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Highway 77 at Interstate 55 · Charleston, MO
When I was a kid, I used to beg my parents to stop at Boomland every summer on our route to my grandparents'. After sufficient pleading, my father would invariably stop whichever vehicle he was piloting that season — one of a number of family-size transports we owned over the years — on the pretense that he had to fill up with gas at that exact exit to make the last leg of the trip.
I was given five minutes to run in and purchase however many fireworks I could afford at the time, which was usually whatever I could get for the five dollars my mother would slip me.
Finski in hand, I'd dash inside and follow the red arrows pointing the way past the oversized novelty flyswatters, the bumper stickers and other souvenirs, around the racks of Precious Moments figurines, and straight back to the Class C explosives.
Back then, although the place still boasted itself as the land of boom, the fireworks section of this highway stop consisted merely of two aisles lined with bins and shelves offering a variety of smoke bombs, rockets, spark fountains and almost any other common fuse-activated, celebration device. Black Cat packets, twenty cents apiece. Jumping Jacks, wrapped in that waxy, red paper. M-60s heaped in an end-cap barrel like so many pickles in a late-19th-century corner store.
In those days (my childhood, not the late 19th century), shopping at Boomland was fairly easy. Grab a basket, dip a hand in any interesting-looking bin and pull out a fistful of easy entertainment. Snatch up a Saturn Missile cube and, usually, a gross of bottle rockets.
Sometimes, if I could balance the budget properly, or if I had a couple of extra bucks that Mom didn't know about, I'd grab one of the 10-inch rockets that I would unfailingly save for a special occasion that would never come, until I would finally decide I should set it free, and by which time the propellants were so stale, the resulting show was a huge disappointment.
But today…today things are different. In the years that passed since I last stepped through the brown building's glass doors, Boomland had expanded. Oh, had it ever expanded.
I entered the building for the first time in more than a decade and followed the red arrows as I always had, but this time I was greeted with a frenzy of firework aficionados treading a dozen aisles all extending back into infinity like Kevin's bedroom wall in The Time Bandits. For yards, chemical-packed cardboard shapes rose from floor to ceiling — fire candy as far as the eye could see. 31,000 square feet of it.
The Bootlegger Bomb. Moon Festival. The Galactic Glitz. The Vulcan Oriole. Killer Bees. Every imaginable theme is covered, available in every price range from change under the cushions to extended credit.
Sparse miles from Illinois, where it's illegal to sell fireworks anywhere in the state (lest an errant Roman candle become the next O'Leary's cow), Boomland makes a killing. And even though Illinois was my destination, where it also happens to be illegal to set off fireworks, I had to peruse the aisles for a few things, anyway.
However, it wasn't me this time with the handbasket and the five-dollar bill, but my youngest nephew. Of course, I did pick up a few choice items for myself, but I did so while watching the next generation take up my tradition as eager hands picked out the usual packets of firecrackers, smoke bombs and, of course, that 10-inch rocket, which he insists he's saving for a special occasion.