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WOSTER: Black Cats, skyrockets and Mom's constant worry

I don't remember exactly when my dad gave up cigarettes, but I clearly recall how he needed one or two in the evening when he was still smoking.

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I don't think I ever saw my dad smoke during the work day on the farm. That made sense. Too many fields and pastures and tinder-dry sheds and barns could be lost in short order -- shoot, if it were really a dry year, a roaring prairie fire could ignite if a burning cigarette were tossed away or an ember fell in the wrong place. He sometimes desperately needed a cigarette or two after work and after supper -- and at least once he or we or somebody ran up to our neighbor's place two miles north to bum a couple of smokes in the evening -- but he was tremendously careful about fires in the countryside.

That's why it was so remarkable that, on the Fourth of July, he thought nothing of sticking a rusty piece of water pipe in the ground at a slight angle, lighting the fuse on a huge skyrocket and watching the missile blast out of the tube and flame off over the south feed yard. I know he paid attention to the trajectory and the landing, and I know he remained alert for a while after the last sparks from the rocket had disappeared into the night. He would not have gone to bed without being sure nothing was out there to blaze to life.

My mom was as much a patriot as my dad, I'm sure, and she believed in observing Independence Day as much as the next person -- as long as the next person thought fireworks in any form were crafted by the devil himself.

My mom liked many things about Fourth of July. She liked the visits from relatives, the red, white and blue bunting and other decorations, the waving flags that lined the streets of town and the general excitement that a break in the summer routine brought. She liked the idea of serving iced tea and lemonade. She cooked up a storm to mark the holiday with main courses, side dishes and desserts. And she seemed to have a pretty good time of it all.

So, yeah, she liked much about Independence Day. She didn't like fireworks. She thought they were dangerous, foolish, a public-safety hazard and a complete waste of money.

"What's the point of spending good money on something that disappears as soon as you strike a match?'' she'd ask.

I struggled to find a good answer. The best one was, "If you have to ask, you wouldn't understand if I told you.'' That was one of those answers that a kid doesn't even have to think about to know it isn't going to win the discussion with his mom.

Even though my mom hated fireworks with a passion, she didn't stop her husband from buying his skyrockets. He bought a few each year, along with half a dozen Roman candles. (My mom counted each flaming oval that burst from candle, willing it to be the last one.) My dad bought a few bottle rockets, the smaller missiles made to be shot out of a pop bottle (which used to be plentiful in the ditches on the roads around town). He didn't find them as rewarding as the larger skyrockets of the early days.

She didn't stop her children from buying a modest supply of firecrackers and sparklers and those weird little charcoal-colored triangle things that, when lit, smoked like a locomotive and grew eerily into a long, winding, black form that resembles what remains after a snake sheds its skin. We were allowed to buy those -- in modest quantities, as I said.

We fired them off, too, although not without constant coaching and consternation from the sidelines. Most of my mom's cautions were about fingers being blown off and so on, but she never forgot to deliver a public-service announcement at high volume on the dangers of fireworks and fire on the farm. The sound of exploding of Black Cats and Gorillas wasn't the only loud noise in our farm yard on Fourth of July.

Since she's gone, I miss those warnings. I miss my dad's skyrockets, too.