Friday, August 3, 2007

#110 - Firecrackers


8/3/07 (#110)

I grew up in a house of sparklers. With four kids of varying ages, I think my parents had visions of three-fingered children and a future of tedious "no, he wasn't born blind" explanations and opted against any Independence Day explosives.

For us, fireworks weren't an item designed for backyard enjoyment---that product was called badminton. (Or later, Jarts, enormous weighted lawn darts for a game that fused the sharp-object danger of darts with the unrestrained hurling of horseshoes; while I don't recall any of us being injured by the Jarts (save the occasional accidental drop on one's own foot) I'm still astonished that my parents drew the line at firecrackers with the firepower of a shaken pop can yet allowed a set of one-pound sharpened metal projectiles into the toy box.) Fireworks were an event to be attended, not hosted; a spectacle presented by professionals for the entertainment of the entire community.

Yet I remember the mysterious longing I felt when the neighbors across the street would drag out their minor-league pyrotechnics on the afternoon of July 4, smuggled up from South of the Border, a southeastern institution whose interior looked like a grocery store's produce department except in place of apples and cantaloupe they had bottle rockets and M-80s. Fireworks were illegal in my state (at least that's what I was told), so when Mr. Comey ignited the rocket that launched a tiny plastic soldier into the sky to have him parachute gently back to earth (with obvious charring to his face and extremities) it seemed like an irrationally bold defiance of the local ordinances---not to mention insanely dangerous considering that the Comey kids were essentially the same age as my brothers and sisters. Was he unaware of the danger he faced? Mom never hesitated to give us unsought safety advice---had she thought to offer some to this madman across the avenue?

By today's standards their arsenal would likely seem juvenile at best, as the home fireworks market has changed massively in the last 10 years. Where once the neighborhood kids vibrated with excitement at the zzzzzzzzip-pap of a bottle rocket shot from an empty Coke bottle, there are now folks two streets over who launch massive charges that rival a respectably-sized small town's civic presentation: these displays easily reach an altitude of 150 feet, their multi-colored bursts 30 to 40 feet across, an astonishing form of recreation for a man who grew up writing his name in the dark night with an incendiary device that could be hidden behind a pencil. These neighbors even have what I call "cannon blasts", those incredibly loud non-visual fireworks that seem to reset your heartbeat upon demolition. Had the Comeys unleashed such so-called entertainment back in 1972, the cramped area behind the couch would have been crowded with both the family dog and me.

My frustration with 21st century home fireworks aficionados is not the size of the displays or the volume of the bangs. What annoys me is the disregard they have for neighbors, exhibited in three significant ways:

  1. No adherence to any acceptable curfew: 10:00pm to midnight, that's fine, blow yourselves up for all I care. But if you purchased so many fireworks that it takes you until 4:00am to ignite them all, you are not celebrating independence, you're celebrating being an ass. No one wants to come to that party.
  2. No adherence to the calendar: In our neighborhood, they start around June 27. I suppose we have Christmas light to blame for this, as those lights are enjoyed for weeks before the holiday, not just on Christmas day; but then, Spiderman and Jack Sparrow don't show up at my house on October 29 expecting me to feed them. They also last well past the July 4---in fact, we suffered though six or eight late-night cannon blasts on August 1 this year. (Unfortunately, folks who don't obey this second complaint seem to be the same folks who disregard the first.)
  3. No concern for cleaning up: On the morning of July 5, our neighboring blocks are littered with the charred cardboard and melted plastic remains of seemingly hundreds of explosive devices. If I thought it was kids leaving the crap to blow away I would knock on doors and report it to their parents---but these days, parents are as bad as the kids. (But that's an issue that transcends this particular holiday.)

Living in Portland, we have a variety of options for great public fireworks displays, and most years we attend the big city-sponsored display downtown. Launched from a barge in the river that divides the city, there are plenty of places on both banks that offer a fabulous view, so we pack a knapsack with a blanket, beverages, and (of course) sparklers and head down to find a nice vantage point. This year, it was a grassy area near the south end of Waterfront Park where we had room stretch out and watch the crowd while we waited for the festivities to begin. As darkness slowly claimed the daylight, I was forced to confront two realizations.

First, the line between a public fireworks display and a home fireworks display has regrettably blurred: the very public and very busy walking path in front of us was constantly blocked by children---actual children, six to ten years old---igniting fountains of colored sparks from tubes with names like "Towering Inferno" and "Geyser of Fire" and tossing spastically gyrating sparking devices toward a vaguely defined no-cross zone with only the slightest regard for accuracy. (Meanwhile, their parents sat gabbing in closed clusters, apparently confident that if none of the children were screaming, "Argh! My hand!" then all was well.) We saw kids toting boxes they could barely heft, crates so large that had they been filled with dog food would have fed our dog for a month. (And ours is no small dog.) It was noisy, odorous, annoying, and frankly, quite unsettling.

The second realization was my daughter's reaction to it all.

Genetics never fails to astound me, and her body language screamed familiarities at me: I recognized myself in her obvious mix of fascination and fear of the spectacle, and felt anew the bittersweet enjoyment of the simple sparkler, at once innocently fun and embarrassingly inadequate. As her eyes soaked up the scene, I ached for her, wanting to snatch her up in my arms and run until it was July 5 and those confusing, contradictory emotions had faded like the resonant echoes of a cannon blast.

But of course, that would be trying to save her from life, and I don't want to save her from that. If not then, she would face that disquieting clash of emotions on the next day or the next, and if it didn't involve fireworks, it would be about bicycles or best friends or even badminton. In fact, it will probably be all of those, as that seems to be the human condition: It's not that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, but simply that there is another side of the fence, and things are different there, whether the grass is greener or it's blackened by the burn of department store fireworks.

As darkness settled further, I stood and snatched her up in my arms and said, "Let's write our names in the darkness," which we did with laughter and delight. The sparklers have long burned out, but I can still see her name scribbled in the dusk.

Try that with a firecracker.

©2007 wpreagan