My friend, Bill Chefalas, told me a tale about Yorkville kids celebrating the 4th of July in the 1940s & 1950s. I’d like to share it with you. Here’s Bill’s story:
Yorkville's 4th of July Rooftop Fireworks Wars
In the late 40’s to early 50’s, I was part of the Yorkville “gang” on our block that prepared an arsenal of customized fireworks, months in advance of the 4th. Many of us would take the First Avenue bus uptown to a mom and pop candy store, at 117th St. and 1st Ave., next to Patsy’s Pizzeria, where the backroom was piled high to the ceiling with every type of fireworks imaginable—M-80’s, Cherry Bombs, Roman Candles, Torpedoes, Sky Rockets, Aerial Bombs, Ash Cans, 100-Pack-Inch-and-a-Half’s, Bottle Rockets, Sparklers, and what we called, a “Punk,” which was a slow-burning, long-lasting stick that was used to light fuses. It was like going into a gold mine in the heart of New York’s East Harlem. We bought them all—bags full. This venture was in anticipation for the rooftop fireworks wars that were to come. It was obvious that mom and pop had to somehow, pay off the cops, considering the amount of traffic in and out of their store—they couldn’t possibly sell that much candy.
For weeks, we prepared our ammunition. The most popular (and dangerous, now that I think of it) was to make a “Splashcan,” which was to take an Ash Can—a little smaller and lighter than an M-80, but still powerful—and tape it to a Sparkler about halfway down (more about it’s use later). Next in line, was to take a one-pound bag of flour and insert an M-80 inside, with just the fuse showing. We made at least a hundred of these.
On my block--81st St., between 1st and 2nd--our 4th of July “War,” can be described as a pyrotechnic rooftop battle between kids that lived on the north side of the street (my side) and kids that lived on the south side of the street, our “enemies”--and there were lots of them (The distance from one side to the other was maybe, 70-feet, or so, and the four-story tenement rooftops were about the same height—well within throwing distance). If you were lucky to live in a five or six-story building, you had a height advantage, which made it harder for the lower buildings to throw their stuff up and over. I don’t recall any other blocks in the neighborhood doing this sort of crazy thing.
Our battle dress code was to wear something as close to black as possible, so that we could not be seen against the dark background of the tar roofs. Every detail was carefully planned.
Finally, it was 9pm, the entire city started to resonate with explosive sound and night-sky color, as we very quietly walked up four flights of stairs with our arsenal, and out onto the roof, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible to our “enemies” on the opposite roofs—who were in reality, our friends. Twenty to thirty kids on each side. The view of the city was spectacular.
The Punks were lit and the battle slowly ensued. The youngest kids were the “Punkers,” and their assignment was to run around the roof tops and hold the lighted punks for the rest of us to light and throw the fireworks. One of the youngest kids was assigned as a “Chickie.” He would hang over the edge of the roof to see if any cops were coming up the block. If their were, he would yell, “Chickie,” and we would stop the war until they were gone. The cops were so busy with what was going on in the neighborhood streets, that they paid no attention to the rooftops. The whole city was erupting. This was WAR!
First, the 15-shot, Roman Candles were lit and pointed towards our rooftop enemies. You could see them dodging the shots, as we were to theirs. Meanwhile, other types of fireworks were set off, and it gradually became a noise and light show up there. What about the Sparkler with the Ash Can taped to it, you ask? For many years, it was common to throw a lit Sparkler across to the other roof, and they would in turn, throw it back over. This year, we devised a new gimmick—the “Spashcan.” In the dark, it was hard to see the Ash Can taped to the Sparkler. So, we would light the sparkler and wait just until the fuse lit on Ash Can, and then throw it over. Their surprise was what unmistakably looked like a Sparkler, actually exploded! What’s this, an exploding Sparkler? From then on, no one dared to pick up any Sparkler and toss it back. But, the stealthiest and must potent of all, was a fuseless, impact firework called a Torpedo—a small grey ball about the size of a Jaw Breaker, filled with aluminum powder and a few pieces of aquarium gravel. The inside of the Torpedo was lined with a rough sandpaper surface, and when it hit after you threw it, the gravel would hit against the inside, causing a spark, thereby, igniting the powder—cleaver design. Boom! This was particularly dangerous because if you threw it high and hard enough, it would explode on contact, even on top of a person’s head—which I must confess, I once unintentionally did. (These were banned in the U.S. in the late 50’s).
The fuses on the bags of flour were lit and tossed high in the air above the street, exploding into a shower of white flour. The street became coated in this powder, and cars, not knowing what the white powder was, didn’t dare to drive through. A white Christmas in July.
The next day, the street and cars that remained were covered with a field of paper debris and white flour. We returned to our many summer street games, trips to John Jay pool, and the East Side Settlement House, always thinking of what we could conger up for next year’s “war.” It amazes me, that for all the years we did this not one of us got hurt or set a building on fire. DUMB luck, I guess.
Have a great 4th, Yorkville!