The M80: Firecracker Nirvana


       Lee Philbrick has been my friend since kindergarten. Growing up, we were attached at the hip. So it was only natural that his dad taught me things my dad didn’t. John taught me how to fish, hunt, handle snakes, gamble, shoot a gun, drink Old Milwaukee Light, chase girls and tell a good story. He served in the Navy during the Korean War, a time he only spoke about once, and was tough as nails. Monday through Friday he played the well-respected CPA for the county. He also shared his passion for the Fourth of July and fireworks.


      “It’s your Constitutional right to light fireworks on the Fourth,” he proclaimed. “George Washington intended us to celebrate the founding of this great country for at least three days with explosives and beer.”


     In the early ‘70s, a time before computers, Ritalin, attention disorder deficit, X-Boxes and bicycle helmets, we didn’t let someone celebrate the Fourth of July for us. Tents and buildings (now call “veggie stands”) would pop up for a few days and sell legal (for a few days) explosives. Watching a fireworks show took place in your backyard, not at some sterile “official” display where you ooh'd and aah'd at someone else’s effort. There wasn’t a Fourth when John didn’t toss firecrackers, bottle rockets and other various armaments with us.


      My mom primed my obsession for firecrackers when she turned me on to ladyfingers at the young age of 6. They're hardly a dangerous firecracker since you can still buy them today. But the were a gateway explosive to stronger stuff like Black Cat firecrackers. (Black Cats were legal then, but you could find your ass in the slammer today for owning a pack.) When I was 10, my cousins introduced me to cherry bombs, a fine firecracker that, in the late 60s, was still sold through most Missouri firecracker stands.


       As powerful as cherry bombs and Black Cats were, it was the legendary (and outlawed) M80 that set fantasy standards for all firecrackers. Just as most kids today won’t experience the thrill of throwing Black Cat, we believed we’d never experience the thrill of an M80.


       “These are the fireworks we had when I was a kid,” John said. He held up a red cartridge with a fuse sticking out of the top. “You light one of these and get the hell away.”


      On the side of the cartridge was “M80.” I stared in awe. It looked exactly like an M80 smoke bomb, but “smoke” wasn’t written on the side. We wondered if it would work after sitting in the box for years. John placed it on the ground in the middle of the yard. He lit the fuse with his cigarette, and we stood back. Did you know the M80 is as powerful to one-eighth of a standard stick of dynamite? We should have stood farther back. The explosion parted my hair and rang my ears. My eyes opened wide, and I smiled. I had just experienced “firecracker nirvana.”


      A Black Cat wouldn’t cut it anymore. My new life mission: to reintroduce the M80 firecracker. The world is a chemistry set when you’re 13, and nothing would stand in my way of replicating the Perfect Firecracker. Though simple, producing an M80 was an arduous task and took at least an hour. The process was probably dangerous, but that didn’t matter, since most people minded their own business back then. The time and risk was worth the final product: an explosion that ripped coffee cans in half, left small craters in the ground and lit up a dark back yard. Ant farms didn’t have a prayer.


       My parents, though impressed with my ability to produce an extraordinary firecracker, didn’t really give me the look I was going for when I showed them my creation. I anxiously showed John my version of the M80 at his cabin during an Independence Day celebration. He was skeptical. Hell, he handled M80s made by real Chinamen, not a seventh-grader. I lit the fuse and we stood back. This time John’s eyes opened wide and jaw dropped. He gave me the look I wanted from my parents. “That sure does get your attention,” he said, smiling. “You made that?”


       I told him the recipe and ingredients. He got his car keys and said, “Come on.”


      Making M80s wasn’t cheap for a kid on a fixed income, and I welcomed his contribution. Hell, it didn’t matter who lit them or what you blew up. M80s were a thrill--like mountain climbing, surfing the earth on a snowboard or hang-gliding. They were dangerous, but when handled properly produced smashing results. When we got back to the cabin, John cleared a place on the table and I commenced to craft as many M80s as I could. I sat until my fingers were stained with gunpowder that couldn’t be washed off.


      I placed a couple of dozen or so into a coffee can and went outside to show John the return on his investment. He inspected them and asked me for my slingshot (another distraction we had in the ‘70s). He picked up an M80 and placed it into the sling. He pulled the rubber back, looked at me and said, “Light it.”


      I gave him a puzzled look. “Really?”


      “Light it, dammit,” he said, pulling the sling further back. Today, John would find himself in the joint for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. I struck the match and lit the fuse. John held the M80 in the slingshot and waited. The fuse burnt closer to the cartridge. I took a step and back and pleaded with him to release the explosive. ”Let it go, let it go,” I said, wondering if we’d be picking up pieces of his hand soon.


      He stood stoically, ignoring my pleas, watching the fuse. At the very last second he released it. The mid-air explosion was super-magnificent and rang out forever. Setting M80s on the ground wouldn’t be good enough anymore. For the rest of the day we took turns at a chance to lose our fingers in the name of Freedom, something we had more of then.




Click here to read more about the M80 and why you can't buy them


MY favorite place to buy legal explosives




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