My father built a cannon.
I must have been about 10. We had just moved to the city I live in today. My father, a precision machinist by trade and a Confederate General wannabe the rest of the time, got it into his gun loving head that he could build a cannon and damned if he didn't. Oh, it was a scale model, it's brass barrel finely spun on one of "The Shop's" machines. It sat on a handmade wooden caisson, beautifully constructed with large wooden spoke wheels. The entire thing was probably about 15 inches in length and for 364 days of the year (365 if it was a leap year) it sat on the side of the hearth in the living room. It made a nice tableau in there, the large, carved wood screaming war eagle clutching a brace of arrows in it's claw proudly gracing the wall over the mantel, my mother's kerosene lamps flanking my grandfather's clock and a red lava light ON the mantel and the little cannon sitting proudly on the red brick hearth.
On the morning of July 4th, however, my dad would wheel the little cannon out to the porch. He would put out the flag and then go to work. First, into the muzzle of the cannon went a small measure of black powder. Then something else I don't remember now. And finally, the "wad", a small disc of pliable yet firm material, about a half an inch thick and the exact diameter of the inside of the barrel. This was then tamped down with a wooden stick he had fashioned to look like something he had seen in a Revolutionary War movie, "Johnny Tremaine" if I remember right. And finally, a pinch of gunpowder was put into the little hole that had been drilled into the barrel from the top, towards the back.
A long, fireplace match was struck and touched to the little pile of gunpowder and everyone retreated a safe distance from the little cannon, about 12 inches would do it. The powder flared and went out. And about 5 seconds later, "BOOM!" came the shot, smoke puffed from the mouth of the cannon and, largely due to the echo set off by the set up of the gun on the roofed front porch a MOST satisfying noise was generated.
This shot usually occurred at about 7:15am. On a national holiday. When everyone was home. Sleeping in on a day off was highly overrated in my father's mind. My father actually felt national holidays in general were overrated and only let his employees have the day off because the government forced him to, an attitude he hasn't changed, btw. Earlier this year, on President's Day, my phone rang and the caller I.D. indicated it was my father. I cheerfully answered and was treated to a good five minutes on why the hell was I home, what the hell was President's Day and when did we start celebrating THAT? He doesn't believe in taking vacation time either, I am continually lectured on why I should NOT be taking vacation days. I took a day off to attend my uncle's FUNERAL and he's still bitching about how I shouldn't have done that. I told him not to worry, when it's time for his funeral I'll go to work instead if that would make him feel better about it, but I digress...
So, about 7:15, the first shot was fired on Burbank. At approximately 7:20 my best friend's father would appear at our front door, having been rudely awakened on a day off. He would have been there earlier but he usually paused to put on a pair of pants, light a cigarette and open a beer before he headed across the street and volunteered to tamp the next load, cannon and all, up my father's ass.
The cannon then was relegated to every hour on the hour. My mother refused to go near the thing but my father and I could load and light in our sleep.
This was interspersed with periodic firings of the cat food cans. But only if someone had been "back home" (which meant someone in my father's family had been back to Mississippi even though they all actually grew up in Oklahoma, which they all claimed wasn't any part of the Midwest at all but really belonged to the Confederacy) and brought firecrackers back with them. Firecrackers were absolutely illegal in the Los Angeles area, even way back then and were always a treat. My best friend Marilyn, my dad, her dad (now on his second six pack of the day and having forgotten the early morning wake up war cry from the Dean's house) and I would place empty cat food or tuna cans upside down on a firecracker in the middle of the street, with the wick sticking out the side. Someone would light the fuse and then we ran like hell for the curb, where we waited breathlessly for the eventual explosion and oohed and ahhed over the height achieved by said can.
One afternoon we had just lit the fuse and straightened up to observe a black and white, quietly making his way down the block, searching for 4th of July miscreants with sparklers (which were also illegal in my town, in fact, EVERY kind of firework was illegal here, we're at the base of some notoriously dry foothills and the fire hazard does make it understandable, not to mention the idiots that set their garages on fire and blow off the occasional finger. If you can't light your barbecue without ending up in the E.R. you really shouldn't be allowed to play with gunpowder). Well, the fuse had been lit, the can was over the firecracker, the cop car was about 10 feet away and the four of us were pretty much shit out of luck.
The fuse smoldered forever. The car slowly passed directly over the can. We stood at the curb, the four of us looking as if we had just turned around to view at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and were now giant salt licks. The firecracker had the longest fuse known to man. The car slowly, silently rolled over the can and continued on it's agonizing way. His rear bumper cleared the focus of our attention and then, about five yards later, the thing went off like a roman candle. The cop car jerked to a stop. We stood, frozen. It was a shame now that I think of it, that can must have gone up a good 25 feet. We waited and waited and finely, mercifully, it landed, with a thud, on the asphalt and rolled to the gutter. We stood. The cop car idled. After what seemed like a week later the Mexican stand-off ended, the car shifted back into drive and continued his slow, silent tour of the neighborhood.
We retreated to the safety of the local city park, where watermelon was free, there was continuous (bad) entertainment under the band shell, one of the adjoining streets had been closed off and was being used for hayrides and tandem bicycle rentals and I came home with an empty coin purse and a plastic bag full of goldfish. My mother reported that the cop circled the neighborhood every five minutes for the next two hours but she was prone to hyperbole at times.
My mother died 10 years ago today, btw. She would. She's sitting somewhere now thinking "Ha!" My father and I used to drive her to drink, or at least that's what SHE said caused it. She also revered Thomas Jefferson and dying on the dame date he did would have pleased her to no end. The date, not the death.
The cannon, btw, was retired many years later. My father overloaded it and blew the barrel right off the little wood caisson, breaking one of the exquisitely crafted wheels in the process. He fixed it and it sits on his hearth now, under the screaming eagle. But it's all for show, it never worked quite right again. The city eventually stopped putting on the 4th of July picnic and carnival in the early 80s, the expense was killing them. My father left my mother, remarried and now lives about 90 minutes away. But for some reason it doesn't matter. Because every 4th of July I dress in red, white and blue and I make the flag cake and, even though my yard and barbecue were taken by the bank two years ago I will get out my grill pan and make burgers and hot dogs and potato salad and lemonade and I'll watch "1776" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and after dark I'll run out into the middle of the street to see what fireworks there are to be seen.
And I'll wax rhapsodic about the 4th of days gone by and I'll stop and think about what a truly remarkable thing celebrating Independence Day is.
So...HAPPY 4th, my friends! May your parades be long, your brass bands in tune, your barbecues easy to light, your baseball game successful and your beer cold. May you and your friends and neighbors have spectacular fireworks tonight. Because 234 years ago a bunch of sweaty men in bad wigs crossed the Rubicon and, in doing so, gave us this wonderful summer day.