What’s Even More American Than Apple Pie?

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The Fourth of July is America’s one-day Mardi Gras. Independence Day is commemorated with all-American things: dogs and burgers, apple and cherry pie, fries and potato salad, parades and picnics, beer and beer—and fireworks galore. Nothing’s more American than Chinese firecrackers, Roman candles, and U.S. cherry bombs.

As American as cherry pie, too

My July 4th tale is about that last item. When I went to military school as a young kid (don’t ask!), during maneuvers, cherry bombs were thrown by instructors near students to simulate grenades. Even to this thirteen-year-old, the practice seemed kind of barbaric. But it was standard operating procedure, so who was I to complain?

Related: Michael Dooley talks with “pop culture archaeologist” Warren Dotz on his book of vintage fireworks labels and other Americana packaging.

Ribbon bars were awarded every couple of weeks to recognize good scholarship, good conduct, good manners, good athletic skill, good manual dexterity, good drill, etc. Each of these categories was designated a color. Blue for scholarship, orange for athletics, yellow for manners, and so on. But one color was reserved for the highest honor—the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor—red. As designers, we know red represents Stop! Blood! Beware!—as well as Love! Red is the color of emotion. At this academy, red was the badge of Courage.

I soon learned why. Once, on a maneuver running up a hill, a bright red, unexploded cherry bomb fell in front of me, its fuse sizzling. I picked it up to throw back at the smiling instructor. Before I could release it, BOOM, it blew up in my hand, making quite a bloody gash, though my fingers were intact. It hurt . . . but I took it like a man, as they told us to. The following week I received the red ribbon bar for Stupidity (or, rather, Courage).

On this July 4th, remember: it’s better to watch fireworks than to pick them up when lit. (The packages below are contemporary and sold at roadside stands in New York State.)

.For more Steven Heller, check out his book Design Humor—one of the many Heller titles available at MyDesignShop.com.