They don’t flare or sizzle or flame, but they do add six inches between a child’s hand and a bottle rocket, enough to allow parents the ease to ignore Fourth of July bangs, blasts and squeals. Being a Southerner, I believe six inches provides reasonable safety for a 7-year-old. My childhood was filled with the streak of glowing punks, their tips dancing in the dark, their orange embers flirting with boxes of Roman candles and Saturn missiles.
I reveled in the danger of sparks and explosions with no thought of what misfire might force my parents to come to their senses and say, “No more.” We children failed to muster enough blood or burns to knock against that threshold, though we meticulously refined our carelessness. Unless a bone showed or a line of infection coursed through the injury, it was diagnosed as an abrasion, and the fireworks display went on.
My only intellectual issue with the annual affair was that I did not understand why we called those sticks “punks.” I pushed to pick apart the Latin root. Punks were kids at school who kicked dirt and ate boogers and snarled playground epithets. When I halted the gunpowder assault on the hillside to contemplate with my compatriots whether we were using the word “punk” correctly, they kicked dirt, ate boogers and snarled playground epithets. Mid-summer was no time for erudite inquiry, but I never ceased seeking answers.
Someone – exactly who remains a mystery – on my mama’s side of the family visited Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Fla. in the 1940s. This is the only rational explanation for why we use the term “punk” for fireworks lighters. When I confront my mother with this discovery, she feigns ignorance of who or why or where-all they went. She defends the reference to miniature torches as punks and the handing off of bags of grenades to her offspring by reminding me, “You didn’t lose an eye.” Her side of the family, true to Southern form, eats off of the back of the elephant in the room and calls it a TV tray, so I insist, “It’s why we call it a punk.”
I have proof. Cot Campbell, who worked at Cypress Gardens in the 1940s, writes in Memoirs of a Longshot: One thing I had learned from earlier passenger trips was that it did not make much difference what you said … part of my delivery included … “Ladies and gentlemen, note the shaggy-barked tree up ahead on the right. This is the Cajeput Melecalucalucadendron – better known as the ‘punk tree.’ Now the leaves of this tree are used in the process of making nose drops, while the bark we utilize in the preparation of ‘punk sticks’ with which we light our fireworks on the Fourth of July!” … I have never heard of a punk stick, but all the people would point to the tree and nod knowingly.
Those nodding people were my kin. A summer road trip changes folks for generations. Forever. Dust of distant destinations gets on our shoes and goes home with us to mingle with our own. As the ribbon of highway fades into the haze, the new soil seems as normal and gossip-worthy as the everyday dirt. My people returned to Tennessee from Cypress Gardens and told the whole family what they’d learned on their summer vacation to the Sunshine State. The noun was added to the ancestral vernacular.
My mother’s protest against my presentation of this information indicates skeletons must underlie it. But in keeping with culture, I’ll call them coats in the closet and maintain a safe 6-inch distance. I’d hate to lose an eye now.