July Fourth: the sharp staccato of fireworks, good times shared at outdoor parties and the delicious scent of seared meat wafting on the breeze. In certain years past, some of that burnt flesh belonged to Your Faithful Correspondent.

Writing a column is a delicate balancing act. You want the reader to share every moment of your adventures yet real life is fraught with so many things that are boring, illegal, immoral and/or fattening. However, some stories lose their zest if you remove the "questionable" parts.

Therefore, please realize that I have wrestled with the decision to publish the mostly-factual description of the following incident. Before you write outraged letters to the newspaper explaining how stupid, dangerous, illegal, immoral and possibly fattening this story is, please know that I agree 100 percent.

It's also pretty cool if you happen to be a guy.

We also feel obligated to warn any children in the audience that they should never to play with gunpowder or fireworks. Of course impressionable youth are reading this story because they are all busy searching the Internet for pictures of naked people or instructions on how to build remotely-detonated nuclear fission bombs.

Moving along...

As a child, I discovered that shotgun shells could be cut open and the propellant inside extracted for use in scientific experiments such as: "What happens when model airplanes are packed with smokeless powder and set afire in the field behind our house?" You might have also read the lesser-known follow-up research report: "The effects of severe corporal punishment and home detention on smokeless powder researchers"

Later, in my teenage years, I finally obtained real black powder. In an effort to protect the guilty, I'll just say it was a gift from an adult neighbor who should have known better.

The black powder, along with fireworks scrounged from a variety of sources, was turned into an endless procession of home-brewed explosives that either delighted, or more often, bored the assembled crowds. Over the years, in the quest to produce the ultimate fireworks show my devices grew larger, more dangerous and in a few noteworthy cases, occasionally more spectacular.

Now, flash forward a few dozen years from that misspent youth to our annual July 4 neighborhood picnic.

I will not divulge construction details of my grand-finale firework on that day 20 years ago except to say that a substantial quantity of both commercial fireworks and black powder was involved and the device was definitely illegal under local, state and national laws. It also violated the rules of common sense and probably some type of international arms treaty.

In the videotape of the incident, wives and mothers of the various participants are heard off-camera, alternating concerns about the safety of their offspring with comments about the general dim-wittedness of beer-fueled fathers. Finally, we reached the moment of truth.

Here is a transcript of the ending of the video:

"What is he doing? Why is he using a car battery? That doesn't look safe, get all the kids back! Has anybody...."


The screen turns completely bright orange in the split second that I completed the electrical triggering circuit. Screams, rattling casserole dishes, car alarms and barking dogs provided the backing soundtrack as smoke, flame and exploding fireworks were carried into the air from the force of the blast. Not only was there a massive initial explosion, a rain of firecrackers and other white-hot devices rained down upon the crowd. The streetlight overhead is obscured by a mushroom cloud and several especially vulgar words, inadvertently shouted by some of the fleeing onlookers, are heard above the din.

It was fantastic.

After the flames died down and it was determined that, defying all logic, there were no significant casualties, the stunned witnesses gathered their wide-eyed children in order to escape the scene before the authorities arrived. During the exodus, most of the indignant moms refused even to acknowledge the Master Pyrotechnician. On the other hand several of the assembled dads thought it was one of the greatest things they had ever seen, so the overall score was a tie.

However, even I was shaken. Proud, but shaken and I quit making homemade fireworks after that day. Aside from the long-term prospect of losing several digits or assorted arms, I was sure that a government agency had seen the blast from an orbiting spy satellite and would likely send a team to investigate. Since I'm not a big fan of prison food, I decided to stick with store-bought goodies in the future.

Though nothing bad happened, liability concerns require that I close with a note reminding that messing with dangerous and possibly illegal fireworks is wholly unsafe. It's simply not worth the danger and trouble.

On the other hand, make sure you send us a copy of your video.

Brent T. Wheat

Brent T. Wheat is an award-winning columnist, and publisher of WildIndiana.com. His column appears weekly in The Times.