Happy Birthday, America! Our Shopping Trip for the Biggest, Least Legal Fireworks in Miami

The fireworks on the center table were kids' stuff, I was told. If I really wanted something with some power, I had to get the military-grade equipment.

It was the afternoon before Independence Day, and my goal was simple: Find the loudest, biggest, most impressive firework I could (semi) legally buy in Miami. I wanted to commemorate our nation's birth by indulging in some good old-fashioned blowing up of shit.

That's where Ragga, wearing a camouflage bandanna over his dreadlocks, a T-shirt, and shorts, stepped in. When I told him what I was looking for -- I believe my phrasing was "something to scare the shit out of the neighbors"-- he happily guided me to the "big-boy" section of the fireworks tent on Biscayne Boulevard at NE 54th Street. I didn't want to bother with the sparklers or snappers or even the big tubes that threw off sparks and had names that sounded more like rare strains of medicinal pot -- Jumbo Purple Rain, Pacific Paradise, Malibu Madness. 

Instead, Ragga took me over to a table stacked high with stuff that looked like it belonged in an armory. For a reasonable price, I could invest in Black Thunder, Bat Out of Hell, TNT Invasion, or even Powder House. By the way, I'm pretty sure all of those are names of '80s hair-metal cover bands too.

But Ragga saved the best stuff for last. He brought forth a long black cardboard box with six silver canisters strapped on top, bearing a simple all-caps logo: ARSENAL. 

"These are your fireworks," Ragga said, pointing to Arsenal. "The rest are just sound effects."

The Arsenal is simple: Each canister is a shell with a fuse. You drop a shell into the provided mortar tube, light the fuse, and then run like hell away from it. The proper result should be canisters -- or as the packaging worrisomely calls them, "flaming balls" -- fired about 250 feet into the air, followed by a boom and a pleasing shower of colored sparks. That combination of sight, sound, and pseudo-military technology sold me, as did Ragga's promise that, if I use the Arsenal, "your neighbors will be pissed at you for a few hours."

But I wasn't done shopping yet. After all, I was looking for something that would do a bit more than color the night sky. I wanted something that would put a little oomph into America's birthday celebration. Luckily, I didn't have to go far, just down the road, to an even larger tent in a field bearing "FIREWORKS" banners all over. 

Unlike the tent on Biscayne Boulevard, this tent was larger and more crowded. There was a constant stream of people filling baskets with sparklers and other whizbangs. There were even boxes of perfume and cologne for sale near the cash register. But I went straight for the heavy stuff toward the back.

(Side note: I'd just like to share here some of the names of the fireworks I passed in my quest for something big and dangerous, because they're far too funny not to share: It's All About Power, Chicks on a Bike, Princess Warrior, Troubled Waters, War Time, Dirty Dancing in the Sky, She's a Vampire, What's Her Name (featuring pictures of women in bikinis on the box), We Fight!, High Heels, and City of the Future. Picking a favorite name from this list would be like trying to choose which child you love best, if children had the ability to shoot sparks and streams of color when you put a fuse on them and light them.)

While I browsed, an older gentleman with a thin beard approached me. "Need help finding something?" he asked. I told him of my quest to get a firework that the neighbors would appreciate. 

He gave me a look. "Wait right here." Then he walked back over to the cash register and conferred with another man, this one wearing a baseball cap and with a scruffy beard. The older man came back to me and made me huddle next to him away from the other shoppers. "I think I have something you may be interested in," he said. "You use this, it won't just be your neighbors who hear it; it'll be neighbors three blocks down."

"Is it an M-80?" I asked.

He paused and then nodded slightly. "Some people would call it that."

Music to my ears.

For those of you unlearned in the world of small explosives, the M-80 is to firecrackers as a .357 Magnum is to handguns: designed to destroy with extreme prejudice. Originally developed by the military as a live explosive simulator, M-80s can contain up to four grams of pyrotechnic flash powder; the legal amount for consumer-grade fireworks, as set by U.S. federal regulations, is 50 milligrams. 

There's a reason the ATF outlawed them in the '70s. In other words, this is exactly what I was looking for.

I walked over to the man with the hat, who called another huddle. He reached down into his pants pocket and pulled out what looked like a ball of cardboard about the size of a golf ball with a long fuse in it. For $10, the highest-grade firework in the land could be mine.

We completed our transaction quickly and discreetly, given that, as he helpfully reminded me, "this shit's illegal, man." I hurried back to my car and left.

My plan was to set off my fireworks after midnight, to ring in America's 236th birthday with the style it deserved. Around 1 a.m., I set out into the night with a bag containing the mortar tube, the Arsenal canisters, and the M-80 ball, looking for a relatively quiet place to set them off. 

I finally found a dead-end road near some abandoned buildings off NE Second Avenue. My only audience was a thin stray cat, which soon took off after it determined I had no food, only small explosives. Like Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham, I wanted to announce my presence with authority, so I pulled out the M-80 and set it in the middle of the street, lit the fuse, and furiously backpedaled away.

I'm not sure what I expected the result to be. Maybe a bang, some smoke, and some scattered burnt wrapping. Instead, I got a blast that probably made anyone nearby think they'd been transported to Baghdad.

Loud doesn't even begin to describe it. The sound echoed off every wall and reverberated into the night. It sounded like God kicking in a door. Somewhere in the distance, a car alarm began to sound urgently. I took off down the street away from the firework, waiting a few minutes to make sure no one was coming to check out the noise. I ran back expecting to see a crater the size of a compact car in the street. Instead, there was nothing. No smoke, no leftover M-80 casing. Just the lingering smell of powder.

Satisfied with the M-80, I found a nearby empty parking lot, pulled out the mortar tube, and dropped in my first Arsenal canister. I needed plenty of overhead space; I didn't want the shot to go straight into a tree or a power line or a really unlucky pigeon. 

Once again, I lit the fuse and hustled away. There was a bang and then a puff of smoke, and then the "flaming ball" flew into the sky. Up it went, a couple hundred feet high, and then a blast. Golden sparks shot out in a cloud and rained down onto the ground. Mission accomplished.

I decided to fire off one more canister and then call it a night, satisfied that I was the first Miamian of the year to celebrate the birth of freedom. Appropriately enough, this canister exploded in the sky in a flash of blue and red, a patriotic capper to my Fourth of July fireworks fun. And as I grabbed the tube and headed home, I heard another bang behind me, then another and another. 

Somewhere in the city, someone else had felt the need to celebrate the holiday, sending fireworks into the sky, where they burst in blooms of green and white and red and yellow. I watched the brief display, only a couple of minutes, and applauded, taking in the one-man fireworks show for all it was worth.

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