Jack Kerouac’s Roman Candles

4 Jul

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Jack Kerouac’s most famous quote is this gorgeous piece of prose from his seminal novel On the Road:::

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Kerouac’s words have been made into wall art and tattoos. They are inspiring and wondrous. The repetition of “mad” and “burn” drive the energy of the sentence. The verbs make you want to act, make you want — to live, to talk, to be saved. They make you burn, burn, burn. They make you feel as if your senses are exploding. You read these words, and you want to seize the day! You want to be the type of friend who makes your friends’ lives shine brighter, who creates moments in their lives that they will hold onto for the rest of their lives.

The beauty of the “fabulous yellow roman candles” that are “exploding like spiders across the stars” with their “blue centerlight” is mesmerizing.  (Italian author Elena Ferrante also write a magnificent scene involving Roman candles in My Brilliant Friend.) It’s so visual. So visceral. I’ve written before about how Kerouac may have pinched the Roman candle image from James Joyce. See this quote from Ulysses:::

…O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!

But what exactly is a Roman candle?

Years ago, when I first encountered the words “roman candles” I thought they were those eight-inch religious candles in glass. You know the ones. They usually have Mother Mary or some other icon on the glass. Kerouac was Catholic so it made sense to me at the time, and though the image in my mind’s eye was quieter, more solitary, it still enamored me. It had a holiness to it.

As it turns out, though, a Roman candle is actually what we’d typically call a firework. They’re illegal for BBQers and other regular Joes to own in New Jersey and New York — and actually now they’re illegal in Massachusetts too — so I never learned Roman candles were a type of fireworks. The world of pyrotechnics is full of Roman candles, bottle rockets, sparklers, and more!

Developed in China, the Roman candle gained prominence during the Italian renaissance. It burns ever so slowly til it reaches the pyrotechnic star. Then suddenly it bursts into colors!

Here’s how it works, according to Wikipedia:::

Roman candles are fireworks constructed with bentonitelifting chargepyrotechnic starblack powder, and delay charge. The device is ignited from the top, which should be pointed into the sky, away from people. The delay powder is packed tightly in the tube, so that the flame cannot reach around the sides of the plug of delay composition. It therefore burns slowly; as it is consumed, the flame moves down through the tube. When the flame reaches the topmost pyrotechnic star, the star is ignited. Because the star fits loosely in the tube, the fire spreads around it and ignites the lift charge. The lift charge burns quickly, propelling the star out of the tube. In doing so it also ignites the layer of delay powder beneath it, and the process repeats.

About those stars:::

The stars of Roman candles can be found in any number of colors. Colors are manipulated by adding compounds which, when ignited, release visible light and other radiation. For example, when potassium perchlorate (KClO4) is used as an oxidizer, chemical reactions involving the dissociated elements of the perchlorate—potassium and chlorine ions—create barium compounds which emit green light (especially BaCl). The potassium compounds formed by this reaction emit mostly near-infrared light, and so they do not affect the color of the star in a significant way. This reaction occurs at temperatures exceeding 2500°C (4532°F), at which KCl can ionize into K+ and Cl. Alternatively, strontium carbonate can be added to the candle to produce a red or pink star, but, because it does not oxidize, more oxidizers and fuels must be added to sustain combustion. During combustion, various strontium compounds (especially SrOH) emit red light, most of which is between 506 and 722 nanometers in wavelength.[4]

That’s probably way more nerdy information than you needed to know!

Keep the fireworks to the professionals. Yesterday a man in Central Park stepped on a firework and had to get his leg amputated!

I have the day off from work … so of course I’ve gotten sick! But that means instead of going to the beach and watching fireworks, I can bring you literary links related to the Beats and America:::

 

Be safe, and have a Happy Independence Day!!

 

 

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