El Dorado, Kansas

The Smell of Patriotism

For a kid living in a small town in Kansas, the summer seems to hold endless possibilities. In the late 60s and 70s, summer meant swimming, vacation trips, and the Fourth of July. El Dorado had a summer recreation program that included swimming lessons, little league baseball, and Thursday afternoon movies. I learned to swim at the municipal pool taking morning swimming lessons. Our family (or my cousins, the Hickmans down the street) usually had a season ticket to the swimming pool. That meant walking up to the entrance, giving them your season ticket number, and heading in for three or four hours of sun, splashing, snack bar candy, and chlorine.

There were times when the adults were too busy or maybe too lazy to give us a ride. I lived around three miles from the pool but that was not an insurmountable distance on a bike as a kid, even with the massive climb from my house up to Summit Street. As a ten or eleven year old with deteriorating vision, it could be difficult. I was half-blind all the time in the pool so as much as I loved to swim and dive, the entire experience was a blur. Literally. My classmates were trying to nonchalantly peek at the high school girls in bikinis sunning themselves by the snack bar and to me, it was a flesh-colored blur with occasional splashes of neon green or orange or whatever fabric color was in vogue.

Summer vacation was often the highlight of the summer. My parents usually planned a three or four week trip which would take place in July or August. We spent a lot of time in Colorado but anywhere west of the Rockies was fair game. In 1965, we hit Yellowstone and for me, as a 7 year old, that was utterly awesome! I was keeping track of wildlife for a while but around the hundredth black bear it started to become pointless. Those vacations were something we really anticipated.

By far, the most exciting single day of the summer was July 4th. In Kansas, fireworks went on sale late June ushering in an entire week of explosive goodness. We saved up allowance money or lawn-mowing money for weeks preparing. The family would make a trip to a firework stand a day or two before the actual holiday for everyone to buy their stash. On the 4th itself, we used to drive over to Peabody. The town of Peabody had a pretty impressive firework display in the city park after dark. We would drive over and picnic with the kids setting off fireworks and generally having fun, and then in the evening we would migrate over to the firework display carrying blankets to spread on the grass and we would lie there watching the colors and flashes with all the wonder of a perfect summer evening.

As the years passed, El Dorado got its own firework display out at Lake Bluestem. Back in the day when there were two lakes - Lake El Dorado and Lake Bluestem - the most picturesque and pleasant for picnics and general gathering was Lake El Dorado which was really more of a wide section of Satchel Creek. Lake Bluestem was more popular for boaters but being a man-made reservoir, there were fewer trees and less scenic views. Still, the fireworks were set off on the spillway of the dam on the "new lake" as it was known. So we gathered there to watch stuff being ignited.

By my junior high days, I was delivering newspapers and I always had a minor source of income of my own. My friend, Brian Miller, and I would start visiting firework stands on the first day they opened. One of my favorites was Marcum's stand over by the American Legion. It was around a mile from my house and an easy bike ride. Brian and I would pick up enough firecrackers to accomplish our planned acts of destruction for the day. This usually involved attacking and destroying a model airplane or ship or tank. We spent our days surrounded by a cloud of powder smoke and burnt plastic. Smells like … victory! Or summer. Whatever.

We often headed over to the Southwest Trafficway that skirted between El Dorado proper and Skelly Refinery. We would head off road and through a tunnel that led under the railroad and provided us access to a shady bank of the Walnut River. There, under the shade of cottonwoods, we would anchor a Revell scale model battleship in the lethargic current and try to lob a Black Cat close enough to it to shatter the hull.

I swear, it's a wonder we didn't turn out to be terrorists! What were our parents thinking?

Brian liked to gather up all the plastic scraps we created with this process. He even brought along a brown paper bag for this purpose. He would return home and rebuild these models over and over. We blew up a Tamiya motorized Sherman tank half a dozen times. By that last engagement, it wasn't looking very good, but it would still crawl along at several feet per minute while we attempted our artillery assault.

Today, with product liability and warning labels and internet horror stories, I imagine most parents would be highly reluctant to allow their children to purchase and explode ordnance without strict supervision. I will say we generally ignored the instructions on the packaging. Those instructions, probably written in Taiwan, translated simply as, "Lay on ground. Light fuse. Get away." Everyone read the instructions and everyone remembered them verbatim. Also, everyone ignored them.

I would guess that ninety percent of the firecrackers I detonated (and there were tens of thousands over the course of my childhood) were lit while I held them in my fingers and then thrown to detonate a few yards away. Did I occasionally have premature detonations? Sure. We all did. Did this result in ringing ears and occasional blood blisters on fingertips? Uh, yeah. So what? Did I once drop a tiny piece of burning fuse into a mason jar full of Black Cats which was standing between my feet, resulting in lacerations on my ankles from exploding glass shards? Well, yeah. But I lived.

In my home town, every male I knew exploded something at some point in his childhood. Besides fireworks, we had a pretty elaborate history with model rockets. I helped friends build tennis ball cannons out of aluminum cans and duct tape. Using lighter fluid, you could fire a tennis ball a good hundred yards or more with one of those. One of my childhood friends was the son of a shooter who loaded his own ammunition. This meant we had access to powder and a tool shop capable of fashioning a reasonably effective pipe bomb.

I'm not saying we ever did. Hey, did you read about a school massacre in El Dorado back in the early 70s? No, you did not. Let's leave it at that.

Today, I live in central Texas where it is hot, humid, and suffering from a permanent drought. The 4th is celebrated in my neighborhood with a thoroughly illegal orgy of fireworks. I nervously wait for my yard to burst into flames requiring me to run outside with a fire extinguisher or garden hose to save my house.

Man, I miss being a kid.