Grandpa and the Tobacco That Ruined Independence Day

Grandpa and the Tobacco That Ruined Independence Day | Daily Reader

Grandpa and the 10 Tobys (all of his dogs were named Toby) agreed on almost everything. The Tobys were always accommodating and excited whenever Grandpa was ready for a hike or some hunting, and they liked to help with any project he might be working on for his small farm, from tractor repairs to chicken coop construction to plowing. They even helped him pick rocks from the potato field every spring, though that consisted of Grandpa heaving rocks to the side for wall-building and the Tobys chasing them as they rolled.

What they did not share an affection for, however, were the fireworks that Grandpa constructed for every 4th of July when I was a boy in the 1960s. The family and neighbors viewing the annual event loved the displays, but the dogs never acquired an appreciation. At the first explosion, they ran for the woods and wouldn't return until after the grand finale.

Grandpa had started small. His interest in fireworks began when I built my first model rocket, an Estes Astron II. Grandpa was fascinated when I demonstrated. My allowance didn't afford me an electric launch controller, so I used the fuses available at the hobby shop, and Grandpa especially liked those. Much to my displeasure, he cut apart one of the cardboard rocket engines and figured out how the clay nozzle, delay charge, and ejection charge worked. "The only problem with this rocket," he said, "is it doesn't blow up. I bet I can build fireworks on the same principles and create some gratifying explosions."

Grandpa didn't like buying ready-made things; he preferred to make his own, from his self-designed corn husker to his moonshine. He tried growing tobacco but couldn't match the contentment he found with Granger or Carter Hall.

He did some research at the library and started with ground fireworks like Roman candles, cone spark fountains, simple firecrackers, sparklers, spinning wheels, and smoke bombs. He looked forward to the 4th of July like a kid waiting for Christmas, building displays for the family to enjoy. When he graduated to rockets, neighbors gathered. He became proficient with whistling bottle rockets and then rockets that generated lace patterns, flower patterns, and crossettes. In a couple of years, his fireworks rivaled professional exhibitions, and he was producing falling leaves, fireflies, pistils, ring shells, and many designs of his own.

he cut apart one of the cardboard rocket engines

The dogs helped him by insisting with canine stubbornness that they crowd together into the small shed that Grandpa built for his experiments. However, they whined whenever Grandpa lit his Falcon pipe while building fireworks, seeming to understand the conflict of interest.

You may think that Grandpa's habit of smoking no matter how flammable his work materials — whether oil, gasoline, ammunition, or fireworks — might eventually have led to debilitating injury, but you'd be wrong. Grandpa knew how to smoke his pipe and never caught on fire beyond his ability to heal.

"Quiet," he would tell the Tobys. "I'm a grown man and know not to drop burning ashes into black powder." He had formerly done his rocket building in the house, but in his first year of experimentation, a mishap set off a series of explosions that drastically remodeled his home workshop and forever prejudiced the dogs against fireworks.

That was before he learned to store mixed chemicals in plastic containers rather than the metal bucket that somehow carried a static charge and set off a conflagration that persuaded Grandpa and the Tobys to leap through a window and land in a smoking, squirming pile next to the cellar door. His beard and their tails were singed and smoking with the same profusion as Grandpa's pipe, which was still in his teeth.

they tended to whine whenever Grandpa lit his Falcon pipe while building fireworks

I happened to be outside when that happened. I was entertained by the deafening and colorful explosions that lit the inside of the house as Grandpa and a turbulent cascade of endless dogs erupted through the window screen and faceplanted in a smoldering heap of disillusionment. The dogs rolled on the ground before bolting for the woods while Grandpa ran to the front of the house to grab an extinguisher and douse the fire.

Grandpa and the Tobacco That Ruined Independence Day | Daily Reader

In following years, fireworks construction was limited to the shed 100 yards from the house, which was inconveniently small when crowded with 10 dogs apprehensively observing as Grandpa leaned over his workbench with his pipe in his teeth and meticulously ground fireworks components in his mortar and pestle.

The shelves lining the walls were absolutely jammed with chemicals. He had amassed a 10-year inventory of black powder, sulfur, potassium nitrate, charcoal, strontium, barium, copper, magnesium, and aluminum from a less than reputable chemical supply company that shipped to him in bulk from some Eastern European country whose name I don't remember except that it ended in "vania" and probably still dealt with werewolves and vampires. "Domestic chemicals ain't strong enough," Grandpa complained. "This imported stuff is powerful enough to repel werewolves."

"Werewolves are real?" I asked.

"No. But these fireworks can make them rethink their migratory choices if they ever show up." The Tobys excitedly wagged their tails at the prospect of chasing werewolves.

a mishap set off a series of explosions that drastically remodeled his home workshop

The dogs were nervous when Grandpa was fireworking, but they insisted on being present. Despite their misgivings about some of his activities, they always wanted to be with him. He couldn't hunt from a tree stand, for example, because he couldn't haul all 10 of them up a tree. And they were inconsolable when he repainted the barn's metal roof. Concerned for his safety, they ran around the barn barking and spun in circles until he came down.

The dogs' apprehension whenever they smelled the black powder exasperated Grandpa, but he was sensitive to their discomfort. In 1967, the last year of his fireworks displays, he added Carter Hall to the powder to alleviate their skepticism of his safety protocols. Carter Hall soothed the Tobys. He used it as a command that they never disobeyed. When he smoked Carter Hall, it meant "heel," and Granger meant "move at will."

The dogs settled considerably when tobacco was added to the mix, solving that impediment to the fireworks development phase, but Grandpa had to reformulate his recipes. He spent many days in that shed getting his propellant to smell something like Carter Hall and still function.

This new strategy was not without hazards. I remember when he mistook his mixtures and loaded his pipe with the black powder version of Carter Hall. He didn't realize it until he noticed that his tobacco was lighting with unusual vigor before it erupted into a geysering inferno of pyrotechnic combustion. He previously had brandished remarkably shaggy eyebrows, but the episode scorched them and his eyelashes clean off and left his face the approximate color of a red spotted newt.

Domestic chemicals ain't strong enough

He looked comically unnatural for months, but he didn't care. "The pipe survived, and that's the important thing," he said. "This Falcon can sure take a beating. What a pipe." He even liked the lingering gunpowder aftertaste. "I'm becoming accustomed to the flavor. I might have to repeat that chemical reaction, though maybe with some sunscreen next time."

His displays became more popular as his skills progressed, and the entire village looked forward to seeing them. Grandpa basked in the appreciation, striving to develop more sophisticated techniques.

His final fireworks show was his largest ever. He prepared hundreds of rockets with exotic minerals for memorable colors. He had developed a system whereby his rockets stood in cardboard boxes liberally layered with black powder. This tactic would simultaneously ignite each whole box of pyrotechnics, about 30 per box. He carried each box individually from his shed and fitted long fuses into their corners, each leading to his command station, where he would light the fuses one by one by inserting their ends into his pipe. Each was numbered so he could set them off in the proper order.

I remember when he mistook his mixtures and loaded his pipe with the black powder version of Carter Hall.

I was his assistant, but he wouldn't let me help with anything except to organize the fuses at the command center. His finale this year would include a record-breaking 150 rockets. He had acquired materials for more but ran out of time because his Carter Hall experiments had slowed production. "We'll do twice as many next year," he promised, clapping me on the back.

Grandpa always started his show at 9:00 p.m. The villagers began gathering in the empty hayfield behind his house at about 7:30, cooking burgers on small grills, enjoying beverages from coolers, and catching up with those they didn't often see. A hundred cars lined the road in front of Grandpa's house. "I'm glad to contribute a sense of community," said Grandpa as he frantically completed his last-minute tasks.

Finally, he was ready to reload his Falcon so he wouldn't run out of tobacco before lighting all the fuses. The Tobys and I gathered with him at his command center, but the dogs wouldn't be staying for long. They always high-tailed it when the first fuse was lit because they knew what was coming and didn't like it. Grandpa filled his pipe with Granger so the Tobys would know they were free to leave. At 9:00, he lit his pipe and started the show.

His finale this year would include a record-breaking 150 rockets

As soon as he poked the first fuse into his pipe, the Tobys bolted for the woods, but Grandpa had forgotten the Carter Hall that permeated each rocket that year. When the first box of rockets streaked into the sky and exploded in colorful starbursts, the dogs stopped, confused. Carter Hall meant "heel." Despite their fireworks distress, they dashed back toward Grandpa.

That's when I noticed something terrible. I spied a line of fizzling flame leading from that first exploded box of fireworks. It appeared to be progressing toward the fireworks shed. I tugged at Grandpa's shirt. "Look," I said, pointing, and Grandpa, understandably distracted, glanced in the direction I was indicating, then returned to his fuses. But his head suddenly snapped back when he realized what he had seen. "That box must have leaked black powder," he said. "I gotta put that out before there's trouble." He threw down his fuses and dashed toward the shed.

But the Tobys now arrived. They panicked at the fireworks but clung to Grandpa, who immediately tripped over them, rose to make another dash, and tripped again. The dogs anxiously surrounded him, and he couldn't take a step without falling. The fizzling black powder was almost at the shed. "Too late!" said Grandpa, and he tackled me to the ground.

Grandpa and the Tobacco That Ruined Independence Day | Daily Reader

I only heard the first explosions, but I soon wriggled free because I knew this was something to see, and Grandpa was mesmerized himself, gazing at the calamity from under a jumble of flustered Tobys. Boom after boom shook the countryside as the shed exploded, all of those Eastern European anti-werewolf munitions mushrooming into the sky like a portent of existential doom. The villagers dove for the ground. A shower of glass, smoldering roofing tiles, and burning splinters fell over the whole farm. Sparks ignited all of the fireworks boxes, and every rocket went off at once, careening into each other and interfering with their skyward trajectory so that many flew horizontally over the hayfield, further terrifying the cowering spectators. The air filled with dark, suffocating smoke. Dazzling fireworks dominated the sky and every degree of my peripheral vision. It was like bright daylight with a strobe effect and roaring thunder, but magnified to supernatural proportions.

his head suddenly snapped back when he realized what he had seen.

Cries of alarm came from the hayfield. Several rockets had crashed and set the field on fire, and people were using their coats and blankets to smother the flames. At last, after an interminable barrage of homemade artillery, the last two rockets zoomed into the air. They were Grandpa's Big Bertha-style fireworks, equipped for maximum sonic and explosive impact, and they collided with one another and corkscrewed toward the ground.

Everyone watched in awe as the rockets simultaneously struck Grandpa's chicken coop, one plunging through the roof and the other through a window. Hysterical chicken squawks echoed from within the coop, which exploded with an ear-shattering detonation of chickens riding the shock wave in all directions, each voicing its surprise and discontent. Chicken feathers saturated the air and drifted like snowflakes, mixing with the black smoke, falling across the hayfield, and transforming the landscape into an unspeakable post-apocalyptic dystopia.

"Well, look at that," said Grandpa. "Nuclear fowlout."

A town ordinance the next week banned unlicensed fireworks displays, and Grandpa was never one to ask permission, so his fireworks days were over. The event became known in local folklore as the End-Of-The-World Fireworks of 1967, and I believe it's still talked about today.

The chickens certainly didn't forget. For months afterward, every egg laid on Grandpa's farm contained a yolk in the unmistakable shape of a starburst.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Editorial Humor


    • Squishy1251 on July 3, 2024
    • I laughed so hard at this I had tears running down my face. Great piece.

    • North of Bangor on July 7, 2024
    • Mr. Stanion you have again out done yourself. Thank you! We are all so lucky to have your wit and wisdom sent to us every week or so. Luckiest of all perhaps is Smokingpipes to have you in their employ. Feel free to pass on to El Jefe that I said you deserve a nice raise.

    • Dan Peirce on July 10, 2024
    • Oh Gawd, reading this gave me flashbacks to the last time I ever played with fireworks. A mortar blew out the side of the tube and screamed towards me, bouncing off my chest, and exploding ten feet in front of me. Scared the you know what out of me. Great story though, keep them coming.

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