Fire, fireworks, and questioning how we survived childhood

By Steve Cichon

BUFFALO, NY – The sounds of percussive fireworks on an Independence Day weekend inevitably leads me to wonder how exactly we survived childhood.

With the errant booms I’m reminded of being 12 or 13, when we’d duct tape 3 or 4 Matchbox cars to an M-80 and blow them to smithereens. Fun-wow! We basically built Al-Quieda style shrapnel bombs and lit them right in front of us. How did we survive?

And we weren’t even “the bad kids…”

We did most of our pyrotechnics “under the bridge,” in Smokes Creek, just a few hundred feet away from our back yard.

My ol’man used to drink Gallo wine in the big green gallon glass jugs, and we’d get excited when he’d finish one. Kids just don’t know what they are missing with cheap wine coming in boxes nowadays.

Heading down to our pyrotechnics lab underneath North Buffalo Street, we’d first take a beer bottle and make a Molotov cocktail. We’d light that sucker and toss it against the abutment underneath the bridge creating a wall of fire.

With the concrete blazing, we’d take the gallon glass jug– by now with just a little bit of gasoline in it– close up the top, shake it up to create some fumes and throw it against the flaming concrete wall.

It made a wonderful concussive, reverberating boom– but also sent glass shrapnel everywhere. No need to read between the lines here, I’ll spell it out– we were total effing idiots.

While we never ruined or broke anything or wanted to do so– we just liked acting like morons, apparently. Though not destructive, our antics were often enough to wind up in the Orchard Park Bee police blotter a couple times a month. “Loud noise heard near seven corners.”

That, and Dad always wondered why our lawn mower used so much gas.

But the Fourth of July wasn’t for us kids lighting stuff on fire, it was for watching adults blow stuff up. Two of my grandparents– Mom’s dad and Dad’s mom– shared a birthday with our country. Independence Day celebrations were great for us.

Aunt Kathy and Uncle Kevin would have a pool party for Grandpa Coyle’s birthday, and the Cichon kids would swim non-stop all-day, save the frequent breaks for cans of grape or cherry pop.

Around dinner time, we’d head over to see Grandma Cichon– sometimes at the cottage at Sunset Bay, or sometimes at home near Caz Park in South Buffalo.

For a few years, my uncles and my dad would all throw in some money, and drive to Ohio to fill a big old van with fireworks for their mother’s birthday.

My uncle had painted this van blue using a roller, and there was shag carpet hanging on the walls and ceiling in the back. During these momentous days, it reeked of gun powder.

The family would set up in the park near the ball diamonds, and our attention called to each piece of artillery not by the colors or that it might spin or even by the interesting names printed on these things in China.

With a beer in one hand, shouts of “Hey! Watch this one! It was 25 bucks!” were followed by the touching of the cherry end of a lip-dangled cigarette to the wick and a quick backward stumble away.

One year a shout of “SHIT! It’s the cops!” sent a good number of Cichons spilling beer as they ran into the woods. The friendly officer joined us to watch the display, and even turned his car lights on for us kids.

Another year, some guy nobody knew pulled up in a car and asked us if we’d ever seen a real Civil War cannon. It was a two-foot-long replica cannon, which he filled with three shot glasses of gun powder.

“Only supposeda do one, but it’s the Fourth of July!”

At least all that was the wide open park. When we’d celebrate Grandma’s birthday at the lake… 47 people would stay in a 600 square foot cottage, jammed in the midst of other families of 47 staying in similar sized cottages.

The fireworks displays would be smaller, but the cramped quarters certainly made them more dangerous– so of course, somehow, more fun for everyone.

With no room inside the cottage, we’d eventually sleep in the back of our Dodge station wagon– with permanent and satisfied smiles on our faces.

The only things I light on fire these days are the grill and the (very) occasional big fat cigar. Yet I own about twelve Zippo lighters. I guess you never know when you’ll have to fall back on those skills you learned as a kid.

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.