Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Independence Day

The 4th of July holiday is known all over America for its fireworks. I happen to live in California, however, so municipal firework shows are all we have. Personal fireworks are a no-no. Good ones, anyway. This year, we ended up at my sister’s house in Oregon on the 4th. I was excited, because I thought I would have more access to better personal fireworks in Oregon. Unfortunately, it turns out they are just as lame as California. When we pulled into town, I went to the Junior League’s firework stand in the Safeway parking lot, hoping, at a bare minimum, to buy some honest-to-goodness Black Cat firecrackers. No such luck. The selection was exactly the same as the stand in my own town, at my own Safeway parking lot. I left with the $50 “Safe and Sane” Family Disappointment Package, cursing the leaders of both states under my breath.

So-called “Safe and Sane” fireworks really suck. There is no better way to put it. They just suck. The sparklers even suck. I’m not sure how it was possible to make a sparkler lamer than the ones I grew up with, but they managed to pull it off. To make it worse, we had spent the whole day of the 4th driving, so my wife was insistent on getting the kids to bed at a reasonable hour, so they wouldn’t be cranky the next day. The sun doesn’t go down in northern Oregon until 9:30 at night in the summer, so my after-dinner fireworks non-extravaganza took place in the daylight on my sister’s driveway.

By the fourth fountain it was obvious that the safe and sane package has exactly four tricks up its sleeve: White shower of sparks, colored shower of sparks, crackling shower of sparks, and whistles. The “large” fountains reached the staggeringly breathtaking height of three feet. Happy birthday, America! Sorry this sucked.

Our boys actually enjoyed the first few, but even at seven, six and four years old, they are still male, so they became bored rather quickly. They began to ask impatiently for me to “do bigger ones.” I was then faced with the challenge of trying to explain that we were celebrating the birth of the freest nation on earth with ridiculously bad fireworks because we were not free to buy the good ones in this particular part of that same nation. I was halfway through the explanation when our savior arrived.

Matt, my sister’s neighbor from down the street, came strolling up to the driveway with his wife and daughter, two armloads of fireworks, and a big smile on his face. We had heard some very loud explosions from the direction of his house earlier in the evening, and when we asked if they were from him, he replied with a wink and a nod that he had no idea what we were talking about. He had the larger $80 Safe and Sane Family Disappointment Package under his left arm, and a bulging brown paper bag under his right arm.

We invited them to join us, and now with more safe and sane firepower, we began clustering four to six of the “large” fountains together and lighting them all at once. That made them mildly tolerable. When I inquired as to what might be in the unmarked bag, Matt said, “I’m glad you asked.”

Matt had gone to Washington, just north of Oregon, a state that still believes that Americans should be able to celebrate Independence Day in style. Matt had a bag full of mortars. Mortars are not safe. They are not sane. They are, however, awesome! Mortars are basically a 1/4 scale of a real municipal firework. They rocket out of the tube with a bang, straight up, 150 feet into the air and explode with a huge shower of colored sparks. And when I say explode, I mean feel-it-in-your-chest explode. When he set off the first one from the middle of the street, I knew we were destined for a much more exciting 4th of July. Our boys were loving it.

It turned out that Matt, being the kind of courageous American male that is willing to cross state lines with illegal fireworks in order to have a good time, was also the kind of American male that makes his own fireworks. He had some homemade “firecrackers” made out of something called flash powder, that apparently burns three times faster than gunpowder. They looked like a two-inch-wide triangular piece of flat cardboard with a fuse sticking out. When he lit the first one and threw it across the street, we immediately knew where all the loud explosions had been coming from. It shook the windows! Our boys were loving it.

At that point, my sister’s slightly eccentric neighbor, Mark, from across the street, came out to join us with some Roman candles. We held them up and shot flaming colored balls down the street. Now we’re getting somewhere! When Mark decided that the Roman candles weren’t good enough, he went across the street and came back with his own mortars. Now Matt was busy operating two mortar stations, sending fireworks high into the air to the delight of the crowd that was gathering. Our boys were loving it!

Not one, apparently, to waste an opportunity to party, Mark kept going back and forth across the street bringing different items over to the driveway. He had quite a collection of illegal fireworks, along with a speaker/amp for his iPod to add some music to the festivities, and some bootleg whiskey that his friend had sent him, to warm up the crowd. It turned out that Mark owned a gun manufacturing facility a few towns over, and he jokingly (I thought) asked me if I wanted to shoot some blanks out of an M-16. I, of course, said yes.

It was starting to get dark when things started to get a little out of hand. Some random guy from down the road wandered over wearing Coke-bottle glasses and rubber boots, with a beer in one hand and a mortar shell in the other. As people were lighting Mark’s spinning and flying fireworks left and right out in the street, Matt and captain rubber boots were trying to figure out which mortar tube would be best for the new random mortar shell, and Mark, wearing a white dress shirt, shorts and sandals, was standing in the middle of the street holding a glass of whiskey in one hand and an M-16 in the other.

Now, as an American male, I am pro-mortar. I am also pro-homemade fireworks, pro-loud music, pro-beer, pro-whiskey, and pro-machine gun. At 10:00 P.M. on the 4th of July, however, when I surveyed the scene that had developed in the street in front of my sister’s house, I decided I am not necessarily pro-all-those-things-at-once when my boys are running around in the middle of it. It was starting to look more like a war zone than a barbecue. 

I packed up the kids into the car, and dragged my wife kicking and screaming away from the festivities. Mind you, this was the same woman who was insistent on getting the kids to bed right away – two hours earlier. Deep down, she’s secretly pro-all-those-things-together, too, which is why I love her.

We said goodnight, and left one heck of a party in our rearview mirror. I guess I’m becoming more prudent in my old age, or my parent-age. One thing is for sure, the younger, single me would have braved the flying fireworks and stuck around in hopes of firing some blanks out of that M-16! Oh, well.

We went back to my sister’s house the next morning to help clean up, and the house was still standing, so I guess the party didn’t get too out of hand.

Happy birthday, America!

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

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