Whitesburg KY
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Melvin’s fireworks

When I was growing up in Letcher County in the Fifties and Sixties we didn’t have fireworks on the Fourth of July — at least not on Blair Branch and, as far as I know, anywhere else in the county.

Fireworks were reserved for Christmas and New Years Eve. And even though it was as illegal as bootlegging whiskey and making moonshine, many enterprising folks would make trips to Tennessee and load up the trunks of their cars with firecrackers, cherry bombs and Roman candles which they would bring home and sell for more than quadruple what they’d paid for them.

There were at least four vendors on Blair Branch who more or less stayed in business from Thanksgiving until the first of the year. If you had a dime, you could buy a pack of firecrackers. Cherry bombs cost a nickel each and Roman candles fetched a quarter. A pack of six bottle rockets also fetched a dime.

For comparison’s sake, you could buy a big Milky Way or Zero candy bar for a nickel in those days. A 12-ounce bottle of RC Cola cost six cents and you could sell the bottle back for a penny.

Cherry bombs were extremely dangerous. I know two fellows who lost their right hands because they held a cherry bomb half a second too long before throwing it so that it would explode in mid air.

Of course having a thumb nail blown off by a firecracker was no laughing matter either, but that was sort of a rite of passage for boys on the holler.

The instructions on a pack of firecrackers said “lay on ground, light fuse and retire quickly.” Of course you were supposed to do that with the long main fuse and set the whole pack off at one time.

But that’s not how we did it. We unraveled the pack of sixteen firecrackers and set them off one at a time.

Many a time through the holidays, I’ve blown a whole week’s profit from my GRIT newspaper route on firecrackers.

While most vendors were into firecrackers solely for the profit, my cousin, the late Melvin Adams, simply used the proceeds from whatever he sold to underwrite his personal Christmas and New Year’s Eve fireworks displays.

Melvin’s house sat back against the side of the hill. He had a high front porch that overlooked a big, sloping front lawn. When he made his trip to Tennessee, Melvin bought several pieces of everything they had in the fireworks store, not just firecrackers and bottle rockets and such. Melvin procured shells and bombs and rockets that would rival a modern fireworks display.

Of course he also had long rolls of firecrackers that had maybe a thousand individual crackers each. He’d have like a dozen Roman candles all going off at once on the ground while shells and rockets soared up and exploded high in the air. His goal was to have as much stuff going off at one time as he could manage.

To call it awesome would be a vast understatement. But if Melvin ever had fireworks on the Fourth of July, I missed the show.

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