Berger’s Burg: Fireworks make ‘four’ a spectacular birthday

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It is July Fourth. The teacher says to her preschool students, “Everyone in the country is free.” A little girl in the back of the room stands up and says, “Oh, no, they aren’t. I am four.”

There is no shortage of material for my Fourth of July column. For instance, are you aware that July was named in honor of that jubilant Roman emperor, Julius Caesar? Oh, you are aware! Well then, did anyone ever tell you that 200 years ago, people, including George Washington, Buffalo Bill and my great great great grandfather Alexander Colonial Berger III, pronounced July as “Joo Lee?”

Oh, you read that somewhere. Hmm! Then I suppose you also know that Canada celebrates its national holiday, Dominion Day, on July l; Buddhists in Japan celebrate the Festival of Bon (Lanterns) from July 3 to July 15; Scottish clans gather ‘round Grandfather Mountain near Linville, N.C. and partake in “Highland Games” during the second weekend in July; France celebrates Bastille Day on July 14; South Americans celebrate the birthday of Simon Bolivar on July 24; and, on July 25, Puerto Ricans celebrate Puerto Rico’s Constitution Day.

Oh, you already knew all that. Okay, you perspicacious smarty, then I won’t discuss any of these celebrations in this column. But I will mention another celebration which I didn’t include above. See if you can guess. I’ll give you some hints.

It is celebrated by the sights and sounds of effervescent and illuminating fireworks bursting o’er the land. People from Bayside to Howard Beach, Forest Hills to Little Neck and all points beyond, bask in the brilliance of the display as they watch red, white and blue fireworks brightening the azure sky. Don’t know yet? I’ll help you further.

The decibel level is very high, but the celebrants don’t mind because they know, on this day, Americans everywhere also are rejoicing. No, it is not your kids celebrating the last day of school. Since I am not a quizmaster like Regis Philbin, I will tell you the answer — it is the day to wish our Uncle Sam a very happy 226th birthday — the Fourth of July. So, moving right along, this column will describe how children in my old neighborhood celebrated this grand holiday many years ago.

It was an exciting time for children growing up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Being the seventh of eight children, I loved to hear the stories regaled by my older brothers about their boyhood escapades during this holiday. Every year they saved their money to buy fireworks for the festivities. They earned the money by running errands for the merchants. Instead of being paid in cash, they were given empty milk bottles, each one redeemable for one penny at Weiss’ dairy store. They knew that the kids who didn’t have their own fireworks lost prestige. No one ever shared them with anyone, not even with best friends. You bought your own, lit your own and, on your own, you flung them.

It was a definite sign of adolescent wealth if you lit a string of small firecrackers all at once. Usually, kids unwound the cord, which was braided into the fuses of a cluster, so they could light them on a punk (torchwood), one at a time. Some of the mischievous ones threw them into shops, dropped them into the gratings of cellars, and lobbed them sizzling into buses. A few even tormented trolley-car motormen by putting torpedoes (a cylinder-shaped firecracker) on the tracks.

The largest firecrackers were called “salutes,” which were bought in Chinatown, a short distance from our neighborhood. The kid who didn’t have an armory of salutes was believed to be a coward. The salutes were lit and empty food cans were placed over them, bottoms up. Contests were held to see how far each boy’s salutes could make the cans jump.

Gigantic salutes (used by the older teenagers) also were exploded. They were so powerful that a garbage can would be lifted by the force of its explosion. For safety reasons, these cherry bombs ultimately were outlawed.

Our parents continually lectured my brothers about the danger of firecrackers. They would mention that some acquaintance on Delancey Street had his eyes burned out the year before. My brothers never knew the boy who was blinded on the Fourth, but they heard a lot about him.

One of their saddest memories of the Fourth of July was the story of the proprietor of a Chinese Laundry (back then, the Chinese owned most of the wet-wash laundries). Many children were frightened by this man, wearing his long hair in a pigtail, dressed in strange apparel and speaking a foreign language.

The adults knew that he worked long hours in his basement store, toiling at his tub, amidst a steady haze of steam, and slept in the rear of his store. They tried to convince their children that the laundryman was not evil but a hard-working, decent American. But the kids feared him and made up stories about the man they considered a “devil.”

Verbal insults followed the man whenever he ventured outside and the kids found delight in harassing him by throwing salutes into his store, shattering the windows. He bribed the rowdy children with rice cakes and greasy, sugar sprinkled nuts, which halted their attacks for the day. Thankfully, children no longer are that intolerant toward minorities.

The nights of July Fourths always ended peacefully with the display of sparklers. The big kids never had time for them. They weren’t dangerous enough. The smaller ones held onto them until they were about to burn out and then hurled them in a spark-dripping arc. They started many a fire in tenement flats because many of them landed on windowsills with blowing curtains. But the fires we started usually were extinguished by a couple of glasses of water.

Since Sept. 11, New York City banned all fireworks displays. (Even the Asians were not allowed to set off traditional fireworks during the Chinese New Year.) However, the ban recently has been lifted by Mayor Bloomberg.

So readers, there you have it. Go forth on the Fourth and enjoy its glory because it comes around but once a year. Oh, yes, I mustn’t forget to ask one and all to join Gloria and me in wishing the good old U.S. of A. a very happy birthday. May it have many more.

And, readers, a word of caution from your father figure. Don’t play around with pyrotechnics (fireworks to you) on July Fourth. I heard that last year a child on Northern Boulevard got blinded from fireworks.

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at or call 229-0300, ext. 140.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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