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Fireworks for the 4th

On the Fourth of July we celebrate the declaration of our nation’s independence with picnics and fireworks and with the great American tradition of going to furniture stores and taking advantage of their low, low prices on mattresses. The Fourth is essentially an all-you-can-eat potluck mattress blowout sale.  

When I was a little tyke, our family attended our small town’s Fourth festival. I remember the carnival rides and the cotton candy, but what stands out most in my memory is the fireworks show.

I was hooked on fireworks the moment the first shell burst overhead and released a galaxy of multicolored stars. The thunderous boom of the flash-bang mortars thrilled me to the marrow.

As the next Fourth of July approached, my siblings and I begged our parents to let us buy fireworks. They finally gave in, mainly because we were small but relentless opponents.

At mid-June, a fireworks catalog arrived in the mail. We kids pored over that catalogue until it became tattered and worn. We carefully planned our fireworks expenditures, dividing the money we had saved from our allowances by the fireworks’ price tags, striving to get the most bang for the buck.

Our parents took us to a small fireworks stand that had been set up beside the highway on the east edge of town. I was upset to learn that the stand carried none of the items listed in the catalogue. I had assumed that fireworks were standardized products, like the burger patties at fast food restaurants.

After several long minutes of perusing this new universe of fireworks options, an immense skyrocket caught my eye. It was priced at 50¢, a sum that constituted one-fourth of my fireworks budget. Hoping that it would produce a thrilling show similar to the town’s Fourth celebration, I decided to splurge.

Our family held a fireworks show on our farmstead on the night of the Fourth. I waited impatiently as my siblings touched off their bottle rockets and roman candles and sparklers. I couldn’t wait for the finale, which was to be my colossal skyrocket.

A piece of eaves trough propped up on the lawn served as my rocket launcher. I lit the fuse, stood back, and waited. And waited. Just when I began to think I blew half a buck on a dud, the rocket blasted off with a mighty FWOOSH!

It quickly became apparent that I had miscalculated the launch angle. The rocket carved a shallow upward arc before dropping out of sight on the far side of our grove. We heard a muffled FOOM! but whatever happened in that moment was blocked by the trees.

Despite my deep disappointment, this debacle did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for fireworks. If anything, it made me long to duplicate my first fireworks experience even more.

This explains why I found it intriguing when I recently espied a huge “Fireworks” sign and a small fireworks stand on the east side of town. But what really caught my eye was the full-size artillery cannon that sat nearby.

Mike Cottons 88mm gun
Photo by Jerry Nelson

I drove into the gravel driveway and examined the humungous gun. If it wasn’t a real artillery piece, then somebody had put a lot of time and effort into constructing a very convincing facsimile. 

I chatted with Mike Cotton, owner of the cannon and the fireworks stand. I asked Mike what it would cost to buy the big green boom-boom machine.

“It’s been rendered inoperable,” he said. “But you can have it for $14,000.”

Where on earth would a person find an 88-mm antitank gun that was for sale?

“I know a guy,” replied Mike with a grin. Mike seems like the kind of guy who would know a guy.

I asked Mike why he got into the fireworks business.

“When we were kids, my brothers and I would save up all year to buy fireworks,” Mike said. “We had loads of fun setting them off. Those are some great memories of the Fourth. I hope that I’m helping others create similar memories.”

A father and his young son came to Mike’s stand and bought a couple of armloads of fireworks. The boy was giddy with delight. After all these years, I could still empathize with how the lad felt.

An elderly gentleman visited Mike’s stand and purchased some fireworks.

“I’m too old for this,” he said, adding, “I sure hope that the grandkids come over!”

Of course, I purchased some fireworks from Mike. As I drove away, I congratulated myself for resisting the urge to splurge on the big gun. 

Besides, my experience with such things told me that the cannon’s launch angle was much too shallow.








Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at

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