Fireworks! Innocence! Nostalgia!

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.

Barringer family piled into their Pontiac Phoenix

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 and fireworks.

Vacation photo taken at the Gatorland Zoo

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 swallowed.

The author and his brother Dan holding a snake and baby gator, respectively

The author (at left, with snake) and brother Dan (with gator).

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.

The author poses with Batman at Sea World

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.

Exterior of a fireworks store in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

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 set in.

Fireworks signs in South Carolina

Fireworks signs.

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 them.