Cherry Pie and Cherry Bombs An Independence Day Remembrance
My father was a predictable man. He made pancakes every Saturday morning, walked through the back door every night at 6:30, and never passed up dessert. He was predictable in his habits but he was also predictably loud. My father’s sneezes, for example, sounded like a shotgun blast. I’m sure he was capable of more demure sneezes but he relished the effect his loudness had on anyone nearby.
His sneezes weren’t the only thing loud about him. He had a booming voice that he used in equal measure to cheer and curse the Redskins, his favorite football team, and which he employed when punishing children. Everything about my father was big: his voice, his ego, his gusto, his love of life. Most of all, however, my father liked big, loud noises. He liked booming thunder. He liked gun powder.
Of all the holidays, I remember my father best on Independence Day, probably because of his predictability. On the fourth of July my father always had two things: a fresh baked cherry pie and lots of loud fireworks.
Our house had a large backyard, at least by city standards. It supported a grape arbor, an apple tree, the largest oak tree in the Tenley Circle area of the city, and a sour cherry tree. For my father, the yard was his manor. He was a city boy through-and-through but fancied himself a gentleman farmer. He liked to stroll through the yard collecting ripe fruit and expounding on the merits of living off the land, of which he had little direct knowledge. But come the beginning of July his attention turned completely to the cherry tree and harvesting enough cherries for at least one home baked cherry pie to be eaten on the fourth of July.
My brother and me, the two youngest of five children, were charged with climbing the spindly tree and collecting the cherries. I never remember the tree bearing much fruit but what it did bear was a favorite of a tiny white worm. Before I put a single cherry in the bag, I split it open with my fingernail and if a white worm curled up in greeting with its pin-prick black face I dropped it like a hot potato. I wasn’t exactly scared of the worm. I just didn’t want to eat it. I never liked cherry pie.
With or without worms, there were barely enough cherries for one pie on the fourth of July, which really didn’t matter since the table groaned under the weight of the other traditional holiday foods: deviled eggs, potato salad, fried chicken, hot dogs and hamburgers, chips and dips. Food was important, but the main event, for my father and some of his pyrotechnic friends, were the explosives.
Fireworks were illegal in our city but business trips throughout the year took my father through states with more lenient laws where he would stock up for the fourth. Even where fireworks were legal, there were general regulations about how much of the stuff that makes fireworks boom manufacturers are allowed to use. From my perspective, and that of my mother and sisters, those regulations provided fireworks with plenty of excitement. For my father, it was a tease.
He spent the morning of the fourth preparing the “site,” the area used for launching fireworks. Choosing the proper place was important because of uneven ground, old-growth trees, neighbors’ roofs, prevailing winds and, most important, the Number 8 Police Precinct, just two blocks away. He raked and swept the area and encircled it with rope to indicate the “unsafe” firing area and the “safe” spectator area. He built a launching pad, or more precisely, cobbled together a launching pad. His skill with wood, hammer, and nails was similar to his knowledge of living off the land. The launching pad consisted of a few bricks taken from the front walkway, a piece of wood or two, and several Coke bottles, all held together with wire clothes hangers. Clothes hangers were my father’s favorite home repair tool.
Once the pad was ready, he tested it with several rounds of bottle rockets, a firecracker on a long, match-thin stick. He placed the rocket in a Coke bottle, adjusted the trajectory, and lit the short fuse. The rocket launched into the air and made a “pop” noise. The main goal was to keep it away from neighbors and the police.
My father’s best friend was a small man who repaired cameras for a living and dabbled in Civil War guns as a hobby. Charlie and my father made an unlikely pair, a blue-blood Virginian and a poor immigrant, but their love of antiques and explosions was stronger than any differences they may have had. A favorite game was tossing cherry bombs at a target in the corner of the yard. Cherry bombs, small round red-colored explosives, made a bigger bang than bottle rockets.
I assume it was Charlie who introduced my father to antique model cannons. Yes, cannons. Apparently, cannon manufacturers made models of their wares for advertising purposes. They came in different sizes, materials, and weights, but the ones my father had were about the size of a hat box. I don’t know what metal they were made from, bronze I think, but they were too heavy for me to pick up. It was firing the cannons on the fourth of July that really got my father and Charlie excited, and had the potential to bring the entire 8th Precinct to our door.
Early on in their careers as cannon masters, my father and Charlie did a lot of experimenting, mostly having to do with how much explosive to use. They disassembled cherry bombs and reassembled them into little packages to stuff into the cannon. I didn’t need my mother to tell me this was a bad idea; some things you just know. They also liked to add a little extra boom to bottle rockets in the same manner. At some point my father procured a personal collection of gun powder which made disassembling cherry bombs no longer necessary, but still required a bit of experimenting to find the right amount of explosive to use.
The cannons produced such a resounding and frightening boom that my father had to time his fourth of July firings just right not to attract the attention of the police. Nevertheless, a cruiser usually passed the house at least once during the celebration, pausing at the driveway to look into the backyard for suspicious activity.
Like the cherry pie, I wasn’t touching the fireworks. It wasn’t that I was afraid. In all the years my father orchestrated his Independence Day explosions, amazingly neither he nor any bystanders were hurt. I just don’t like loud noises. I don’t like thunder or my father’s booming voice.
The last time I heard the cannon fire was at the wake after my father’s funeral. Someone suggested firing a cannon in his honor. It was immediately agreed that this was a great idea although most everyone by that time had too much to drink. My brothers went upstairs to my father’s closet to find the gun powder. When they opened the box, there were a handful of cherry bombs and firecrackers, and a flask-like container of gun powder. They looked at the contents in silence and reverence as if opening someone’s diary. I was silent as well; I never knew the box that I thought held my father’s shoe shine kit was actually a World War II ammunition box.
Instead of firing the cannon in the backyard, the assembled mourners decided a front yard tribute was required. They put the cannon on the grass and lit a homemade fuse. Most of us stayed inside. The windows in the house rattled so violently there was a moment we thought they might shatter. At the same time there was an echoing boom as the explosion bounced off the houses across the street. My brothers and the other cannon firers came charging through the front door out of breath but totally exhilarated by the blast. My older brother looked through the triangular window at the top of the door. No police. Yet. There was enough time to fire it again.
I miss my father’s fourth of July celebrations, although not necessarily the bottle rockets and cherry bombs. I miss the excitement and drama that were always a part of the holiday. And surprisingly, I miss the boom of the cannon fire, the loudest noise I had ever heard as a child and still a sound that makes my heart jump. But most of all, I miss my father’s booming voice, a voice that I now realize always carried with it that same anticipation of excitement and drama no matter what he was doing.
I’ve also discovered a latent love of cherry pie.