When I was a kid growing up in Elnora, nearly all fireworks were illegal in Indiana, at least the ones that were fun. Sparklers were about the only things you could buy locally, or those little snakes that you lit on the ground and burned themselves out with a curly ash. Nowadays, you can pay a fee, sign a paper, and buy about whatever you want at your local fireworks store.
Years ago, however, if you wanted the good stuff like Black Cat Firecrackers, M-80s, Roman Candles, or the ultimate in loud noises, Cherry Bombs, you had to get them from Tennessee or some other faraway state. My dad had a friend who was an interstate truck driver, so we had an ample supply of the explosive devices nearly every year.
Following high school, I went off to Purdue. I worked each summer while in college. My dad died during my sophomore year and after his passing, many things in my life changed. One of the very minor and unimportant changes was that I no longer had the desire or the supply of fireworks to make noise on July 4th.
During the summer of 1965, I lived with an aunt and uncle in Indianapolis and worked at the City–County Building, going home to Elnora only on weekends. The previous year, I had purchased a shiny, black 1961 Ford convertible with some of the earnings from my part-time job at college and a little help from my mother.
July 4, 1965 was on Sunday. Because of that, businesses celebrated the official holiday on Monday and I had an extra day at home. On Sunday night, a bunch of us guys gathered downtown and some of them brought firecrackers of various sizes. Included, of course, were the dreaded Cherry Bombs. We parked our cars on the north side of Main Street next to Back’s Market, across from the roller skating rink. There was a vacant lot west of the skating rink and that’s where the guys with the noisemakers gathered. The rest of us stayed near our cars and just watched.
Following a few minor firecracker blasts, things got much louder when the big boomers started exploding. Somebody pulled out a slingshot and began firing lit Cherry Bombs high into the air. A retired Elnora Town Marshal lived on the corner one block south, just across the street from the telephone office. As the slingshot artist grew braver and launched one in the direction of his house, a voice boomed out of the dark July night, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you boys! I’ve got a gun!”
That pronouncement certainly meant the fun was over, and nearly everybody ran for their cars. Since I had just been watching and not participating, I walked over to my convertible which had the top down and settled into the driver’s seat. It was still relatively early and instead of proceeding east on Main Street to go home, I turned south on Odon Street and headed down toward the highway. That could have been a fatal decision.
As I neared the hardware store, the ex-Marshal was walking north toward my car shouting, “James Emerson Johnson, stop right there!” My car was equipped with hand controls which enabled me to drive, and I jammed hard on the brake with all of the strength my right hand could muster. Within seconds, I was staring into the barrel of a shiny revolver and could see the bullets in the cylinder. He asked why I was tormenting him like that. I explained that I was just hanging out and didn’t even have any fireworks. After yelling some more, he finally sent me on my way. I breathed a sigh of relief and wisely headed back to the safety of the big city the next day, counting my lucky stars. Since that night in 1965, I never heard another Cherry Bomb, except the one John Mellencamp sang about 22 years later.
Footnote: Mellencamp’s hit song, Cherry Bomb, was included in his 1987 album, The Lonesome Jubilee. The album cover pictures Mellencamp sitting at the bar with local resident Elwood “Woody” Baker in the Midway Café on Highway 57 in Elnora. Like many Elnora businesses, the Midway is just another memory and is now a vacant lot. Woody Baker was a neighbor of ours in the 1950’s and is still living at the age of 94.