I Love the Smell of Penny Bungers in November

A few years ago it became legal for people living in Nebraska and inside Omaha city limits to purchase and shoot off fireworks between June 25th and July 4th. Just before July 4th I trawled one of the many fireworks for sale tents that have mushroomed in Omaha. It was my first venture into a fireworks tent. I did go to a fireworks barn before it was legal to shoot off fireworks in Omaha. It was across the Nebraskan border in either Missouri or Kansas. I hesitated to buy anything fearing that when I crossed back into Nebraska I would most likely be stopped by a state trooper and upon the vehicle search the fireworks would be discovered, not so well hidden, under the spare tire in the boot. Surrounded by fireworks it was difficult to dismiss thinking of the Gunpowder Plot and some say the traitor Guy Fawkes; the thought of buying whiz bangs and blowing up Parliament was with me as I left the barn and I adopted a swagger as I walked toward the car. I spun the wheels and sent a cloud of dust sky ward and I was soon pounding down a dirt road alongside the interstate; bootlegging and moon shining, a fireworks runner outsmarting and outdriving the law.

There were no Catherine Wheels, Tom Thumbs or Penny Bungers in the Omaha fireworks tent but I did find boxes of Sydney Harbour Bridge for thirty plus dollars. I wondered if a Paul Hogan aerial repeater was in the box. Hoges had been a painter on the bridge before Crocodile Dundee fame. It is normal for all Melbournians to possess antipathy for anything Sydney. I knew there had to be a bigger and better Melbourne Federation Square box somewhere in the fireworks tent. All of us who hung out together called the milk bar on the corner of Douglas Parade and Bunbury Street Dashers: named after the owner who we thought was so slow and deliberate at doing anything: maybe he was just old but we never thought of that. You would have never found a box of Sydney Harbour Bridge at Dashers.

All in a Box
Sydney Harbours
johnfireworks2 fireworks tent

For weeks before cracker night we would save our pocket money and forage the neighborhood for Tarax bottles or any other soft drink bottle that had a refund. Sixpence or a shilling would buy a large assortment of mixed crackers at Dashers. The crackers were stock piled for bonfire night but some were set aside to practice the cooking of the spuds celebration on some of the days and nights leading up to bonfire night.

Bonfire night, also know as cracker night, is observed on November fifth to commemorate the capture of Guy Fawkes and by burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes who was a member of the Gunpowder Plot. We didn’t really care about Guy Fawkes and the plot to blow up British Parliament. It was just an excuse to blow up letter boxes, throw penny bungers down street drains or at each other, lob tom thumbs anywhere and everywhere, shoot sky rockets from milk or beer bottles, build a bonfire, and bury potatoes in the ashes of the bonfire.

We built our bonfire on the grassy area on the Strand where we played end to end football and pick-up cricket games. In the weeks leading up to the lighting of the bonfire and cracker night the gang: Andrew Lambrainew, Ray Cowmeadow, Alwyn Robertson, my brother Peter, and sometimes Froggie Norton, and Butch and me, would spend after school until teatime and all day on weekends knocking on neighbors doors asking for anything that was flammable. Some neighbors had been saving combustibles for months. We dragged and hauled car tires, paint cans, mattresses, furniture and anything wood; anything burnable: anything that burnt with a thick acrid black smoke. The neighbors also lugged their own rubbish and piled it onto the bonnie. We wanted to have the biggest and best bonfire on the Strand. The bonfire grew and stretched into the sky and seemed to spread out as you watched it. After tea we would sit into the night guarding our bonnie from other gangs intent on stealing and plundering to better their own bonfires.

On November fifth, as the daylight dimmed, the neighbors converged on the bonnie. The little ones would be dressed in their pajamas and dressing gowns and they would be made to hold their mum’s hand to watch the lighting of the bonfire. We would throw and spray petrol and any other flammable liquid on to the base to help with the lighting. There was no choreographed to music pyrotechnic display with the sky always full of fireworks for twenty minutes ; the Catherine wheels would spin, the little ones free from their mums hands would write their name with sparklers in the dark, and sky rockets would burst randomly in the sky and we would throw a few tom thumbs and penny bungers.

It must have been a genetic DNA inheritance because over the years our simple actions with sparklers were transformed into rituals and cracker celebrations. No one taught or told us but we knew we had to keep a cache of bungers, sky rockets, and tom thumbs for the cooking of the spuds celebration. When the fire had burnt down and everyone had gone home we would throw our potatoes into the ashes and let the ritual of the cracker fight and the spud celebration begin. You just sort of knew how to hold tom thumbs between your fingers and when they started to explode be able to throw them accurately at your best friend. Aiming a sky rocket in a milk bottle and lighting it while your human prey ducked and weaved took a steady hand and a keen eye. You never just threw a lighted penny bunger during the celebration; you would quickly put it in a can and then throw the can with the bunger. It took skill and timing to heave the can and have it close to your target when the bunger exploded.

New Type Sky Rockets
Where’s the Milk Bottle
sky rockets john&skyrocket

After fishing the spuds out of the ashes we would sit together as a small band of brothers. We used our soot covered hands to wipe the specks of burnt rubber, paint, black carbon, charred fabric and ashes away. We didn’t taste all the carcinogenic dioxins, hydrocarbons, mercury, lead, chromium, and arsenic; the spuds just tasted of burnt rubber and smelt like petrol.

I think a lot of things that we did were just preparing us for some later similar occurrence or transformation that we will experience; we just didn’t know it at the time. The cooking of the spuds celebration was laying the ground work for me looking at the burning bodies on the Varanasi ghats on the banks of the river Ganges. I remember my eyes stinging from the smoke and the smell of sandalwood scented smoke and barbecue. None of our spuds exploded and the spud soul was never released.

Those were the days: the days we didn’t have to license our fun hormones.

 

Sydney Welcome 2015 Fireworks

Man Killed Launching Fireworks off Head

The Gunpowder Plot

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