found a company in Kansas that would ship into the state.
I received a notice in the mail, and headed to the downtown post office to pick up our package. The postman took my receipt, returning in a bit carrying a big box and a big scowl. I figured to be arrested right there, as the box had FIREWORKS
printed on all six sides in huge red letters.
In timid silence I paid the "big scowl" the $2.00 shipping, and skedaddled out of there. As I hurried to the streetcar stop, I frantically tore off all of the FIREWORKS
In Daveís basement, we divided our illegal loot, consisting of numerous powerful cherry bombs, silver salutes, (now called "M-80's") small firecrackers and aerial star bursts. Dave was anxious get the program underway, so he filled his momís concrete stationary tubs with water, lit and dropped in a silver salute. After cleaning up the firecracker residue and airing out the basement, we left the house and its now-bottomless washtub to explain itself. No one ever understood the spontaneous self-destruction of that tub.
Several nights later in an open field near St. Norberts school, Dave and I fired off two aerial star shells. The first was a single, and provided a beautiful display. The second was a triple, and things took an ugly turn. The first barrel sent its missile skyward, and then the stand fell over. The second and third shells missed us by inches, setting several fires in the dry grass. Several minutes later while trying to stomp out the flames, we heard the police and fire sirens and we left in a hurry.
After school the next day, my mother remarked that two boys were seen setting off fireworks in that field and one looked like my friend and constant companion Dave. "Did you and Dave do that?", she asked. I tried never to lie to my "mum" and my only comment was "fireworks are illegal in Pennsylvania mum". She knew me and she knew Dave, but let the subject drop. My mum could be great that way.
My bedroom on the second floor over the dining room at 58 Mullooly Street, had been previously occupied by several of my five older brothers. Under the carpet was a deactivated heat register, covered by two loose boards. All sorts of contraband had been squirreled there over the years by the previous occupants. I kept cigarettes and other things in there, and now in went my stash of fireworks.
After school a few days later as I walked up the street to my house, I spotted mum rocking in her chair on the porch. She was wearing an angrily familiar look on her face.
Through the open front door, out onto the porch were the remnants of what used to be the dining room ceiling. I came very close to becoming violently ill. "Oh god, the fireworks exploded", I thought!
It was some comfort to me to find that the sagging plaster ceiling was torn down intentionally, to be replaced with sheetrock.
The falling fireworks were confiscated and put in the basement, to be used later. The cigarettes and other
things were trashed.
About a week later for reasons obvious only to my mum and me, a booklet appeared on my dresser. It was written by a priest, and titled "Love, Sex and the Teenager".
Before my friend Dave Merkel and I were brave enough to buy mail-order fireworks, we often created our own brand of pyrotechnic excitement.
It was apple-butter making time at the Theobald home, in the Fall of 1946.
The old wood-fired pit had just been replaced with natural gas, piped out through our basement doorway to a large burner in the side yard.
In anticipation of this event, Dave and I had purchased a WWII
surplus weather ballon at a local Army-Navy store, to be surreptitiously filled before the gas pipe was put to its intended use. Now our original intent was to see if we could become airborne using this large balloon, or at least use it as "Seven League Boots" for giant leaps!
Even though the ballon inflated to nearly five feet in diameter, we decided it would take a great number to achieve our goal. Our next plan then began to hatch.
What a spectacular display this balloon might produce, when its contents of over 60 cubic feet of natural gas was ignited! Of course, ignition must occur high in the air to obtain the desired effect. A fuse was required...
Dave and I both built many model airplanes over the years, and whenever we tired of one we would set it afire and launch it off some high place. This is how we discovered the reliable flamability of airplane glue!
After a burn test, we decided that about 10 to 12 feet of my Mum's heavy packaging twine would provide a safe and adequate elevation. We coated the twine with airplane glue and allowed it to dry. Attached to the inflated balloon,
the fuse was lit and our experiment was launched in the middle of an open field.
The tiny flame from the fuse disappeared into the dark moonless night sky, and after a minute or so we began to believe that all had failed. Words cannot begin describe the magnificent and frightening fireball that alluminated our neighborhood from several hundred feet up! When the fuse burned to the balloon, the gas apparently had to mix well with the air, and spread out many yards before exploding. We both absolutely knew that we were "dead meat". Those who saw the flash speculated for months on the cause, but we kept our secret on this one-and-only big blowout!
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