Arrival of the 4th always takes me back to yesteryear when we bought fireworks, and the punk to light ‘em, from a little rickety stand on the east side of our Ohio steel town. As a kid, I loved sparklers, those little black buttons that when lighted turned into creepy crawly worms, lady fingers, and of course, regular fire-crackers. If they sold M-80s and cherry bombs at that time, we didn’t or weren’t allowed to buy them as I recall. Maybe bottle rockets or roman candles. The rest of the world of pyrotechnics (the big stuff) was left to the pros who shot off long-awaited annual fireworks at the local park. Beyond that, I don’t recall buying fireworks later in high school, nor remember fireworks displays once I was in college. Except once.
I was deep asleep in my lower bunk of one of several bunk beds stuffed into the third floor bedroom of our fraternity house on Main Street in Kent, Ohio when a lalapalooza of an explosion rocked the house, shocked me awake in the middle of the night, and sent me flying. Houston, we have lift-off! It was sometime in the mid-1950’s I recall, and must have been summer, because I lived alone in the house through the vacation months while working my way through Kent State at a local machine shop. So, nights were quiet in the emptiness of the house … usually.
Ears ringing, I sat up on the floor, came slowly to my senses, and decided first and foremost I was glad I didn’t sleep in the top bunk. Couldn’t smell any smoke nor hear anything else. No sirens near or far. Not a peep of activity inside or out. The fraternity and sorority houses next door on either side and across the street, dark and quiet. A sonic boom? Who knows. No harm done. Certainly less than the year before when a fraternity brother tossed a cherry bomb up the stairs, under my bed, to wake me up. It worked. I flew then, too, and landed on top of my pair of carefully spit-polished cordovan shoes … with the side blown out of one of them. Shoes okay this time, so back for a few more zzz’s before dawn’s early light.
Around mid-morning, I got dressed and headed down Main street to a little coffee shop for my usual egg-over (easy), bacon (crisp, please), OJ and coffee. The place was abuzz. Hey Mel, did you hear about the explosion last night at the Hudson fireworks company? Hear about it? Nope, heard and felt it. What happened? Actually, there were two fireworks companies in Hudson at that time, about eight miles from Kent. One which had been there since the very early 1900s, started by a young man named Vincenzo Sorgi who came to America from Avenzzano, Italy to make his fortune; eventually going to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad, laying track, which in turn led him to Hudson, Ohio where, as the fourth generation of his family to make things that go boom, he started American Fireworks in a little building on a half acre or so of land on Darrow Street. Where it still operates.
Sorgi quickly gained a reputation for the quality and design of his fireworks, and world-wide for his attempt to shoot a rocket to the moon. Needless to say that never happened, but they say his designs and plans closely paralleled those developed by our first NASA moon launchers, making him an innovator well ahead of his time. Thereafter, the Sorgi family grew and so did the business. One of the extended family – Alphonse DiMichelle – owned and operated the second company, Hudson Fireworks Mfg., on a wedge of land near Hudson Drive and Route 91. That’s the one that went bah-boom!
By the night the sixth and seventh generations of the Sorgi family blew me out of my bunk bed, both fireworks complexes were laid out with explosives stored in numerous small buildings to minimize the risk of the entire place going kaboom! And. in the case of Hudson Fireworks, there was lots of kaboom stuff. In their print advertisements at that time, the company offered dynamite, safety fuse caps, ditch dynamite, and “all kinds of explosives” including fireworks “set pieces” featuring “American flag and Niagra Falls” displays.
On the night I ‘flew from my bed to see what was the matter,’ the plan worked because only one building blew up. Can’t even begin to imagine what might have happened if more had exploded. Old Mel and his bunk bed would have been on the way to the moon just like Sorgi had envisioned it!
So that was the talk of the town for a few days in the summer of 1955.What was amusing about the whole affair … if there indeed was anything funny about it … was the fact that while there were no fatalities, let alone injuries, they said the local emergency squads found a couple of teenagers sitting stunned in their car in nearby ‘lover’s lane.’ Doesn’t take much to imagine them, once the smoke and shock cleared, looking at one another and saying, wow, whata kiss! Even now as their grandchildren, and mine, enjoy this
year’s Fourth of July, there is no doubt that couple, if they remained together, will always remember one night of fireworks in particular. I certainly will. And even if some of my recollection of the facts may be fuzzy, cut me some slack. It’s been sixty years and lots of bottle rockets since my world went kaboom.
Mel Grossman is a local resident and guest columnist