July the 4th. Independence Day. Everywhere the smell of grills cooking, smoke bombs burning, and fireworks crackling. A blue haze wafts lazily throughout the neighborhood. Sparks fly, lights flash, packaged fire, made in China, with names like Jade Blossom and Butterflies in Flight go boom and crack and pow.
Our own domestic miniature shock and awe.
Another parade, another crowded park full of kitsch; Peruvian wood flutes, bolo ties, stuffed animals, pencil sketches of dead celebrities and caricatures of living ones, pewter jewelry, homemade quilts, navajo tacos and gigantic lemonades, funnel cakes, painted faces, overweight ladies in tank-tops and men wearing button down western shirts with gaudy patterns of red white and blue despite the triple digit heat. A man dressed like Ben Franklin rings a big bell on the street corner. His clanging is tolerated today. Any other day and he’d be hauled off to jail.
And then, like December the 26th, or the second day of school, or a grey Monday morning, July the 5th dawns with a thick hangover.
Blue black stains are burned into every driveway. Scraps of this and that, exploded evidence of the night before, drift down the gutter. Stale, cold franks still sit hopefully on the greasy grill, waiting for relish, mustard, and the warm comfort of a bleached white flour bun.
It was 1986. I was 9. I awoke early on the morning of the 5th. I ran out of the house with a box of matches and a plastic bag. The street outside was littered in confetti, the remains of cups, plates, toys, and fireworks all blasted into oblivion the previous night. There were burned out cardboard tanks, empty charred shells, hand sized symbols of American might. Toxic snakes were dry and crusty, lying in their own soot as the heat of the day turned them into ash. Dixie cups, half burned spotted the pavement, their waxy coating melted in a semi solid puddle around them. Like a drunk in his own vomit.
I scoured the asphalt with peeled eyes, looking, hunting, for unlit pyrotechnics. I knew that in the rubble of burned up celebratory explosives that lost, un-erupted fireworks were lingering, not unlike the hot dogs on the cold grill, waiting to be discovered, ignited, and consumed. I was determined to stretch Independence Day into the new morning, and beyond, if luck–and a trip to the firework stand–allowed.
But, alas, that luck would run out. Finding only a handful of Black Cats and ground flowers the reality of July the 5th started to sink in. Bleary eyed now, and tired, the heat of the July sun starting to beat down on the dark asphalt, I walked homeward. Grumpy and irritable. The routine of summer staring me directly in the face.
Those 4ths of July during the late 1980s seemed especially exciting. Perhaps it was because I was finally old enough to appreciate the risk of blowing off a hand with honest to goodness, bought in Evanston, Wyoming (at Porter’s Fireworks and Firewater), quick-wicked Black Cat firecrackers. We’d strap them to action figures and plastic cups, drop them down the sewage drain, or toss them high in the air, timing the explosion just right, so the loud crack would echo through the neighborhood at the apex of flight. We’d find creative ways to use gasoline, bottle rockets, PVC pipe, and pellet guns. Everything was a potential burn victim. Our toys, our clothing, a mailbox and the neighbors yard. If it could be blown to bits, we blew it to bits.
Those were the years that several dads in the area would pile kids into Suburbans and pick up trucks and make the trek to Evanston. Once at Porter’s it was hard for them to object to our Black Cats and bottle rockets when they themselves had a cart full of explosive illegalities that would make any smuggler, no matter how crooked and accomplished, blush with envy. We’d pull out onto I-80, the vehicle heavy laden with contraband flammable excitement and head back home. Always one eye on the rear view mirror, and the other on the speedometer. In the distance, rapidly growing smaller was Porter’s marquee. “Welcome back Utah, Happy 4th!”
It was no secret, all that border crossing with loads of pure, street credible fireworks. The highway patrol was in on it. They’d had to be. After all, they wanted a good show at home, in their driveways as well. Chicago cops have nothing on rural Utah.
Fireworks are tame nowadays. At least the ones that the grocery stores sell. Fountains of emitting sparks, crackling balls, snaps. But the proof of continued pilgrimages to Evanston lights up the night sky each and every 4th. A deep thump, followed by a shower of multi-colored fire high in the sky above our calm suburbia is a living symbol of all that is right in the world. Despite what troubles we deal with, no matter our health or our finances, our fear or anxiety, there is always in America that one day of the year when we are encouraged to blow crap up.
And now, today, the streets are quiet. Like New Year’s Day. Red-eyed and tired, friends greet each other. The desire to extend the great American holiday another day or so burns shallow, but every day life demands otherwise. Bills are due, deadlines loom, and life, paused for a few flammable moments, moves on. One by one the masses fall back in line. The short lived, but universal rebellion is over. Hot dog sales slump. Red white and blue t-shirts appear on the clearance rack. And that man dressed like Ben Franklin is out of a job.
Like a line of black ants, America returns to it ordered life, the 9 to 5 of punching the clock. Life, restored. Order, threatened, but victorious. A heavy sigh drifts from coast to coast. And everyone, nose back to the grindstone, looks forward again to blowing up more crap. Until next year, God Bless America.