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You Must Remember This: July 4th escapades


Now that we celebrate safe and sane Fourths, it is interesting to learn what the Fourth of July was like back when. According to my father, everyone in Balboa spent the evening of the Fourth intent on burning Balboa Island down by shooting rockets across the bay. This was to be expected of Balboa because of its rowdy reputation, but before anyone sheds a tear for the poor, quiet residents of the Island – they were shooting just as many rockets back. It must have made an amazing Fourth of July spectacle except for homeowners who spent the night on their roofs with the garden hose. It wasn’t just a visual show, either. Many of the firecrackers were placed in tin cans which boosted the noise element to stereophonic levels, although this required a certain level of skill. Lighting the firecracker, putting the lid on and getting out of the way before liftoff was critical if you didn’t want to lose a finger or worse.

As in most escapades, and in spite of Mies van der Rohe, more was more.  The bigger the firecracker the better and this led to probably the biggest boom of all. Louie Dixon (not related to our current councilwoman, I believe) held the unofficial title of toughest man in town, the skipper of the Hurricane Second, the fastest speedboat in the world at 60 mph! Smacking through swells at that speed in a boat with none of the engineering advances of today must have made for a very rough ride. No wonder his title as a tough man, and he was obviously competitive as well, a side which came out one Fourth when he decided to launch the biggest, loudest explosion of all, and he didn’t mess around. He used dynamite. He put the dynamite down an open pipe on the side of a building, put a heavy metal lid on top and ran – but not fast enough. In planning his exploit, he figured the explosion would lift the lid which would sail into space. Whether the lid was too heavy or he fastened it too tight, instead of the lid soaring…the pipe exploded, and it was just like a fragment bomb – a lot of pieces of pipe flying about, a great many of them embedding themselves in Louie’s back and rear end. The good news: He maintained his reputation as toughest man in town by sitting for hours in Dr. Grundy’s office while the doctor pulled out piece after piece of pipe, all of it done without painkillers and without a peep from Louie.

One might think that after such a stunt there would be some strict regulation forthcoming. I mean, dynamite? But one would think wrong. People eschewed dynamite after that, but with that exception things went on very much the same, even when on one Fifth of July my father, a kid at the time, and a couple of his friends found an unexploded skyrocket on the beach and set it off, sending the rocket skipping across the sand, terrifying beachgoers. Things went on the same until some unthinking Fourth of July celebrant threw a firecracker through a window of the Rendezvous – not the empty building but one full of dancers. It was probably meant simply to create a loud noise and startle everyone, but it hit a girl in the face, blinding her in one eye. That got people’s attention in a way dynamite and errant sky rockets on the beach didn’t and led to the regulation of fireworks in the city.

In my childhood, some were still allowed (unless my parents were scofflaws). Sparklers were wonderful with their fizzing sparks, little cones puffed out a few inches of brightness, and there were the pedestrian but always interesting snakes, little black pellets that when lighted formed a long ashy rope, thus the “snake.” However, even these proved problematic and now we do not have individual fireworks unless we are Rick Caruso, and that’s okay with me since he lets us all share his when he’s in town.


Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, long-time resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.