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HAHN: No fireworks ban equals nervous cats

July 6, 2011

Since the city council recently authorized the use of fireworks within the city limits after a ban on them for several years, I am expecting to have three nervous cats in my lap for most of the Fourth of July celebration.
They are not as upset by fireworks as our dog Miss Brown used to be. One Fourth we got her some tranquilizers. These were ineffective in calming her fears, and they made her so drunk she kept falling down the stairs.
I called the vet to see if he had any suggestions. “No,” he said. “If she were a person, we could fill her up with black coffee and walk her around till she sobered up.”
Bill and I decided we would try to do that. “Can’t hurt and it might help,” was our philosophy. We brewed up some really strong coffee, cooled it down and added a lot of sugar. Miss Brown lapped up greedily, spilling a lot on the floor.
Then we put a leash on her and took her outside. She kept stumbling and falling down and her back section couldn’t seem to work in sync with her front section. For the better part of an hour Bill guided her front with the leash while I walked behind, literally holding up the rear.
When we took her back inside, she flopped down and went to sleep. Next morning she was fine.
We, of course, did not object to the banning of fireworks except those purchased by the city. With the current discussions on the matter, I wondered how and why fireworks were originally invented. Of course, everyone knows that the Chinese were the first to use them, but not much else about their history.
Firecrackers were first created about 200 B.C. in the Han Dynasty (no relation). This was even before they had gun powder. The first firecrackers were likely pieces of green bamboo that was accidentally put into a fire. The moisture, sticky sap and air pockets exploded with a loud pop.
They were originally used during the New Year’s celebrations to scare away evil spirits, particularly one called Nian. Nian ate people and destroyed crops. Firecrackers worked so well they used them at weddings, births and other important events.
Of course firecrackers had, by this time, become more chemically complicated than the first ones. They began mixing sulfur, saltpeter (sodium nitrate), honey, and arsenic disulfide. This mixture could cause burns if not handled carefully, but it was popular anyway.
Someone discovered that if you made a few changes in the formula, you got an even stronger blast. This mixture was called huo yao or “fire drug.” The Chinese continued experimenting with explosives to get bigger bangs.
By the 12th century, they were using them for military purposes, adding flaming arrows, bits of rock and metal and even pottery. The noise and the weapons were as much for psychological impact as they were to inflict pain.
Marco Polo introduced fireworks to the western world in 1292. The Italians figured out how to make firecrackers give off a fountain of sparks and, if they attached them to a wooden wheel, they could get a circular pattern. Kings and religious leaders saw that fireworks greatly enhanced ceremonial occasions. Soon fireworks were being mounted on flotation devices.
By the 1530’s fireworks displays were being directed by “green men,” who covered their faces with soot and dressed in leaves. This was done to protect themselves from sparks and make then blend into the surroundings as they rushed about lighting the fuses.
During this time too, people began designing frameworks and paper mache’ decorations. (Dragons were especially popular motifs.) Fireworks provided the fire from the dragon’s nose and mouth.
By the mid 1730’s someone had developed a “quick fuse,” which was a long continuous fuse in a paper tube. It enabled lighting several fuses at once.
America had fireworks by the 1600s. They used them for celebrations but they used them to scare off the Indians too. When the new government was setteled in, America was quick to establish trade with China and fireworks were a major import.
For a long time the color orange was the only one that could be produced, but now with the addition of various chemicals, many colors brighten the night sky and blast our eardrums.
Have a happy and safe Fourth of July.

Alma Joyce Hahn taught in the Benton schools for more than 30 years. Her column appears each Monday.

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