I THREADED MY WAY through the midtown, midday sidewalk traffic that eddied and surged over and around the clutter of construction paraphernalia. It was desperately hot. My wash-and-wear suit clung to me like some rancid, scratchy extension of my clammy skin. All around me New York was busily, roaringly, endlessly rebuilding itself, like some giant phoenix rising from the red-hot ashes of its dead self. New York's incurable Edifice Complex blooms mightily in midsummer.
Feverishly, I scuttled through shimmering waves of asphalt-scented heat toward the cool, dark, expensive decadence of my favorite French restaurant, Les Miserables du Frites, little realizing that in another split second I was about to savor one of the truly secret subterranean pleasures of the human soul, Elbowing my way into a hunched line of prickly-heated city dwellers plodding single file over a long-planked gangway, tightly jammed between an enormous excavation and a line of throbbing, bright-orange engines of construction, I saw ahead of me a short, stout lady wearing a damp flowered dress, clutching a Bonwit Teller shopping bag in both hands. Ducking her head low, she ran interference for me and those behind me through the wall of ringing sound and metallic heat.
I had reached perhaps the mid-point of the plank gangway, breathing shallowly the rising clouds of cement dust and carbon monoxide fumes - a subtle mixture that forms one of the more insidious anesthetics yet devised, dulling the senses and clouding the soul - and then it happened. It was more felt, at first, than heard - a long, low concussion pushing up suddenly from the gut and exploding in the brain like a giant comber on the beach of some lost, forgotten sea:
For a split second the great concussion hung in mid-air and then, unthinkingly, my long-dormant GI reflexes galvanizing into motion, I hurled myself to the clapboards, digging in as I landed. It was a direct hit! I clung to the boards, waiting for the second round of the bracket, which should come, I hastily calculated, off to my right. Suddenly I became aware of an insistent rapping on the back of my neck, as an elderly citizen behind me croaked:
"Get up, you bum! If you're going to sleep on the sidewalk, al least find a doorway!"
He stepped over me and sheepishly I regained my feet. Up and down the line I saw other ex-Gis brushing themselves off and once again moving forward in the unending stream of 20th Century man, bound for God knows where. I peered down through the haze of the great canyon of excavation that lay just beyond the barricades. And then I smelled it - the acrid, faint, naggingly pleasant scent of dynamite!
Minutes later I sat pensively at a tiny corner table of Les Miserables, waiting for my luncheon date to arrive and vaguely conscious of an indefinable sense of nostalgic euphoria. It had started immediately alter the blasting operation at the construction site. As I sipped my drink, I found myself musing about the first time I had heard that primal, soul-satisfying roar of exploding black powder. And then it hit me. I knew what had sparked those mingled tinglings of regret and exhilaration. The Fourth of July! It had crept up on tiny cats' feet - unnoticed, unsung, unbombarded. Tomorrow was the Fourth of July! In just a few hours it would be the glorious Fourth. And here I was without so much as a sparkler to my name. I ordered another drink and settled down deeper into my eider-down bed of remembrances. The northern Indiana landscape of my youth began to take form amid the bottles behind the mirrored bay. Somewhere off in the distance, the construction crew set off another dull, thumping blast that jiggled the silverware on my table, and it all began to come back.
Dynamite, heat and excitement were all intermingled in that Fourth of July ritual that has long since departed. What is there about a solid, molar-rattling explosion that sends the blood coursing and brings the roses to our cheeks? Nowhere was this indescribable pleasure more honored and indulged than in the mill towns of Indiana, I remember guys sitting on their front porches, lighting sticks of dynamite - real dynamite - and tossing them out into the street, just for kicks. They'd sit rocking hack and forth in the swing, snapping dynamite sticks, which conic about six inches long, like breaking off a chunk of a Baby Ruth candy bar. Scotch-taping a little fuse on the end, they'd raise it with suitable flourishes to their cigar butts - bbzzzzzzzzz - hold it aloft for a split second, flip it back by the garage, and dive for the floor.
Windows would shatter, crockery would crash for blocks around, old ladies would be hurled into the bushes, but no one seemed to care. After all, the Fourth is the Fourth.
Dynamite was the staff of life to the average hillbilly of the day. He celebrated with it, feuded with it - even fished with it. The sporting instinct runs strong in the hills. When the fishing season would open, the river would literally be aboil with TNT.
The air for miles around would be filled with catfish, hundreds of the sporting elite fielding them with bushel baskets.
The more civilized celebrants of the Fourth, however, blew their relief checks in an orgy of buying at the fireworks stand. The fireworks stand. Even setting the words down on the page causes my hand to tremble and my brow to dampen in delicious fear - the sort of fear that only a kid who has lit a five-incher under a Carnation Milk can and hurled himself prone upon the earth awaiting the end can know. Cradled in the palm of the hand. The five-incher - a hard, cool. Rocklike cylinder of sinister jade green topped by a vicious red fuse - was a thing of cruel beauty. And that was only a five-incher. Fireworks in those days came in even rnore lethal and exotic varieties. None, however, was rnore potent, more awesome. Than the ne plus ultra of the fireworks world - the Dago bomb. (This was never construed as an anti-Italian name, by the way, being more pro than anything else.) A thing of exquisite symmetry, it came in four sizes: the live-inch. The eight-inch, the ten-inch and the sure death. In more effete circles it was known as an ''aerial bomb,- but among real fireworks fans it was most often known as "the Dago heister." It actually, looked like those giant nonexistent firecrackers that occasionally show up in cartoons - a red, white and blue tube with a wooden base stained dark green, and a long red fuse.
Theoretically, this infernal machine was to be lit by an expert hand. It would then explode with the first, or lesser, explosion, which propelled an aerial charge of pure white TNT into the ambient air, theoretically vertical, for several hundred feet, and then - devastation! - not once, but several times, depending on the size of the bomb. It was not cheap, the smallest going for fifty cents and the largest for around three dollars, which in the days of the Depression was truly a capital investment. The mere sight of one of the larger specimens on the shelves of a fireworks stand sent waves of awe and excitement through the sparkler buyers. It was truly the big time.
It was a Dago bomb that played a key role in the legend that was Ludlow Kissel. Kissel found his true raison d'etre the Depression itself. He worked in idleness the way artists work in clay or marble. He was a true child of his time. He was also a magnificent souse. The word "alcoholic- had not yet conic into common usage. At least nnot in the steel towns of Indiana. Nor were there any pompous Freudian explanations for die insatiable thirst that Kissel nourished. He was a drunk, and that's all there was to it. He just liked the stuff, and glommed onto it whenever the occasion demanded - which was always. And if the storeboughten variety of lightning was not available, he concocted his own - using raisins, apricots, Fleischmann's yeast, molasses and dead flies.
Nominally, Kissel worked in the roundhouse at the steel mill, and for over 30 years had been on "the extra board," being called only in extreme emergencies, which occurred roughly once every other month or so. He invariably celebrated a clay of work by holing up in the Bluebird Bar and Grill for perhaps a week, and then would return home, propelling himself painfully forward on one foot and one knee. It took him sometimes upwards of three hours to make it from the street to the back porch. At three A.M., lying in my bedroom. It was kind of comforting to hear Mr. Kissel struggling up the steps of his back porch, inching painfully step by step:
Long pause .
Longer pause . . .
Thump (Three in a row!).
A split-second pause, then . . . BUMP BUMP BUMP K-THUMP! He's back at the bottom.
Many's the time I was lulled to sleep by this inspiring drumbeat of dauntless human endeavor braving overwhelming odds: Kissel trying to make the kitchen cloor. And then the voice of Mrs. Kissel, a large, flower-print-aproned lady who read True Romance voraciously, would call out:
"Watch the steps, Ludlow. They're tricky." She loved him.
Kissel, one Fourth of July. Played leading role in a patriotic tableau that is even today spoken of in hushed. Reverential tones throughout the Midwest. It was a particularly steamy, hellishly hot July. The houseflies clung to the screen doors and the mosquitoes hummed in great swarming clouds among the poplar trees. It was in such weather that Kissel reached his apogee. There was something about the birds and the bees and the hot sun that kindled Kissel's blood and stoked an insatiable thirst for the healing grape. His stocky, overalled figure reeling through the twilight, leaving a wake of flickering fireflies, was as much a part of the summer landscape as the full golden moon. Parishioners sprinkling their lawns would nod familiarly to hits as he wove through the fine spray of the brass nozzles.
The fateful Fourth in question dawned hot and junglelike, with an overhang of black, lacy storm clouds. A few warm, immense drops splattered clown through the dawn haze. I know. Because I was up and ready for action. Few kids slept late on the Fourth. Even as die stars were disappearing and the sun was edging over Lake Michigan, the first cherry bombs rent the stillness and the first little old ladies dialed the police.