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TODAY

Saturday, June 15

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Airbags

Did you ever wonder what would happen if you took a cheap lighter and held it to the edge of a bandaid? Or a plastic wrestler doll? What about building a small fireplace in the middle of the sidewalk with four bricks and then setting fire to whatever random trash happens to drift by? Maybe you would save those things for after after you had no more scraped together pocket change to spend at the dollar store on firecrackers, bottle rockets and things that make really, really bright glowing flames. Maybe not. Maybe your uncle would show up with a garbage bag filled with M-80's and set them off one after the next until they were gone. And then you'd ride off down the street and into the alley, with no bike helmet on your head, swearing like a sailor.

Unless your mom is a major buzzkill, constantly going around talking about toxic smoke, noise pollution and where and how to properly and safely light fireworks, and then hand you a jewel bag and make you go pick up the fireworks trash. Then you'd just be pitied, and perhaps ridiculed. It must totally suck to have a mom who is involved in your life and won't let you have a lighter. Or buy bottle rockets. Or go in the alley. Or ride without a helmet.

I've been riding the rollercoaster of "boys will be boys" versus "call the realtor we're moving to Prairie Crossing." I've glimpsed the future. It involves a lot of fireworks. And probably a lot more trips to the ER than I would prefer. I suppose the suburban lads get themselves into a pickle now and again, but I can't help but think that there have to be fewer fireworks related incidents. I'm guessing that the starting age for lighter ownership is just a bit older than our city age guidelines, because, using my neighborhood as a sample, it's about age 5.

I've gotten over a lot of distressing behaviors from the neighbor kids, some of which my kids happily participate in: the toy guns, the bad language, the staying up 'til all hours screaming at the top of their lungs. I've sort of gotten over the littering thing (actually, I'll never get over that, I think I'm just resigned) but I don't know, fire seems like something I shouldn't just laugh off and give in to. Call me a stickler, but me and old Smokey the Bear see eye to eye on fire safety. I definitely see the draw, don't get me wrong. I love to build fires, and also love to tell other people how to build fires. If any of the kids would listen to me for longer than 30 seconds, I could go on at length and in great detail about the three types of firewood (tinder, kindling, fuel) the best way, in my opinion, to lay a fire, how to get a decent layer of coals for cooking, and fire etiquette and safety. Wondering how to start a fire in a wet fire ring to make pancakes for 30? I'd be more than happy to share.

What I am not clear on is burning shit just to see what it will do. Of course that falls under the larger category of "things I don't understand." Throwing rocks at ducks, driving around with subwoofers loud enough to set off car alarms (or for, that matter, car alarms in general), slapping a crying baby to get it to stop crying... these are the kinds of things that I just can't quite get my head around. Do people who live in charming, politically correct suburbs do stupid things too?

I was voicing this quandry to a good friend, who currently has an adorable 1-year-old. The adorable 1-year-old doesn't get much time to hang out with the kids on the street and I'm pretty sure he doesn't have a lighter yet, but it won't be too many years before he's ready to go outside and play/burn stuff. I was blathering on about the parenting crossroads I seem to have found myself at recently... accepting that my choice to raise kids in the city means that my kids are going to choose friends that not only would I not choose for them, but who could care less what I have to say about any given subject. (Unless the subject is how many strawberries they can pick and eat from my garden, then they follow me around like a drooling pack of puppy dogs.)

Being the honest friend that she is, she turned the question around and asked me what sorts of bad things I did as a kid. Well, let's see. How about throwing corn at peoples windows at night?! Wait, what? Yes, in Pennsylvania, kids gathered dried field corn, shucked it into big bags and went out at night "tic-tacking" in the weeks leading up to halloween. That was a parent approved activity and in fact, my mother drove us to the corn field to get our cobs in the Mazda. Criminal masterminds!

I know I did many things that were bratty, irritating, bothersome and bad, but mostly I just remember babysitting for all of the neighborhood kids and making piles of money, enough to buy every stuffed animal at Noah's Ark, my favorite store in the mall, checking out obscene amounts of library books, and rocking out to the Bay City Rollers while playing with my barbies. Then of course I got older, moved to idyllic, placid Farmtown, Illinois and started doing all of the things that I fear my kids will someday do — none of which involve fireworks, though they did include lighter ownership.

So, maybe I'm all worked up over nothing. How bad can playing with fire be? It's not like half of the houses on my street aren't frame houses with rickety garages or anything. I'm sure nothing bad will come of a little fire play. And, really, who needs both eyeballs or all 10 fingers?

My boys are half interested, half scared of all of the fireworks action on our street. They've grown up camping, and have listened to my firebuilding spiel more times than they'd care to count. This summer my 7-year-old would like to build a fire on his own, and if I can manage to keep my big mouth shut while he's doing it, I'm sure he'll suceed. The older two have a healthy respect of fire, and the 4-year-old will hopefully get a little of that this summer, but he is genetically drawn to anything that represents chaos and destruction, so he may prove to be a challenge. He knows how to light a match (something that I'm willing to bet none of the boys on the street know, given their reliance on cheap lighters), knows what happens when you touch the hot part. The connection between "hot!" and blowing your eyebrows off with a bumper bomb isn't quite clear yet, but I'm sure he'll get there. The dog, currently hiding in the basement, has a very clear opinion about fireworks.

A few years back we went with a group of kids to the Oak Park Fire Station to hear all about their operation, and check out all of the cool gear and trucks (including all of their post-9/11 shiny new Homeland Defense gear!) We walked away from there with a plastic bag full of plastic junk, all of which was plastered with fire safety tips. All of that plastic junk has since been smashed to bits, swept up by the marauding broom, or been lost in the van, so I can't quote any of it, but I'm pretty sure that none of it advocated the purchase of a lighter, or fireworks, by anyone under the age of 18.

Going to visit a firehouse is a worthwile thing to do, however, because who doesn't just absolutely love firefighters and fire trucks? We chose the Oak Park Fire Station for its small town vibe and its proximity to ice cream, but most firehouses in town welcome visitors as long as they aren't busy, though in the fire-fighting business that can change on a dime. Even in Oak Park as we were finishing up the presentation a call came in and we got to see them swing into action and leave the station in mere seconds. I'm sure they were just racing off to rescue someone's cat from a high tree branch, but it was impressive.

When you go about with small boys, the random sighting of any emergency services personnel is exciting. We always pull to the right for sirens and lights, because it's the right thing to do, but also because we are guaranteed a good view of the fire truck, ambulance or police car. A great place to spot a fire fighter is at Caputo's, the Italian market on Harlem. It's cheap and has all of the Italian meats, so there is usally at least one firefighter doing the firehouse shopping there (and also at least one nun!). The mystique of the firefighter lifestyle — living in community, a crew at the ready to save lives and put out fires — has always been interesting to us, so we like to wait in line at the deli at the same time as the firefighter in order to spy on what he orders. "Three pounds'a hot capicolla, three pounds'a provolone, a pound'n a half a gardinera, four pounds of Italian beef..." The nun's orders are always interesting too, though they don't seem to favor the spicy meats as much.

If you do go visit your local fire station, I'm sure that the firefighters wouldn't say no to some delicious cookies. They are also currently doing a drive for the Lion's Club, collecting old eyeglass frames. I have a stack laying around here, including some lovely flexible round frames from the unfashionable mid-'90s, to donate, so we'll be biking over to visit our local heroes soon. Maybe I'll take all of the little pyros with me so they can get some sense knocked into their heads by the dashing and brave men and women at the firehouse.

While I'm definitely pro fire safety, I don't want to squash all of the magic and beauty of fire out of the kids. Fire is one of the coolest things nature's got going. Some folks who know all about the fire magic are the Fire Spinners who meet regularly around town. Fire Spinning is done with hoops or swinging chains with fire at the end (called "poi") usually to live drumming. The best place to check it out as at their Full Moon Jam down near Foster Beach, generally on (or very close to) the Full Moon. The dates for upcoming Jam's are July 1 (today), July 29th and Tuesday August 28th. The location is about half a mile south of Foster beach, on the lakefront, all starting around sundown.

This scene might be borderline hippy dippy/Burning Mannish for a lot of folks, but the Full Moon Jams are extremely family friendly, and the people doing the fire spinning are well trained and take their fire safety very seriously. The events are drug and alcohol free, so there's no worries about taking kids into some kind of hallucinogenic miasma. If people do show up with drinks, they are asked to leave. The police are nearby, and the fire spinners have a good working relationship with the police, so there's not that awful "oh shit here come the cops" feeling about it. It's downright wholesome.

Fireworks are big magic, which is why everyone goes bonkers over them all summer long. The huge ones especially. How they figure out what is going to come out of a tube of explosives is beyond me, it's got to be some kind of mystical magic. As much as we enjoy standing at our upstairs back window and watching people shoot fireworks from the alley, we like gigantic taxpayer-funded displays even more. I haven't taken my kids down to the fireworks in Grant Park, mostly because the thought of going anywhere near the Taste makes me feel ill. We poach on the well-funded displays put on by our neighbors on the North Shore. Every suburb up there tries to out-do the town next door, so you really can't go wrong, just pack a picnic, pick a suburb, and you'll be certain to see a fabulous display of pyrotechnics and take advantage of the all-American-style revelry, often including a band playing Sixties music, balloon artists, blow-up bouncy things and the like. All of the advantages of suburban living, without actually having to live there.

As often as I think about packing up and moving off to some place where all of the kids are like mine, and where people don't do quite as many stupid things(perhaps it's just a different brand of stupid), I think more about staying put and not letting the neighborhood kids off the hook. I will never say that it's OK to melt bandaids on the sidewalk. I fully intend to take them all over to the fire station to meet the firefighters, and then I will march all of them off to the park and make them collect wood, all three types, and march them back here and show them how to light a match, build a proper fire and force them to toast marshmallows. Then, just to be spiteful, I'll pack them all into the van and take them down to the lake on a gorgeous summer night. They will watch the moon rise over the water and then be hynoptized by the fire spinners. To further drive my point home, I will take them all out for ice cream.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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