I’ll never forget the moment I shot my brother. On a cold June night in 1981 I deliberately aimed at his head from maybe 10 metres and blasted away. He ran but he never stood a chance. The first two tracer rounds fizzed over his right shoulder but the third found its mark and slammed into the back of his skull. A bright-red, burning ball of strontium nitrate, potassium chlorate, strontium carbonate and aluminium powder from my multi-shot Roman-candle firecracker lodged between his collar and his mullet. The back of bro’s bonce burst into flames and he broke into a pitiful dance hopping from foot to foot, frantically patting out the embers while shrieking “Ayaieiayaagh” I laughed until it hurt.
Ah, Cracker Night. They were good times.
Today several generations of Australians think fireworks are something you must cram into an over-crowded capital city vantage point to enjoy from a safe distance. Others are happy to watch them on TV and go, “Awwww,” as a golden waterfall cascades off the deck of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
These days fireworks are all about New Year’s Eve or the culmination of some major event or other at which a well-regulated, council-approved and OH&S-certified pyrotechnics company is permitted to lay on the visual goods.
But there are millions of Aussies like me who remember a different era. In days of yore WE lit the fireworks, WE deemed when, where and how they should be used, and WE decided whether or not it was appropriate to shoot Roman candles at friends and loved ones.
On Monday, June 10, most Australians will enjoy a public holiday to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s birthday (which is typically and royally weird considering she was born on April 21). There might even be a government-sanctioned, WorkCover-regulated fireworks display at a park in your neighbourhood.
Back in the day, though, Her Majesty’s birthday was the cue for everyone throughout the land to let rip with their own chaotic pyrotechnics extravaganzas. And it was all perfectly legal! From the time my dad was a boy right up until the mid-1980s, anyone could walk into a toy shop or even a supermarket and stock up with bags stuffed with assorted cardboard tubes containing enough gun powder to re-enact D-Day.
When I was twelve $5.00 bought me enough high-burning black powder and various concoctions of aluminium and nitrate to raze my home to its foundations. “Sure son! Here you go,” the shopkeeper grinned as he handed me the parcel of potential full-thickness burns. “Have fun!”
Oh, yes sir!
I’d light these explosives with the words of my dad ringing in my ears: “Be very, very careful!” That was cute coming from the man who’d regale me with stories about the hellfire penny bungers of his youth, and the havoc he wreaked with them on the streets of Bondi in the 1940s.
I once asked him what his most enduring memory of Cracker Night was. “Oh, that’s too easy,” my dad replied. “A kid called Colin Chaplain lit a penny bunger and held it between his teeth. It was supposed to explode harmlessly outwards but instead it blew four of his front teeth clean out of his jaw and mutilated his lips.”
Oh the fun!
Instead of Cracker Night we should have called it Agonising Pain Night or Skin Graft Saturday. It’s only fortunate we celebrate the Queen’s birthday in June when it’s mostly damp and cold. Had we done it on her actual birthday it might been known as Queen’s Catastrophic Bushfire Night.
By the time my dad had issued me with his customary warnings and gone back inside the house, the kids in my neighbourhood would assemble with their arsenals and launch into open warfare. It’s a miracle no one was seriously injured as a running firefight erupted in our street. Other kids weren’t so lucky. The Sunday papers would be full of cautionary tales and photos of children propped up on hospital pillows with bandages up the length of their arms.
Pretty slow on the uptake, the NSW government finally banned Cracker Night in 1987. But not before countless kids had blown their molars out, lost an eye or two, suffered third-degree burns, had thumbs and fingers amputated or were otherwise scarred for life.
Which makes me wonder…does the Queen know how many people maimed themselves to honour her turning another year older? Would she have been cool with Colin Chaplain’s DIY dental work? Would our monarch have approved of me firing a flaming machine gun at my brother’s head?
I hope she’d have been horrified, but there was never a decree from the palace to stop it; the carnage went on for decades.
I’m a staunch republican, but this year Her Maj turns 93, which I reckon is one hell of a dig, so I might just raise a glass to her and pause to remember her 57th birthday in 1983 when my royally-sanctioned Roman candle set fire to a stand of pampas grass and tinder-dry bush alongside the local electricity substation. That one brought the fire brigade a-runnin’.
Cracking good times indeed