Loops and Fireworks

Les Brown

North Cove, North Carolina lies in one of "The Loops" of the Clinchfield Railroad, a series of switchbacks that gently descend the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains from Spruce Pine. The grade is gouged through nineteen tunnels and many deep cuts to level out in the foothills at Marion. The railroad carries coal from the mines of West Virginia and Kentucky to the southeast coast.

Among my most vivid memories of North Cove are those of the huge black steam locomotives and the lonesome wail of the whistle. I remember the sound abruptly dying as the train went into Honeycutt Tunnel behind the house where I was born. The hot boxes of the brakes glowed bright red as hundreds of wheels pressed against the steep four-mile loop. High clouds of steam rushed from the stacks on cold winter days as the powerful locomotives crawled up the mountains. Now and then one of the trains derailed, folding itself in a cut or down a fill, interrupting the slow pace of the valley. Folks would rush to pick up the free coal for their winter fires; I always hoped for candy or toys. Sometimes a hot box would break, sending glowing steel off the tracks, catching the mountain on fire. The men of the cove would hurry to keep the fire from racing with the convecting wind up the side of the mountain.

North Cove had a little depot on the Clinchfield called Linville Station. The name didn't make sense but the wealthy who summered fifteen miles away in the resort town of Linville wanted the name recognition. Until the late 1940's the station served passenger trains which have since disappeared from the route. Ironically, as isolated from the world as we were, we could catch the train to anywhere from just a mile up the road. We can't do that today. The depot also served a huge packing house owned by Ed Robbins. He hauled shrubbery from Blue Ridge Nursery at Pineola, about ten miles up Linville Mountain, to be shipped out by rail.

My family had a very different purpose for the depot. We used it as a way to get fireworks which were illegal in North Carolina. We had great shipments brought in from Zebra Fireworks Company up north. We saved our money all year and poured over the Zebra catalog for our Christmas order; we bought them by the case. Excitement built for weeks until the train brought the prized cargo.

The Christmas fireworks display and the powerful reports of now illegal M80s, double shots, aerial and cherry bombs were shared by the whole valley. My dad was never content with the power of the fireworks. He always wanted the biggest, loudest aerial bomb ever built. Maybe it was because he was the youngest and smallest of five brothers. So he searched all of the catalogs of the fireworks companies for the pinnacle of power. He found it. Everyone would know that the explosion that was to rock the silence from a thousand feet above the valley was caused by Gene Brown's big red ten dollar aerial bomb. It stood eighteen inches high with a diameter of four inches, a five-inch fuse and a six-inch square wooden base. It was magnificent, made by Black Panther Fireworks in Akron, Ohio. The money he saved for it would have bought a large assortment of Roman candles, rockets, double shots, pinwheels, fountains, ladyfingers, side loaders and Cherry bombs, not counting the regular little firecrackers with the gray paper fuses that came in packs you could light all at once. Instead, all of his money went for the big show. Dad was at the depot early each day. He sat waiting on one of the big green freight wagons on the platform beside the tracks. Finally one day, the train hissed to a stop. Sam Brown, the station master, shoved the latch open, disappearing into the darkness of a red boxcar. He came back with a single box and handed it down to Dad, label side up. "To GENE BROWN from "BLACK PANTHER FIREWORKS." Dad's heart raced as he gently carried the box away.

Christmas Eve night was the time for the fireworks. Everyone converged on Grandad and Grandmother's house for Christmas celebrations: Santa Claus, eating, raucous drinking and exchanging gifts; it lasted for days. Dad was going to put the capstone on the fireworks with his aerial bomb. He took the marvel a safe distance from the house, placing it on the ground with its red shaft pointing menacingly skyward. He struck the match: "Take cover, men!" The match touched the thick fuse. "Tssssss," it ignited. With fingers stuck firmly in their ears, uncles and younguns scattered behind the well house into the smoke house, behind the woodpile, under dense boxwoods, and behind the lattice under the porch. The women squinted into the darkness through the windows-- then, a thick silence of expectation. Straining eyes could see the dim fuse sputtering its sparks into the cold night air.

The silence and my dad's spirit were broken by a quiet "pfffttt," as a puff of smoke weakly ejaculated from the big red cylinder. Another silence preceded the humiliation heaped on him by his brothers.

Undaunted, Dad turned to dynamite. He began detonating whole sticks from low limbs of trees on the hill above our house. Windows rattled for a mile up and down the valley. The deep rumble bounced around for half a minute between Linville and Honeycutt Mountains. Shattered scrub pine limbs and compliments from all were testaments to his revenge on the Black Panther Fireworks Company of Akron, Ohio.

Toonie McGee (his name was really Julius) was a friend of the family who joined the Christmas fireworks traditions. He and his wife Lara were coming to visit my grandad and grandma one crisp December day in their Model A coupe. Uncle Hud was coming too, but he was walking just up the road from the house. Toonie and Lara were rattling along in their car when they saw him. Toonie liked practical jokes and decided to throw a cherry bomb out of the Model A window near Uncle Hud to scare him. A cherry bomb is a powerful firecracker about the size, shape and color of a large dull red cherry with a fuse for a stem.

A match was struck; the joy of anticipation caused Lara and Toonie to laugh inside with perverted pride at their prank. Their adrenalin burned like the fuse, now lit.

Toonie slowed down and pitched the bomb with its sizzling stem toward uncle Hud, one minor detail forgotten. The window in the car was still rolled firmly up against the cold wind. The cherry bomb bounced off the window and fussed around inside the car as though it knew what devilish deed it was about to do.

My dad saw the activity from the front porch of Grandad's house. He described a metallic sound, "FRANKK!" as the bomb jabbed against the sheet metal inside the little coupe. A blue translucent cloud filled the inside of the car and pressed against the windows. The little Ford veered off the road into the grain stubble. Both doors sprung open like the wings of a scared chicken trying to avoid becoming Sunday dinner. Toonie and Lara rolled awkwardly onto the ground as the little Ford squirmed to a driverless stop.

The ringing in their ears, and a few scratches and scrapes were temporary reminders that would sustain their embarrassment for the rest of the holidays. But the witnesses would never let them forget.

The Clinchfield not only brought us commercial pyrotechnics; it also unwittingly provided us with other creative fireworks. We would get torpedoes, called "tarpeters," from people who worked on the railroad. These quarter pound brown waxed paper-wrapped devices were bulging flat objects that looked like big stale ravioli. They were filled with black powder. Two lead straps on opposite sides were used to anchor them to the rails. When trains ran over them, they would detonate with a loud report to signal the engineers of danger ahead. We put them on creek rocks under the foot-log crossing the Hog Branch on the path from Grandad's house to his barn. We would drop another heavy rock off the foot-log on the tarpeter. The loud explosion would split the quietness of the valley, sometimes the rocks as well.

The railroad gave us the means to make another insidious device: black powder, from a couple of shotgun shells, was dumped into the cavity of a large railroad nut with a bolt screwed a short distance in one side. A second bolt was screwed into the other end trapping the black powder inside the nut between two bolts. It could be dropped on a rock to strike the end of one of the bolts, detonating the powder with a loud explosion.

Uncle Walter built one of the contraptions except that he dumped the contents of two tarpeters in the nut instead of the usual measure from the shells. He stood proud with his creation on the foot-log, held it over the edge, took aim and dropped it toward a big rock below. The loud shock stripped the threads of the nut and sent the big rusty bolt straight up. It clipped off the end of Uncle Walter's cigar on its way to knocking his floppy felt hat into the Hog Branch below. No one ever heard the bolt return to earth.

Today, I watch cheering crowds of strangers sitting with children on the dark hoods of cars or in pickup truck beds listening to Reba, watching brilliant Fourth of July fireworks at the Cleveland Mall. They drive away marveling at the show, the grand finale.

Roman candles held by little eager fingers, cradled gently in big leathery farm hands, send glowing spheres of colored light into the night. They fade over wheat stubble into the silent darkness of Christmas Eve in North Cove. The bright joy binding us together fades in my memory.