Enjoying fireworks has augmented Fourth of July family gatherings for generations. Bob and Elaine Johnson from Bel (between Ragley and Reeves) remember the fun of M-80s and Cherry Bombs.
"The M-80 had a wax coating on the fuse," Bob said. "You could tie a rock to it, light it, and throw it in the creek. I would sink to the bottom and go off. You did not hold these in your hand for long. They were very powerful."
The cherry bomb, a round, red firecracker was also popular. At two-inches, the Silver Salutes were a little longer and a little narrower than the M-80.
These three booming forms of entertainment contained more than one gram of flash powder, and were banned in 1966 by the Child Protection Act. Firecrackers, sparklers and Roman candles soon became family favorites. Bottle Rockets were added to the mix not long after.
The Chinese are credited for inventing gunpowder, thus fireworks. However, it is the Italians who elevated it to a true art form. The annual international pyrotechnic championship — Caput Lucis — is hosted there.
Forty-four years ago, the late Herb Angelo — of Italian descent — put his mark on the Southwest Louisiana firework scene.
"Dad had always been in the habit of buying a bunch of fireworks for the holidays and inviting neighborhood kids over to enjoy them, said his daughter, Connie LeJeune. "Just like it was yesterday, I remember the day he called me out to the car and opened his trunk. I couldn't believe how many fireworks were in there."
She was in her 20s at the time. He had never bought home so many before.
"I asked him what in the world are we going to do with all those fireworks? He told me, ‘we're gonna sell ‘em.'"
The first store in Sulphur was across the street from W.W. Lewis, and near the full-service Conoco gas station owned by the Angelo family.
"I started working at the station when I was 14 years old," Connie said. "I didn't think much about it. It was just our way of life. I still remember when Dad said it was time to take it easy – after 11 years of working seven days a week. He told us we were going to cut it down to six days."
Herb Angelo grew up in New Orleans and raised his family in Choupique. He farmed and trapped nutria and mink. He did some pipefitting. He worked at the District Attorney's Office. He was known in certain circles as a giver.
"We've had grown men who have come in and told us they wouldn't be where they are today if it wasn't for him," said Connie's daughter, Angelina Shadoin. "Some of them were headed in the wrong direction and he let them know it. Then he'd keep in touch to see how things were going."
Connie remembered a recent visit from a customer who brought in his son to buy fireworks. He told her Angelo had supplied fireworks to his dad, for free one year. He told Connie that at the time, all he could see was the fun of the fireworks. Now that he has children of his own, he realized his father was having some financial difficulties and the way Angelo handled it attracted no attention to the family's situation. Nor did it draw any attention to Angelo's generosity or take away from the splendor of firework celebrations of earlier years.
"He loved making people happy," Connie said. "He wanted to make life fun for the kids."
Shadoin runs the Common Street store. Connie's grandson, Joseph runs the DeQuincy store. Other family members and friends operate other locations, 12 in all.
Calculators, and to a degree, finger counting, were not allowed at the first stores.
"Each price was marked down on a brown paper bag," Connie said. "When calculators became popular and affordable, I suggested we get some to make the job easier. He thought it was more important to learn to do the math in our heads."
The stores have cash registers today. Kids' eyes still light up when they go through the doors and see all the brightly colored packaging. Prices are still so good that out-of-state workers are shopping fireworks here before they head home for celebrations.
"I can still hear him saying, ‘Don't you buy no overprice fireworks, ‘" Connie said. "We still use that line for our radio commercials and that's his voice."
The store is filled with stacks of every firework imaginable and some that are unimaginable. For the unimaginable, the staff will be glad to scan the barcode, which will trigger a video of exactly what happens after you put the punk to the fuse.
Plastic molds are making a bang. A six-and-a-half figurine breathes fire and sparkles, then belches an impressive amount of greenish smoke before the finale during which fire spits from his tail.
The Snow Cone, a fountain firework, sprays an amazing profusion of sparkles and colors. Some fireworks have a lot of show without the noise.
"We actually have a silent fountain," said Connie. "Some people want that."
Other products are all boom, with relatively little color and pizazz.
Reading the names of the fireworks can be as entertaining as the displays: Dragon Fire, Gravedigger, Fighting Rooster, Chicken on a Chain, Chasing Booty and Poopy Puppy. Some people buy items based on the name alone.
"I tell the guys considering "One Bad Mother-in-Law" that it costs more than another product that's showier. Some say they're still going to buy it because of the name – and because of their mother-in-law."
Others have been surprised that a store owner would recommend a less expensive product. They don't realize she's just carrying on a family tradition.