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Dorothy Wehrle Dixon: Family fireworks spark fun and folly

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The elaborate fireworks displays on the river and at the ballpark are a far cry from those of my youth, which my father produced in our backyard.Sparklers were distributed to the audience of neighborhood kids, and the more daring of us tried cherry bombs, which exploded with an impressive bang when thrown on the sidewalk, and "crackers" of various sizes set off by too short fuses.The most exciting was the finale: Roman candles -- cardboard tubes spitting out colored balls of fire that attained a magnificent height of perhaps 20 feet.Eighteen years later found me living on an Edgewood hill enjoying a distant Fourth of July display from a lawn chair in a neighbor's yard -- and sometime after that from Haddad Park. The best show of all featured a blue waterfall cascading over the South Side Bridge.However, consistently most memorable were the Fourth of July fireworks produced and orchestrated at the Wehrle family reunion at their camp on the Elk River.Initially, the shows were amateur to the extent that one of the family members actually constructed an amazing variety of fireworks. I remember the anticipation preceding the launching of his hot-air balloon, the excitement as he lit the fire under the balloon, watching the great white bubble inflate, and the disappointment as it withered and collapsed to the ground.That was not the last time the dreams of our budding inventor were thwarted. On a subsequent Fourth, we moved our launch site to the beach on the other side of the river where, well fortified with copious amounts of beer, the Wehrle clan gathered for a demonstration of his skyrockets.The rockets zoomed impressively up and away over the water, until one collided with a tree, a very dry tree, which immediately burst into flames. We grabbed the beer, climbed into our boats and rowed frantically back to the dock.
Assembled under the burning tree, we contemplated our options. Climbing to the blazing top did not seem to be a good one. Throwing beer at it had no effect whatsoever. And then someone had the brilliant idea of running to our neighbor's, pounding on his door to wake him and asking to use his chain saw.Thus armed, we cut down the tree and pushed it into the river where the flames sputtered and died. The following year when we drove up to the camp on the Fourth of July, we found the chain saw on our porch!In subsequent years, we changed our venue once more and acquired true professionalism. A California cousin with lots of money but no access to fireworks teamed up with an Ohio relative with no money but a choice of fireworks rivaling those fired off at Haddad Park.Lawn chairs were set up in our chain-saw neighbor's yard. The setter-uppers and igniters lined up the fireworks, lit them and retreated to the shelter of a chicken coop as the show began. Magnificent fountains, glorious bursts of stars, cannon-worthy booms elicited delighted oohs and ahs from spectators -- until one of those little cardboard tubes fell over! Instead of zooming into the sky, a rocket dashed across the grass toward toppling lawn chairs and fleeing family members.The following year, fireworks securely anchored, we acquired a rival on the other side of the river. They were worthy competitors, matching us rocket for rocket.The results were inconclusive, but we did have one advantage: They were on a main road; we were accessible only by a gated dirt lane. By the time law enforcement had flushed out our neighbor (after all, it was his yard) and made their way to us, we would have concealed the evidence and be feigning sleep.From one Fourth to the next, excess fireworks are stored in the attic of our old camp. If the house ever caught fire, the Chinese who invented fireworks in the first place could admire the display from their own lawn chairs.
Dorothy Wehrle Dixon, of Charleston, may be emailed at
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