Monday, July 4, 2011

Fourth Memories

The Fourth of July has always been memorable for me, though not due to a deep sense of patriotism. It's historically been a day where my life has been at serious risk. There was the one time I had a semi-serious surgery--I had my appendix removed in the second grade, and I listened to the popping of fireworks in a hospital bed, my only company being IVs and an incredible pain in my right side. Don't know where my family was during this time--who leaves a post-surgery second grader alone in a hospital overnight?--but that was the first Fourth I remember.

Later in life, I spent the Fourth with some high school friends on their large property in the heart of Washington state. Here's the setting: large house, a pond on the property, rolling fields and evergreen forest, with Mount Rainier as the picturesque backdrop to a homemade fireworks display. These people had a sizable income. My friend's dad had found some connection that allowed him to purchase professional grade fireworks. These things were the size of cantaloupes. I didn't ask if it was legal or not. The men set up the launch tubes and fireworks on a small island in the pond, maybe 30 yards away. The women and children--I was in the "children" category I suppose, despite being in my late teens--gathered in small clusters on the deck, perhaps 30 yards away from the launch site. I briefly wondered if we were too close; we were about to find out.

The first few explosions went off beautifully, long slow arcs into the dusky sky as the crowd on the deck cheered and hollered. It was a warm night, and everyone was in good spirits. Then came the larger fireworks. The first one shot up at a gradual pace, a slow lob, like it had been tossed by hand. In the light from the fuse, we could see the shadows of men scattering on the island, diving behind bushes and boulders as the glowing orb turned and floated earthward. Later, I found out that the launch tubes were slightly too large for these particular fireworks, that the pressure was not enough to achieve a proper lift off. There was a fantastic flash and an immediate thunderous explosion as a myriad of colors shot out in perfectly straight lines in all directions. The sight was stunning. A few flaming colors made their way to the deck where we were now huddling. My friends and I were laughing hysterically, naively unaware that we were in any real danger.

I don't know who made the following decision, but it may have been influenced by alcohol consumption. The men picked themselves up from behind their protective cover, dusted themselves off, and lit another firework. This one never left the tube. Everyone repeated the previous duck-and-cover routine. The explosion was deafening, the light majestic in the darkening sky. The flaming colors reached the deck this time, and I found myself hunched behind some lawn furniture. My friend Paul was smiling next to me as we watched the globes of colored fire hit the house behind us. Then there was a calm, a near-silence as we all emerged from our cover. The men came back from the island, most of them grinning, some looking a bit furious. One showed us his NorthFace fleece coat, now with a new charred hole in the middle of the back. This might be where memory and imagination collide in the mind, but I swear that the coat was still slightly smoking.

I don't really do fireworks any more. Oh, I'll watch them from a safe distance. But after professional-grade explosions have streaked toward you, sparklers just lose their thrill.

Happy Fourth of July.

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