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I hate fireworks signs—but that's the end of the story. And
hate might be too strong a word. I don't hate fireworks
signs. I just don't like them. Driving home from our family
vacation at the end of August, I saw billboard after billboard
screaming FIREWORKS. Those big bold signs for roadside fireworks
stores were gaudy, moronic and shameless. They concealed no mystery
and embodied no mastery. If they signified anything, they signified
tourist trap. I cringed and drove on by.
But like I said, that's the end of the story. The story begins
in childhood. The story begins when I loved these signs.
The Barringers, piled into the family Phoenix.
My parents folded down the rear seats of our white 1980 Pontiac
Phoenix hatchback and packed our clothes into garbage bags and
arranged them with the rest of our stuff into a makeshift mattress
on the floor of the cargo space. My brother Dan and I sat on the
bumper and removed our Traxx shoes and stuck them into crevices.
Wearing hand-me-down shorts and tube socks, we climbed in and
stretched out on the afghan blankets and Disney comforter my mother
had spread over the bags of clothes.
Dan and I were tall and thin. Our stockinged feet touched the
headrests of the front seats while our heads almost touched the
hatchback door. We curled into fetal positions. We wiggled and
maneuvered ourselves on top of the bulky bags of clothes and
struggled for a comfort we knew to be impossible. Our constant
wiggling expressed our resentment at being confined in this way.
The Phoenix backed out of the driveway. Its weighed-down rear end
scraped the curb, and the impact launched our heads against the red
cloth roof. My father insisted on driving straight there, often
taking 24 hours, from Detroit to some southern city (Hilton Head,
Orlando, Fort Lauderdale) for an off-season week of vacation. To
survive, my brother and I had only our imaginations. We looked out
the windows and thought about alligators, pirates, roller coasters
Feeding time at Gatorland Zoo.
My father was a slow mover, so we never left home before noon.
My parents drove in shifts. My mother preferred early mornings. So
it was my father who drove us down I-75 through Tennessee and
northern Georgia in the middle of the night. Dan and I woke up when
we felt the car had stopped moving. My father had pulled over to
the side of the road to sleep at the wheel. It was 4:00 in the
morning. My mother took over at dawn. Dan and I woke up again in
the parking lot of a Waffle House. We sat at the counter on cold
seats, watched the cook flip eggs on the smoking grill, and ate
pancakes that seemed to change back into batter when we
The author (at left, with snake) and brother Dan (with
It was painful to know we still had six or seven hours to spend
cramped up in that stinky Phoenix, but now at least we had a
different world to look at outside the window. We saw signs for
peaches and pecans. We stopped at a large outdoor stall, and what
remains with me now is the sight of one man's large dusky thumb and
forefinger cracking open a pecan shell with a sharp pop. We climbed
back into the car and rolled pecans in our fingers and squeezed
until the pads of our fingers hurt. To block out my father's Neil
Diamond and my mother's ABBA, Dan and I talked about lizards
scrambling on stucco walls, snakes sunning on porch steps and
pirate guns that fired gunpowder caps. In Florida we saw signs for
oranges and alligators. We stopped for both.
Women poured fresh orange juice into Dixie cups, and men dangled
chickens above the snapping jaws of American alligators. This was
some kind of heaven. I spit orange seeds onto the weedy gravel and
watched grasshoppers leap away in retreat. I gripped the wooden
rail at Gatorland Zoo during feeding time and couldn't stop
wondering how I would escape if I ever accidentally fell into the
caged swamp. A man in a khaki shirt and blue jeans hung a boa
constrictor around my neck and handed Dan a baby alligator with a
belt around its jaws. My mom took a picture.
Posing with Batman at Sea World.
At Sea World, I met superheroes. My mom took a picture of my
brother with Wonder Woman and me with Batman. At Disney World, we
wandered the treehouses and rode Captain Hook's ship and screamed
bloody murder during the coaster ride in total darkness at Space
Mountain. I loved the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and dreamt of
alternate lives as I studied the weapons in the gift shop, the
pirate guns, swords, hats, maps and chests. I forgot all about the
exhausting trip and pushed the thought of the drive home out of my
mind. I was a pirate who lived in a treehouse, a jungle boy who
flew above the jaws of predators, a hero whose identity no one
would ever know.
We stopped only once at a fireworks store. Packs of firecrackers
were stacked in the hundreds. M-88s as small as C batteries were
collected in bins. Tubes on wooden sticks bore labels with rockets
and starbursts. The store looked like an explosion of colored
paper. It seemed to move all at once. But nothing moved. It was
quiet and still. My father allowed us to buy firecrackers,
snapdragons, a bag of M-88s and a package of bottle rockets. I felt
like Batman stocking his utility belt. This was not about giggles
in the driveway. This was about power in a secret hideout.
A Myrtle Beach fireworks store.
And back home I had a secret hideout. I also had a costume: a
mask and T-shirt and holster and secret weapons, which now included
a wooden pirate gun, firecrackers and snapdragons. I kept this
stash hidden, or pretended to. I felt guilty about it somehow. This
was for play, but I didn't want to acknowledge that. I wanted to
believe I was a superhero.
We vacationed in Myrtle Beach this past August, and I saw the
fireworks signs during the ride home. The sun was setting. The kids
were nodding to the music on their iPods. My wife napped. Nostalgia
We live in North Carolina now, and my kids can buy fireworks at
Target. They have no interest in the signs or the stores. But for
me, these signs are like an escape hatch in my memory. I remember
my childhood vacations. I remember what I wanted so badly when my
brother and I were trapped in the Pontiac Phoenix and saw those
signs. I loved them not for what they were, but for what they
promised—not for what they showed, but for what they hid. Today, I
find the signs to be primitive but honest in their sales pitches.
There's no bait and switch. What you see is what you get.
Fireworks. But when I was kid, it was a different story. I was
innocent, and the signs were mysterious. They spoke of illicit
thrills and forbidden powers. Their garish colors were as dangerous
as the warning colors of a venomous snake. If I had access to that
kind of power, I could control fireworks and wild animals. I
wouldn't be just a kid anymore. I would be exotic and heroic. I
would have secrets.
To remember this time of my life is an exercise in nostalgia. As
an adult, I see the signs and remember my past. As a kid, I saw the
signs and dreamed about my future. I may not like fireworks signs,
but I still remember when I was young enough to see beyond
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