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Another Portland Blog

Friday, July 07, 2006


All's fair in love and explosives?

I'm back from a brief hiatus with a sad tale out of Vancouver. Since 1980, Blackjack's Fireworks has been ubiquitous with the Fourth of July. Every year like clockwork, starting the last week in the June, their advertisements take over Portland radio, guiding pyromaniacs across the Columbia River to take advantage of their two-for-one and occasional three-for-one specials on festive explosives not-quite-legal in Oregon.

The ads were back this year and I couldn't resist their siren's call. With the Blues Festival blaring live via KBOO, I headed into "El 'Couv-acabra" last Saturday. Along the way, Blackjack's minions were posted on overpasses over I-5, dressed in oversized Uncle Sam hats and holding florescent banners. After turning off the freeway, a group of teenagers with similarly-colored banners guided me towards what I thought was Blackjack's. They even had a guy in an official-looking orange vest waving a directional light, suggesting that the infamous fireworks shack's parking area had been relocated.

I wound up at small, white tent that definitely wasn't the place I was looking for. Undaunted, I rounded the corner and blew past their cunning ruse. After parking, I noticed another white tent, this one two stories tall, plopped in front of Blackjack's iconic pirate sign. This one was enormous and surrounded by rock walls and inflatable carnival attractions.

I headed inside, assuming Blackjack's already impressive selection had outgrown their former digs. This place had everything still legal in the state of Washington. Five different kinds of Saturn Missile Launchers stacked from the ground the roof. $500 kits that could only be hauled home in a pick-up. Then, off in the distance, I heard a voice erupting out of a loudspeaker. "IF YOU WANT A CARNIVAL, HEAD NEXT DOOR! IF YOU WANT BLACKJACK'S TWO-FER-ONES, KEEP WALKING PAST THE ROCKWALL TO THE LITTLE YELLOW BUILDING!"

It was another ruse. A group of interlopers had apparently rented the space in front of Blackjack's to leech off of their advertising budget. Who knows how many Oregon pyros had come up here, found the tent, bought hundreds of dollars worth of fireworks and headed back across the river, completely oblivious to Blackjack's actual location nearby.

Sure, that's capitalism for you. Regardless, this is pretty underhanded and the equivalent of Wal-Mart opening a franchise in the parking lot of a hometown market. I headed next door and Blacjack's, which once attracted crowds willing to wait for over an hour just to get inside, was clearly hurting for business. The last time I headed up there I had to wait 75 minutes to get through the front doors. This time I walked right inside.

As usual, there were plenty of ridiculously-themed pyrotechnics up for grabs. I snuck around and took blurry camera photos of as many of them as possible. Apparently, firework makers are now employing jaded ex-graphic designers from The Onion to create their packaging.

A "King of Kings" firework, with Jesus pictured wearing a crown on a white horse, was selling as part of a two-for-one deal.

Also available were no less than three redneck-themed fireworks implying the damage they could do the body parts of those wiling to buy them.

I'm convinced that whoever designed "Enduring Freedom" was making some sort of social commentary by placing the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Consider the evidence above.

There was also another one called "Munitions Dump" with a cartoon character holding a match on the seal.

Despite my moralizing, I walked away with only $2 worth of sparklers. Even the pregnant teenager working the cash register was disgusted with me. In my defense, I'm still sitting on a small cache from last year. Plus, I later spent the Fourth in locale that has not only banned fireworks but has officers and undercover agents roaming the area in search of patriotic firebugs.

Hopefully, Blackjack's will overcome its new competition and rise triumphant over Vancouver's annual fireworks free-for-all. If not, it's the end of an era.

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