Our nation is getting ready to party as we celebrate our 242nd birthday July 4.
Even though summer has just begun, I always viewed the Fourth of July as the midpoint of summer when I was a kid. Perhaps it’s because my perspective of summer was influenced by the school year. In those days we were out of school by the end of May and starting at the end of August.
It seemed like most July 4 holidays involved a little break from farming — of course the cows had to be milked — but there was usually a family gathering. It also helped that my great-aunt Sara’s birthday was July 2.
Naturally because it was the Fourth of July we had some fireworks. Of course we had sparklers and snakes, but we tried to obtain larger artillery like Roman candles, bottle rockets and firecrackers. These were the days when there wasn’t a fireworks stand on every corner.
One dry summer an errant bottle rocket went into the woods and we were all part of an emergency family fire brigade, carrying buckets of water to put out the blaze.
Then there was the glorious summer of the M-80. The device doesn’t send up showers of sparks or send screaming lights across the sky. It simply blows up and leaves destruction in its concussive wake. It was the ultimate weapon in your pyrotechnic toolbox.
Yes, we had fun with firecrackers (and we were careful as well), but most firecrackers contain about 50 milligrams of flash powder. Enough to do some minor damage, but if you wanted to create major havoc, you had to string them together.
The M-80 was the motherlode. The old and incorrect legend was that the M-80 was the equivalent of a quarter-stick of dynamite. That’s what my cousin said and I believed him. The original M-80s were developed by the military (hence the M standing for military-issue) to simulate artillery fire had 80 grains (about 5 grams or 5,000 milligrams) of flash powder.
Up until 1966 you could still buy M-80s, but increasing regulation by the government resulted in a ban starting in 1966. The firepower was also reduced to 3 grams or 3,000 mg, still plenty powerful.
Before I tell the rest of the story, I should put in a disclaimer that you should not try this at home … nor anywhere else, for that matter. I also hope the statute of limitations has expired on illegal fireworks possession.
It was a warm summer night, circa 1977. The adults were all inside for our Independence Day gathering on the farm and about a half-dozen or so of us cousins ranging in age from 12 to 17 were outside. We had gone through a few packs of sparklers, a few bottle rockets and some firecrackers.
That was all fun. Then — I believe it was my cousin John — brought out the big artillery. The small red tube with the fuse in the center. The infamous M-80.
When one is in possession of an explosive device, you must test it. We all knew that M-80s went off with a big thud. We wanted to test the “quarter-stick of dynamite” theory. We needed to blow something up.
In those days the front entryway to the barn was lined with sacks of feed for the calves. The scoop we used for the feed was an old metal pot that was missing its handle. I suspect it was chosen for our experiment because it was readily available. We were teenage boys eager to blow something up, we really didn’t think it through.
How much damage would an M-80 do to a metal pot? We were about to find out. The M-80 was placed on the dirt driveway. The fuse was lit and the pot went over top. We retreated to a “safe” position.
A few tense seconds passed.
Some of us plugged our ears.
Could it be a dud?
The M-80 ignited and the calf-feeding pot became airborne, lifting up at least 20 or 30 feet before it fell back to the dusty ground. At least what was left of it. The M-80 had shredded the metal pot like a head of lettuce.
I don’t know if the M-80 had 3,000 or 5,000 milligrams of black powder, but it had power. We stood in silent awe for a second or two before whoops and cheers took over. Realizing we had to get rid of the incriminating evidence, someone grabbed what remained of the pot and threw it into the weeds.
The next day at chore time Dad started feeding calves.
“Who took my scoop?” he asked.
“I dunno,” I said with an innocent shrug.
We conducted other M-80 experiments that summer, including blowing up giant anthills and a few small trees. Thankfully none of our experiments resulted in injury.
But I’ll never forget those few seconds when a metal pan took temporary flight, thanks to the legendary M-80.