Customs: Safe & Sane

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A crowd of about 500,000 applauded delightedly one night last week when a bargeful of fireworks exploded in Manhattan's Hudson River, killing two of the crew and injuring four others. The witnesses assumed, of course, that the gigantic bang was part of the annual pre-Fourth of July show being put on by Macy's department store. And the youngsters among them were especially surprised when they learned of the tragedy caused by a faulty rocket that fell back on the barge. So thoroughly institutional have fireworks become these days that the postwar generations hardly think of them as dangerous.

Unknown to the modern young is the pungent incense of punk and the acrid reek of exploded salute. Not even the harmless, dancing crackle and spit of lady crackers, limp in their red-gold Oriental wrappings, has lifted their Fourth-of-July hearts—not to mention the delicious danger of the thrown cherry bomb, or the thrilling thop-thop of the handheld, Roman candle.

Bonfires & Gushing Tears. The Safe and Sane Fourth is all but universal now; blow-up-yourself fireworks are banned in 27 states, and there is some kind of restriction in every state but Alaska and Nevada. There is still a busy interstate traffic in illegal noisemakers, but the overall results in terms of safety have been impressive and persuasive. Pennsylvania, for instance, was one of the first states to limit fireworks to public displays, adopted a code in 1938, when there were six deaths and 1,702 injuries from fireworks. The next year this dropped to 85 injuries and no deaths at all.

So the Glorious Fourth that Daniel Webster predicted would be celebrated "with thanksgiving, with festivity, with bonfires and illuminations, and copious, gushing tears" has come to be the day for the big ball game, the teeming beach, the crawling traffic, the long drink—in short, like every summer weekend only more so, slightly set apart perhaps by the American Legion parade and a public display of professional fireworks.

Private Pyrotechnics? One group fighting hard to bring back private pyrotechnics is, unsurprisingly, the fireworks manufacturers. "Safe and sane" fireworks are what they are plugging—mostly some variant of sparklers—and they have been successful in getting some state legislatures to mitigate their blanket bans.

Says Patrick Moriarty, president of the Atlas Fire Works Co. of Lynwood, Calif.: "The trend is toward putting fireworks back into the hands of the people. The sales of these safe and sane items are going so fast we just can't keep up. In five to ten years, they'll be legal all through the country."