This is a holiday gift from me to you, my friends and followers. I hope you like it. I loved writing it. Have a happy, healthy and safe 4th of July and let’s all remember what this holiday is all about: our forefather’s struggle for our independence...and our right to blow excrement up! Enjoy!
Listen to Dee read his story on his weekly podcast...Snider Comments!
And the Rocket's Red Glare...
by Dee Snider | Photo by Mark Weiss
The summer of 1967, when I graduated from elementary school, was memorable even without “The Great Battle of Ardmore Road” to highlight it. I was 12 years old and still walking tall from being one of “the big kids” in school (and not yet aware of just how little I would become again when I started junior high). Being “almost a teenager,” my parents had finally started to let me run my own life. As long as I did my chores and was home exactly at 5 o’clock for dinner each night, the world--make that neighborhood-- was pretty much mine. I had a paper route, which meant I always had a couple of bucks in my pocket, so between that, my newfound freedom and my trusty bicycle, I had finally arrived. At what I wasn’t exactly sure...but I felt like I was there. Not only were my parents treating me different, other adults were treating me different, and the morning after it happened, even the authorities treated me different. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t even shaving yet...I was the man.
Now “The Great Battle of Ardmore Road” is the stuff of legend, and as the years go by, with every retelling, people question the exactness of my recollections. To be honest, there are times even I would doubt my own memory of that fateful Fourth of July if it wasn’t for all the documentation to back it up. Memories can change...but police reports never lie.
As long as I could remember the Murphys and the Neidermans had battled for July 4th supremacy. Living directly across the street from the two warring clans gave me a bird’s eye view of their annual face-off. My family lived dead at the end of the block; picture a “T” shaped intersection if you will. The Neidermans lived diagonally across from us to the right and the Murphy’s house occupied the opposite corner. This gave my family and me a front row seat for their final, epic showdown.
My father says that at first the families were like any other on the block, each year having Independence Day celebrations, complete with the prerequisite burgers, hot dogs, beer, soda, slices of watermelon, aunts, uncles, cousins, a couple of grandparents sitting on folding chairs...and “a few fireworks.” As the years passed, each of the family’s displays grew and the competition fostered between them escalated into a “Hatfields and
McCoys” type feud. Every Fourth both the Murphys and the Neidermans would raise the bar with their pyrotechnic displays, methodically trying to outdo their rival. Other families in the neighborhood didn’t bother to shoot off their own fireworks or even go downtown for the annual fire department display. There was just no way anyone could compete with the Murphy’s and Neiderman’s Armageddon-like shows.
Now, for a certified fireworks junkie like myself (read: average kid), the anticipation of this annual orgy of explosives started the minute the calendar page was flipped to June and the reality that summer vacation was truly in sight began to sink in. While at the time the appeal of fireworks was purely a gut level thing-- they were bright, loud, colorful, forbidden and potentially dangerous--I now see how they mirror the extremes of human passion. From the joyous, most raucous highs to, potentially the most terrifying lows, pyrotechnics exemplify the chaotic range of emotion only human beings are capable of experiencing. And viewing them brings it out in all of us.
Leading up to the big day, every kid in the neighborhood would speculate intensely about what might be in store. But no matter how overblown our imaginations got, no matter how apocalyptically perverse our visions became, rarely did they exceed what was presented on the night.
Now, 11 months out of the year, the Murphy and Neiderman children were just like the rest of us; thoroughly involved with all the other street urchins in the neighborhood, doing pretty average, stupid stuff. Running around, getting dirty, scratching...you know--being kids. Dan Murphy was in my class and we hung out and played ball after school a lot. Cynthia Neiderman was a year younger than me and beautiful. I had a major crush on her, but sixth graders didn’t even think of liking fifth graders...apparently they had “cooties.” Come June, both the Neiderman and Murphy kids would start to distance themselves from the rest of us, becoming completely closed mouthed about what their respective families were planning for the Fourth. No amount of pumping or trickery could get them to divulge what they did or did not know. They had been trained early and well by their parents not to disclose a thing for fear of their competitor absconding with their concepts. And from humble beginnings, each of the family’s bacchanalian presentations had grown to epic proportions.
The Murphy’s and the Neiderman’s fireworks displays were way more than just a bunch of colorful explosions. Every year each of the families would come up with elaborate themes for their presentations, complete with props and sets--even costumes--to help sell their vision. While war themes were always popular with the competitors, some years the concepts were more ethereal, immortalizing things like “Birth” and “Springtime.” Other years the families might enact Broadway shows--usually musicals--and still others went for far more spiritual concepts like “Love” or the ill-fated year the Murphys chose “Death.” Fortunately for them, that was the same year the Neidermans chose “The Great Depression” as their theme, so it was pretty much a cheerless wash.
When the Fourth would finally--and for a kid, painfully slowly-- arrive, neighboring families, and the surrounding blocks as well, would line the streets not just to see the massive fireworks display that night, but to watch the elaborate preparations during the day. Local families would have Fourth of July parties completely centered on the Murphy’s and Neiderman’s shows. Rare was the invited guest who would pass up a chance to attend one of these satellite soirees. The Murphy’s and Neiderman’s Annual Fireworks Extravaganza was the hottest ticket in town.
Each Fourth, the physical construction of the display sets would start early. Pieces were often prefabricated to save precious building time. The suspense amongst the onlookers would grow in direct proportion to the complexity of the creations being built; a sort of foreplay to the coming show. Sometimes the orgasmic squeals of delight were so loud, people would run out of their homes just to see the erection that had elicited such an extreme reaction. Puns fully intended.
Surprisingly, with all the fanfare and excitement centered on their homes, the Murphys and Neidermans seem to derive little pleasure from the experience themselves. What started out as enthusiastic, joyful, holiday festivities, had--due to the fierce competition--turned into intense, laborious efforts filled with arguing, aggravation and sometimes even tears amongst the family members. Suspicious glances and dirty looks were constantly being exchanged, between the competing tribes. To the Murphys and the Neidermans, this had nothing to do with having a good time--or the celebration of our nation’s birth--and everything to do with being the crowd favorite and besting their rival.
Now in the 60’s--at least in my neighborhood--air conditioning was a rare commodity. In the dead of summer, if you wanted air conditioning, you either stood in front of the refrigerator with the door open (a move guaranteed to get you a “beating” if your dad or mom caught you), hung out in the frozen food section of the supermarket or you went into town and saw a movie. Movie theaters were the one place that always had air conditioning. Why else would anybody pay to go inside a windowless (and back then, smoke filled) room in the heat?
Since standing in front of the open fridge could be hazardous to your health, hanging out in the supermarket looked suspicious, and going to the movies was for special occasions (or when your dad or mom couldn’t stand the heat anymore), summertime was just one long “sweat” with various, subtle perspiration level changes throughout the day and night. Each morning, when the sun came blasting through the windows, quickly turning your home’s upstairs “dormer” room into an inferno, you woke up gasping for air, in a puddle of your own sweat. I’m pretty sure “dormer” is French for “roasting in the summer; freezing in the winter.” You’d then spend the day outside, sweating and doing anything you could to get out of the heat and cool off in even the slightest way. Any kid who had a pool was the most popular kid in the neighborhood; no matter how big a loser they might be the rest of the year. We had a pool. The water was greenish, tepid and questionably sanitary, but nobody ever complained.
When the sun finally did go down, lowering the mean temperature all of five degrees, you went back into your sweatbox of a house, laid on the couch or carpet, sweating, and watched TV. When your parents sent you to bed--so they could sweat alone--you tossed and turned, until you finally fell asleep in the suffocating heat. Then you’d wake up the next morning, gasping for air like a beached flounder and start the whole nightmare over again. This went on pretty much from July 1st through Labor Day weekend.
One, long, brutally sweaty block of time. Why did we like summer again?
The summer of “The G. B. of A. R.” was particularly hot. A heat wave hit early and stayed long. It seemed like winter ran straight into summer after a brief, but intense rainy season. This made all of the greenery more lush than usual, which is probably a good thing when you consider all the battle related fires...but I’m getting ahead of myself. As the big weekend approached, the weather reports predicted that year’s Fourth of July celebration was going to be the hottest on record. And when that morning finally broke, it looked like--unfortunately for once--the weathermen were going to be right.
I was awoken early that morning--in a particularly large pool of sweat--to the sound of firecrackers being set off by overanxious merrymakers getting a head start on the day’s festivities. The extreme humidity made the detonations sound like muffled thuds and the cicadas in the trees were already screaming for whatever it is they scream for. But nothing could lessen my enthusiasm for the day and night ahead. This was the defining event of each summer and something told me that this year’s was going to be the mother of them all.
As usual, families had already begun to lay claim to their piece of the street, dragging lawn chairs, chaise lounges, coolers, umbrellas and other “accouterments de summer” out to secure their piece of asphalt real estate. In my neighborhood, Independence Day was a big deal. Some family’s setups were so elaborate they would run electric and water (extension cords and hoses) out to their spot. Due to our prime viewing location, my family didn’t have to concern ourselves with such mundane efforts; we just brought everything out onto our porch. It was the only time of year that we were the focused envy of all of our neighbors...and loathed universally. It felt pretty good.
The occasional scuffle was known to break out during some of the territorial “negotiations.” Someone would try to monopolize more than their fair share of the street, or worse, move someone else’s things to make room for their own. This would result in a yelling match and once in a while some pushing and shoving; not really surprising for an event of this magnitude. But that year there seemed to be more scuffles than usual. There was even a fist fight...if a few wildly thrown punches that all missed their mark before the combatants were pulled apart can even be called that. Maybe the tropical heat brought it on, but tempers were shorter and nerves were unusually frayed. The sounds of sirens, somewhere in our town--usually a welcome accompaniment to the revelries--seemed closer than usual that year and far more ominous. As it would turn out, that Fourth of July would be a less than shining moment for our community.
Once people had set up their spots, they flocked to the street in front of the rival’s homes to get a closer look at the preparations. Tensions were higher than ever between the Murphys and the Neidermans, and amongst the family members themselves. Did I mention it was hot? There had never been any love lost between the two clans, but their animosity was reaching new heights of antagonism...and their fans loved it.
You see, there were Murphy fans and Neiderman fans, each devoted to the family they supported and capable of justifying their allegiance with detailed points of reference from years past, defending their undying belief that their side put on the best show. Many others, like myself, didn’t choose a side, cheering both on equally, never really wanting there to be a clear winner. We felt the thrill was in the competition and would be diminished if any one family was to stand clearly above the other.
As that day drew on, the crowd increased, the temperature and humidity continued to rise and the Murphy’s and Neiderman’s constructions grew. One problem quickly became evident: both families had chosen to present the same theme...The War of 1812! Even more unsettling, both presentations mirrored each other-- from their plywood facades of the U.S.S. Constitution, to their maps of the Northern Territories and Canada, to their cutouts of American, British and French soldiers and Indians. Though not exact, the Murphy’s and the Neiderman’s displays were eerily similar...and then there were the cannons! Each house had a battery of mock cannons, their barrels pointed high into the sky in anticipation of the night’s festivities. They couldn’t have been more alike if the two families had worked on their displays together.
Obviously neither family was pleased about this happenstance! Their resentment of each other was palpable.
A war of words between the Murphys and Neidermans escalated and accusations between the family members flew. Each clan was certain that someone in his or her ranks had violated family trust, but to the outside observer it was fairly clear that it was all just an incredible coincidence. I mean, once you chose the War of 1812 as your theme, what else could you construct but soldiers, Indians, cannons and the U.S.S. Constitution? Any kid who had spent that painful lesson in history class knew it was a given. Besides, while the set design was an important part of the overall presentation, it was all just a facade for the fireworks themselves. Their execution was the real show.
Pyrotechnic deployment is a fine art, requiring timing, a sense of drama, style and finesse. Any amateur can light a fuse and run, but only a true master can properly build a “fireworks spectacular” and give an audience a rousing audio and visual experience that will ring in their heads and be burned in their retinas for days. In the wrong hands even the most professional grade explosives can bore an audience to tears. This was never a concern for the Murphys and the Neidermans. If fireworks deployment was awarded belts like in karate, they were 10th degree, grand master, black belts.
Another point of much conjecture each year was what surprises might each family have in store...and where the hell did they get the damn fireworks? Fireworks were illegal in our state, yet the feuding families seemed to have a never ending supply of the contraband and no problem with the authorities. On that point, as massive as the yearly fanfare was, there was never any concern about police intervention. Why? Because the area law enforcement agents brought their families to see the shows. Problem solved. And a couple of our neighbors were volunteer fireman, who monitored things, so...you get the picture. But how the Murphy’s and the Neidermans managed to come up with new and exotic types of explosives each year was a whole other story.
Rumors about where they got their supplies abounded, especially amongst the local kids. Most of the stories centered around ancient, secret societies--probably Ninjas--who were believed to smuggle only the best fireworks from the Far East into the country and deliver the precious, black-market cargo to the Murphys and Neidermans stealthily, under the cover of darkness. My old man, never much of a conspiracy theorist himself, swore that each year he saw some weird guy in an old station wagon make a delivery to both houses, but what did he know? My dad thought banning television in our house for a year was a good idea. And if he were right about this weird guy, why would he be supplying both families? That would definitely be a conflict of interest...unless he was the one fueling the rivalry between the families! This “fireworks man” would definitely be a financial beneficiary of their ongoing war. Mmmm? Maybe he was “The Puppet Master” manipulating the whole thing.
Nah, I prefer the Ninjas theory...and I still believe it.
Source issues aside, the bottom line was that each year, both families always had a surprise or two up their sleeves; some spectacular new visual sensation to tantalize the crowd. And this was something else for the multitudes to discuss, debate and anticipate with Christmas-like delight.
Throughout that day the street fair atmosphere continued, the festivities spilling from front lawns, driveways and sidewalks out onto the streets. Since it always became impossible for cars to pass anyway, the town would grant a “block party” permit to the neighborhood and the street was closed to through traffic. Music played, children ran freely from one house to the other (but of course not to or from the Murphy’s or Neiderman’s) and adults were carefree and uninhibited. This was partially due to the massive amounts of alcohol being consumed, but mainly from the general feeling of well being that came with the day. Off from work and freed of the daily responsibilities of life, the Fourth of July, brought out the inner child in everyone...and a myriad of emotions.
Sometime during the late afternoon, the beehive like activity at the Murphys and Neidermans tapered off. With their work done, each family disappeared from their front yards. This would happen around the same time every year, but that year the quiet seemed eerier; the overall tone of things...more ominous. I’m not a psychic...but the whole neighborhood felt it. The party in the streets continued, but it was definitely a bit more subdued. Something beside the heat and humidity was growing.
The final few hours of that day--of every Fourth for that matter--was a nonevent, but that year even more so. While there was eating and drinking and general holiday merriment, it was less inspired and more obligatory; like everyone was going through the motions. Some blamed it on the suffocating heat--the thermometer read “102,” but that seemed low. No, it was more than that. Everyone was very aware that it was only a few hours until the main event--the official start time each year being 10 pm--and a nervous tension was beginning to build. Traditionally, those last few hours were a time to do anything that needed to be done that might interfere with the full enjoyment of the
night’s display. Eating, napping, runs to the store for more food, bathroom breaks--anything and everything was taken care of. The boards had to be well cleared by show time.
The relentless sun had barely dropped below the horizon when many lesser purveyors of the explosive arts in surrounding neighborhoods began to set off their wares. Being amateurs, they had neither the patience nor the timing to wait until full dark for deployment. But not the Murphys and the Neidermans. Not so much as one firecracker was ignited on their property or any surrounding properties for that matter. Setting off fireworks in the vicinity of either of the masters’ homes was considered to be a slap in the face to the families. If anybody in the neighborhood wanted to set off their own stash, they went at least several blocks away out of sheer respect.
The Murphy’s and the Neiderman’s homes were silent, dark...and brooding. Not a light on; not a single body could be seen. Their cars weren’t even on the streets or in their driveways. To the uninitiated, it would appear that no one was home, possibly away on vacation. But we all knew they were there...waiting.
At exactly 10 o’clock pm--Greenwich meantime--lights blazed forth illuminating both the Murphy’s and Neiderman’s homes and yards dramatically. The crowd cheered. And again, as if on cue, both families emerged from their front doors. True to the year’s theme, they were all dressed in period military garb...of course as American soldiers. Not surprisingly, the soldier’s ranks were determined by age and importance within the families. The children were dressed as privates, and up on through the ranks to the visiting grandparents who sported generals’ and admirals’ uniforms complete with various medals and pins reflecting their fictitious accomplishments in battles past. In the early 1800’s, clothing function, not comfort was at a premium and the heavy wool uniforms were proof. While both families looked resplendent, it was obvious that the extreme heat and humidity was making them anything but comfortable...and their irritation was evident. It wasn’t only the firework’s fuses that were short.
Now the actual igniting of the fireworks was always left to the senior members of each household--usually the fathers--but all family members were present throughout the proceedings, if only to pump the crowd up and help build excitement. The implements for detonation were varied. The younger members of the clan--old enough to have the responsibility thrust upon them--used “punks” to set off the smaller stuff. A “punk” is a dried out, marsh plant of no apparent use, that once ignited, smolders, glows and smells for hours. Hence the name.
The senior, male family members smoked big cigars throughout the proceedings and used them to ignite the larger fuses. The really big explosives were triggered electronically. This was serious business.
As was tradition, the entire Murphy and Neiderman clans lined up at the edge of their properties and stare down the opposing team--I mean, family. It was very much like the showdowns you see in Western movies. The crowd cheered as they approached their property lines--their faces stone masks--but quickly went dead quiet as the face-off began. Someone in the neighborhood played Sergio Leone spaghetti Western soundtrack through a home stereo--I think it was “The Harmonica Man”--adding to the tremendous suspense already being felt. The families stood motionless; only their eyes searching, waiting for someone to make the first move. And like the gunslingers of those same spaghetti Westerns--but without the lightening flourish of drawing their guns--someone would trigger the first explosive charge, which would be followed almost instantaneously by a counter explosion, so close in time, that it was virtually impossible to tell which family had gone first. That detail would be much debated later, but it didn’t matter. The show was on and all hell was breaking loose. The crowd loved it!
The families quickly dispersed onto their properties, taking their positions and doing their assigned jobs. On average these displays lasted 30 minutes or more and both families worked like precision drill teams. Failure was not an option.
That sweltering, dank summer night it was a particularly intense display. No sooner would one family launch an awe inspiring barrage of sound and color, then the other would counter with an even more sensational salvo. The celebration of our nation’s birth was truly done justice that night...until it started to happen.
The change was negligible at first, almost imperceptible, but it soon became apparent to all that the trajectories of both families’ fireworks were changing. Tradition--and the implicit instructions on every fireworks package--dictates that, with the exception of a few low level explosives designed purely for ground effect and mainly used as interim entertainment while bigger stuff is being loaded, all fireworks must be projected at a strict 90 degree angle to the ground. Meaning: straight into the air. This is for a variety of reasons including--but not limited to: full deployment of the explosive, maximum viewing potential and--most importantly--safety. This is indisputable. While fireworks may be exciting and beautiful to watch, no one should ever forget that they are direct descendants of actual missiles and explosives used during wartime and present a huge potential threat to life and limb. A number of years ago, a major fireworks producing family had an unfortunate incident on their compound where their stockpile was unintentionally ignited. It literally removed the compound--and half of their large, extended family--from the map. Fun as they may be, these things are definitely not toys.
By design, mortars detonate anywhere from 200 to 300 feet in the air, then trail their display back down to earth, extinguishing safely a good hundred feet or so in the air. Even with that, the shrapnel (paper and plastic) and ashes of each explosive will sprinkle onto the ground, but fully extinguished and harmless.
While locals argue to this day over who made the first move, one thing is irrefutable--subtly at first, incrementally at that--slowly each side began to aim their volleys...at the other!
Instead of deploying directly over the Murphy’s and Neiderman’s homes, the explosions began to occur first out over the street, then slowly, but surely over their rival’s homes. Soon the spectators were looking over the Murphy’s and Neiderman’s homes to view the result of each launch. And as the trajectories got lower and lower, the shots were now arching over to adjacent blocks. At that point I’m still not sure most of us understood the significance of what was going on, viewing this change as a new and exciting twist on tradition, and the Murphy’s and Neiderman’s way of sharing the love with the surrounding neighborhoods. But I clearly remember some of the attending firemen on their radios, fully aware of the slippery slope the contest was on. And still the combatants continued to adjust their aim.
Volley after volley was launched, until one particularly intense mortar hit the electric transformer a couple of blocks away. It exploded, caught fire and plunged the entire neighborhood into darkness! The celebration had taken a bizarre turn for the worse. Much worse. Finally, the idea that something was really wrong began to seep in. The crowd’s emotion changed from joy to fear in an instant, as the very real threat of personal bodily harm became apparent. Yet no one left. We were all frozen in place, like deer in headlights, transfixed by the terrifying beauty of the passion play unraveling before us. Now illuminated only by the fireworks themselves, the battle raged on.
A Neiderman-launched mortar shell arced over the Murphy’s roof and exploded on the roof of a house down the block. The Murphys answered with a shot that caromed off of the Neiderman’s roof, back into the air, then exploded on a car in a neighbor’s driveway. Now the gloves were completely off. Any possible claim of innocence or misunderstanding was gone and the battle began in earnest. Family members scrambled to re-aim the decorative--yet functional--cannons at their opponents and the Murphys and Neidermans began to aim every volley point blank at each other. The crowd had no idea what to do.
Some ran for the protective cover of their homes. Others cowered in and behind parked cars and overturned picnic tables, still wanting to watch the exchange, yet unwilling to chance possible injury. Still others stood their ground, unwilling to believe what was happening, while others frozen in shock and fear were unable to get their bodies to do what they knew they should.
With the full explosive force of each volley, now hitting each house at close range, broadside, the destructive power of these missiles could truly be appreciated and was definitely being felt. Some of the shells glanced off the combatant’s houses and into neighbor’s yards or back out into the street before going off. Others deflected off of the houses back into the air and exploded close overhead, bathing the area in an eerie, cold light...and flaming debris. And then there were the volleys that hit their mark broadside, crashing through the windows of each house. Naturally the explosive charges went off inside, blowing out whatever other windows might have been in that room with a colorful display and--not surprisingly--setting fire to same. Thankfully, the local firemen were quick to react.
The sounds of approaching police and fire trucks could be heard as the firemen and any volunteer brave enough to help out, used whatever they could find to fight the fires, large and small, all over the neighborhood. Members of the Murphy and Neiderman families grabbed garden hoses from the sides of their homes and did what little they could to contain the flames...but neither gave up on their assault.
This was a showdown years in the making and payback for the endless, imagined indignities each side believed they had suffered at the fuse lighting hands of the other. The Murphy and Neiderman clans snarled, screamed and howled, while other family members--on both sides--just laughed maniacally. To simply say that the two families had “lost it,” would be an insult to insane people everywhere. There have since been major psychological studies done on this event and the combating family’s psychosis...with inconclusive results.
While living at the vortex of each year’s Fourth of July display had always been the best place to be, on that night it was quite possibly the most dangerous place on the block--other than actually on the property of the warring families. While the combatants continued to unload everything they had at each other, many of the broadsides glanced off the intended homes and either landed in the street directly in front of my family’s house, or-- more dramatically--skittered and skimmed across the street...into our yard! Using hoses, buckets of water, blankets and small household fire extinguishers to put out the flames, my entire family worked frantically to save our home and life possessions...each of us with one eye continually watching the drama unfold.
Now without exception, every great fireworks display has a finale; the symphonic like crescendo designed to drive the crowd into a frenzy with its sheer “shock and awe.” Never has any pyrotechnics extravaganza--no matter how small or unprofessional--intentionally ended with the singular ignition of some low level explosion. Sure one might hear a couple of post-finale “pops” and “whizzes” from some leftover fireworks discovered after the smoke clears, but they don’t count. If you are going to do it right, the best is always saved for last...and plenty of it.
The Murphy’s and Neiderman’s finales were the stuff of kid’s dreams. Very loud and powerfully explosive dreams. Year after year, the bombast of said finales never disappointed. The two families would light up the night sky with everything they had-- they would unleash the fury. And that year, as fires raged, the nearby electric transformer sputtered, burned and sizzled, the authorities scrambled and people cowered in fear, there was a brief pause that gave everyone a moment to hope against hope that maybe the worst was behind us. And then the grand finale to beat them all began.
By this point, the Murphys and Neidermans had gotten a handle on aiming their fireworks in this new, less than traditional manner. As opposed to “fanning out” their display overhead, they were now laser focusing their launches directly--and with malice--at their enemy’s home. When the last barrages commenced, there was no separation of the explosions into beautiful and striking patterns. There were just two, intensely bright, extended flashes of light that outlined every other house, car or person remaining in the street, in dramatic, nuclear holocaust like fashion.
After what felt like the torturous last minutes of a school day, the final firework detonated--no one is completely sure which family should be credited with the last shot--and the explosive cacophony came to an end. Though not one other person in my neighborhood saw what I saw, I will swear on this until the day I die: From my perfect vantage point...I saw two mushroom clouds rise over the Murphy’s and Neiderman’s homes into the moonless, night sky.
When the last of the shrapnel and ash finally fell to the ground, the smoke began to clear and everyone was sure it was safe, the neighborhood slowly came out of hiding to find the only things left of either of the combatants’ homes were two crater-like, smoldering holes in the ground. And while there were fires everywhere else, the sheer force of the final blasts had sucked the oxygen out of the air over the warring family’s (former) homes, effectively smothering their fires.
Later that night, when all the fires were put out, and order--if not electricity--was relatively restored, everyone finally went to bed, thinking we had a fair idea as to the extent of the damage. Man, were we wrong.
The stark reality of any nighttime activity is never fully realized until the unsympathetic light of morning shines. While the mystery of night, the pale caste of moonlight and even streetlights can give a somewhat romantic or mysterious feel to just about any nocturnal event--no matter how dire--harsh reality cannot be denied when the sun comes up.
The next morning I awoke early, not from the heat or excitement, or even the annoying sound of the cicadas. As a matter of fact, I was more comfortable than usual because of the nice breeze.
Breeze? In my dormer bedroom? I opened my eyes to discover that I now had a better view than ever of the Murphy’s and Neiderman’s properties...as an entire corner of my bedroom was missing. My new view was positively panoramic! And then came the cries of shock from my mother, anger from my father and general dismay and disbelief from our neighbors, as they all awoke to access the true damage done by the firefight. I threw my clothes on and ran downstairs to join the rest of my family to see what else had gone unnoticed the night before.
As my family, and all the neighboring families spread out and took stock of the actual damage done, a crowd began to build where the Murphys’ and Neidermans’ homes once stood. The initial gatherers were people from neighboring communities who lived close enough to have witnessed the onslaught or had heard about the catastrophe. Nothing travels faster than bad news, and I even sensed a sort of perverse joy at our misfortune from these people, long jealous of our living so close to the Murphys and Neidermans. Be that as it may, we were all too preoccupied with our own woes to have even the slightest interest in the troubles of those responsible. But soon the commotion was so great that we couldn’t help but be distracted--for the time being--and wander over to see exactly what the growing clamor was all about. Being a kid, I was able to push, crawl and elbow my way through the throng, get right up front and see what everybody was gawking at. Or should I say, wasn’t gawking at, because there was nothing there. Absolutely nothing.
While speculation and theories abound, the only rational explanation is that the explosions and subsequent fires had been so intense that they had literally incinerated everything. Not only were the houses gone, the foundations themselves--concrete foundations--had been vaporized! And the remaining crater in the ground went far below the typical six to ten foot basement depth. I kid you not...these holes appeared to have no bottom.
Of course there was an official investigation of the incident and beyond the obvious conclusions about the reasons and motivations for the episode, it was determined that both the Murphys and the Neidermans had stockpiles of fireworks in secret subbasements. So when the finales hit, the ensuing explosions and fire were powerful enough to reach these storage spaces and ignite each of the family surpluses. Yikes.
Neither the Murphys or the Neidermans were ever heard from again. The sensationalists in the neighborhood believe that they, along with their worldly possessions had been incinerated--literally turned to dust--and dispersed into the atmosphere along with the final salvos of each of their displays. While it’s a romantic thought, it seems unlikely. Besides, there are some who claim they saw both families hastily slip away during the commotion, before the fickle finger of blame was pointed squarely at the lot of them. Either way, no one ever saw or heard from any of the Murphys or the Neidermans again.
I won’t argue the fact that time takes its toll on memories. It does. Some it wipes out completely, while others it alters, twists and confuses. Still others become exaggerated and overblown, ever evolving and contorting with repeated telling. Looking back on that surreal event, while it all seems as clear to me as if it happened yesterday, I have to accept the fact that a lot of years have passed and the mind does play tricks. But how do you explain the fact that every person who was there that night remembers the exact same thing? Mass exaggeration? I don’t think so. Besides, that wouldn’t explain the newspaper articles that still exist to this day (go to a library and check for yourself) or the two lots that still stand vacant. Well, not exactly vacant. There are two beautiful little parks where the houses once stood--Murphy and Neiderman Parks.
And every Fourth of July the neighborhood gathers for its annual fireworks display on those very spots. I hear that this year the theme is going to be the War of 1812.