The Cast: My family (Me, my wife, and children), The Enemy (they’re always different), The Marines (little, plastic).

Every year it’s the same thing: The chaos, the fire, the screaming, the explosions. All the noise and horror. My family loves it!

I can’t recall what year the tradition began but it has been many, many years ago when my family first started The War. The War goes by a few nicknames: The Battle, The Fight, The Finale. But usually, it’s just referred to as The War. It’s called The War because that is what it is.

Each year, at my home, on the 4th of July, war breaks out. There is a horrific battle between the forces of good and evil. The U.S. Marines against The Enemy! The Enemy is never assigned a nationality or other such label, they are just the Bad Guys (ya’ know, like when you were a kid and there were ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. nobody cared where the ‘bad guys’ were from because they were bad, and you were the ‘good guys’. so who cared? it’s the same kind of thing here: The Marines against The Enemy!).

In the beginning, things were simple. There were green plastic military men, fireworks attached to them/placed near them, things were lit on fire, people watched (some screamed), there was fun to be had, and then we put the fire(s) out. Done. That first time was a good teaching opportunity. When you can only light a few fireworks off at a time, The War can get boring and just drag on and on. So, we needed to figure out a way to light all the fireworks off at once. But how…?


Yes, gunpowder. Simple, relatively inexpensive, and will ignite. Plus, I have yet to find a source that would allow me to buy yards of thin firework fuse that won’t put me on some sort of national ‘watch-list’ or something. I only need it for The War. Jeeze. People are so paranoid.

So, yeah, gunpowder. We have tried a few different types. Some have worked great, and others have not. Buying a small container of gunpowder will last for years, so we have to deal with whatever we buy, for a while. Once we bought a ‘smoke-less’ type thinking it would help make watching The War easier, since there would be less smoke from the trails of gunpowder that went from fuse to fuse. It was less smoky, that was true. But, it also didn’t burn hot enough to ignite anything. So we had to add bigger piles around the fuses and reconnect all of them. It did work better the second time. We haven’t bought that kind again.

Before the gunpowder, we had a rather large supply of military fuel bars. Those things are awesome. They are a purple bar that lights easy, burns well, and can be reused (until it’s all burned up—if you put it out, you can relight it later). Using a hammer, I would smash the bars while they were still in their sturdy package, then open the packet and make a chemical trail of powder connecting the individual fireworks. Almost no smoke. And the stuff just burns and burns until gone—no flash-then-gone like gunpowder. The best part was when one of the little plastic people were blown into the burning fuel bar powder, you knew they were dead. There was no escape.

Now, I have talked about how we connect the fireworks, but I haven’t really talked about The War, what it is, and what we do about/with it. So, here I go: The War, as mentioned before, is a 4th of July tradition where The Marines battle The Enemy. The Enemy can be—and has been—anybody, or anything. Usually, The Enemy is just another military group (always different colored uniforms than the Marines) set some short distance away from the Marines. Once, The Enemy was a group of giant radioactive bugs that surrounded the Marines and tried to kill them. Another time, zombie hoards. Yet Another time, Godzilla and some flying saucers attacked the city. With these kinds of military engagements, there are only a few rules we follow: The Marines are always outnumbered. And we honor Veterans. Otherwise, it’s almost anything goes.

Another rule we like to adhere to is: No interference. This tends to be more of a guideline than a hard-fast policy. This means, once The War is set up and ignition takes place, we just stand back and watch. What happens, happens. Sometimes, however, napalm has been deployed. Other times, a ‘light rain’ has come (if a fire looks like it’s getting out of control). Once in awhile new, additional ‘ordinance’ gets shipped in, in order to help end the war. We do not play favorites, however. We just let the chips fall where they may. There was one year that the Marines found themselves surrounded by Enemy and encircled by fire. We thought for sure the Marines would be burned alive and lose. But, they weren’t, and didn’t.

The War is set on a large sheet of cardboard or something like it for ease of clean up and to add an element of chaos into the formula. It burns, but you can’t tell it where to burn or for how long. Then we set the little plastic military figures about the board, along with an assortment of fireworks. This is followed by whatever chemical fuse connection we use that year. This connection is made in random lines to help control when things might ignite. Then we pick a spot and light the ‘starting point’. The starting point is usually an Enemy tank (as the enemy fires first). Sometimes, a ‘landmine’ on the Marine side is lit, and then the Marines fire back. Either way, it’s all fire, smoke, explosions, and screaming. And lots of fun!

There are always tanks, the rest of the fireworks can vary—as well as the terrain. One year we made buildings and hills. Another time we had little plastic bunkers from the plastic playset. Last year we had giant robots attack from the beachfront. There is total fairness at play during the set-up. Landmines (poping flash-bombs) are set in/around/under stuff/people. Tactical smoke-screens (smoke bombs) are common. Flowers or Gophers are used to disrupt the battlefront and throw the troops about. Sparklers can be found either to slowly connect one part of the battle to another or just to add an element of visibility to The War (like a time-laps flare in slow motion).

Since the set-up is never the same, The War is never the same. So, the end is never the same. We cannot interfere. We must see if the Marines can defeat evil and triumph once again. And they do. Every year. You see, after each annual battle is over (each year is a single chapter in the ongoing annals of The War) we pick through the carnage and count the bodies. Those that survive become honored Veterans and move onto fight again. Our oldest veteran survived four years. One year all the veterans died. And yes, we keep veterans from both sides—fair is fair. We observe ‘realistic’ survivability scenarios. If the head is gone, they’re dead. Lose of an arm, they’re fine. That sort of thing. Once, we had a radioman get his legs melted into a puddle by the napalm, he was still attached to them—or the puddle that used to be them—and we decided with proper medication and surgery he could still fulfill his duties. After all, his radio was still intact, and after amputation, we would just set him in the jeep next to The Commander next year. That next year, the jeep was hit by a tank. At point-blank range, the tank fired upon them both. Neither ‘Radio Joe’ nor The Commander survived… It happens.

My favorite veteran moment of all time (so far), was an early-year moment. There was a sentry standing guard in front of the barracks. Suddenly a ‘missile’ hit the barracks, causing it to explode, launching the sentry into the air, and sent him to land face-first into the ‘dirt’ (just like it would have in real life). As the barracks burned and The War raged on, that poor sentry’s back was set on fire and I watched him die. After it was all over I picked up that sentry only to find he was alive! He had only suffered third-degree burns on his back and the backside of his legs and arms. After a year of recuperation, he was back to fight at the front, only to die from a ‘mortar round malfunction’. Tragic…

The whole thing takes about 30 minutes to set-up, and about five minutes to burn to the ground and put itself out (it’s about 30 seconds of explosions followed by four and a half minutes of fire with intermittent unexpected explosions). We let it burn itself out. It’s part of the whole pact of ‘non-interference’ bit.

We try to be safe when doing this. One year, everything had burned out and we had gotten a watering can to pour water over it all, to cool things off, and make sure everything was out. Suddenly, one of The Enemy’s tanks opened fire and got off the last shot of The War. It didn’t matter though, they had lost.

Also, we have adopted a song that we play in the background of The War to add to the overall effect. It’s very touching. It’s the same song, every year: Welcome to the Pleasuredome, from the 1992 movie Toys. By chance, the pace of The War almost always matches the pace of the music (it’s a little creepy).

Victory. In the end, after all the destruction, we need to find out who won. This is done by count. Those left alive are a point. Those dead… nothing. They’re dead. If the Marines have the most they win. If not they lose. They have won every year. However, there was one year that we thought they had lost. We were all very sad—they had lost by one point, not even a tie at least, ONE POINT! However, the next morning my sons and I revisited the previous night’s battlefield to ensure there was no residual ordinance left behind that may prove a hazard later, and one of my sons found two Marines that had been blown into the nearby grass from a ‘mortar round’ the night before. They were unharmed. The Marines did win! We always win. Oorah!

For those who do not celebrate America’s Independence Day: Have a great Saturday, have fun, stay safe, and God bless.

For those Americans celebrating the 4th of July this year: Have fun, be safe, and God bless the U.S.A!

July 4th, 2011. We had some additional spectators this year. Cindy said it looked like The Enemy won. We counted, they didn’t.
July 4th, 2013. The cameraman is my daughter, Sarah, she was 16 that year—and my oldest. We had some unexpected moisture all of a sudden.

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