Once upon a time, in a land very far away, I was not such a fuddy duddy. I was younger then. Maybe not so easily annoyed. I lived in town, but living “in town” didn’t mean what it does now, for me anyway. Living “in town” in those days meant that I lived in a house with a back yard and a front yard. Forty or fifty feet back from the street and with plenty of space between the house in which I lived and the houses on either side. Living “in town” meant that the house in which I lived was in the middle of a sub-urban housing addition, probably one of many, but that it wouldn’t take all that long to drive outside of the city limits, sometimes outside of the county limits, and find wide open, unincorporated, largely unregulated spaces in which to do, well… Just about anything.
I remember those days so long ago, when you could drive around “town” in the weeks leading up to the celebration of our nation’s independence and find fireworks stands on many street corners. There was nothing covert about them. They were large wooden structures, brightly painted with huge “FIREWORKS” painted on the sides along with colorful bursts of what must have been meant to be exploding fireworks in the night sky. Interestingly, I remember these colorful bursts as looking like what you might see on any commercially sponsored, professionally launched fireworks display. Explosions of reds and greens and whites, high in the sky, launched from a place of relative safety, with no one for hundreds of feet around the launchers but the professionally trained (or so one would assume) pyro technicians who knew how to present these displays in the safest possible manner. Of course, they didn’t sell those types of fireworks at these stands but no one would mistake the images.
I always thought it strange that in a city where it was illegal to set off fireworks, it was legal to sell them. But sell them they did. And the people generally seemed to respect the laws and take their fireworks outside the city or county limits and set them off in an open field (or hopefully an open lot – an open field, after all, could still catch fire.)
I remember as a young boy, going with my family to the local high school, and laying out our blankets on an unoccupied patch of grass outside the football stadium fence. No one was allowed inside the stadium for safety purposes. We would lie on our blankets watching the sky, waiting for it to get dark enough and for the first bursts of light and color to fill our views.
I remember another time, when I sat on the bank of the Ohio River with my father and his wife. From our vantage point, we could see, not just the explosions in the sky, but we could see the barge from which the rockets were launched and we would watch as the cartridges raced into the sky until they disappeared from view and we would try to guess with our eyes how high the bomb would go before it erupted. From that location we were able to feel the ash from those cartridges raining down on us, and occasionally, a larger piece of the paper wrapping that surrounded those shells would fall over us or wash ashore.
I remember one fourth of July when I was very young, when my father stood at the edge of the second story balcony of his enormous rental house (a story for another time), holding a roman candle in his hand. He lit he contraption only after the rest of us were sufficiently back from the edge, from him, and from the dangerous device. Once lit, he stretched his arm out far beyond the railing of the balcony and angled the launching end of the tube toward the sky over the wide open back yard. One after another those colored globes arced into the sky and fizzled out before landing on the grass. Nothing happened that night, but even at the tender age of 6 or 7 years old, I remember thinking how stupid this was, how dangerous it could have turned out to be.
My older siblings would hold metal sticks with powder on them and one of my father’s wife’s children would light the end. Everyone would smile and laugh as the sticks lit up and sparks flew in all directions. My siblings would wave those sticks around and tracers of light would linger in our eyes as they made shapes in the dark with those sticks.
I wouldn’t touch them. I was afraid. What they did made no sense to me. Why would you hold, in your bare hands, a stick with fire shooting off of it? I was ashamed, as well, because no one could understand my refusal to get involved and they always made fun.
Everywhere I have ever lived, the use of fireworks was illegal within the city limits. They are dangerous and disruptive and every city I know of us has deemed them too much of a risk to life and property. And everywhere I have lived, for the most part, the citizens have respected this fact. Until now.
In my younger, non-fuddy duddy days, I always went out to see a fireworks display on the fourth of July. I love them! They’re beautiful. It’s always fun to see the different colors and patterns that come from those rockets. When they’re paired with a musical backing they’re even more enjoyable. And when enjoyed from a safe distance, the physical impact of the explosion, that slight concussion in your chest, is kind of cool too. I enjoy going to a wide open space and enjoying the show with a few thousand of my neighbors without everyone crowding on top of each other and making the experience unenjoyable.
That doesn’t happen anymore. I’m certain it’s because I live in a densely populated area where, due to the cost of these shows, there are far fewer of them than there were ten years ago. I haven’t gone to see professional fireworks presentation in years because of all the effort and hassle that goes into seeing 20 minutes of a show, while trying to keep the people who crowded all around you at the last minute, when you went early enough to stake out your nice spot, from stepping on your feet. This is not my idea of a good time.
Those youngest days were spent in Ohio. Maybe I was just too young to know and remember correctly, or maybe times have changed. But to my recollection, rarely did people use illegal fireworks in “town”. Or if they did, it was a small number, it was done as soon as the public displays were over and then it ended at a reasonable hour.
From there I lived in Oklahoma. Oklahoma being the center of the Bible belt where, apparently, people are too good Christians to disobey the law, I don’t recall there being much in the way of illegal fireworks within the city limits.
I have lived in four cities in the drought stricken state of California: Turlock, Richmond, San Francisco, and finally, Oakland. Never before living in Oakland was I aware of a problem with illegal fireworks, but here, in Oakland, it starts weeks before the holiday even happens and lasts days after. But the day of? The day when this city, chock full of immigrated foreigners, many of who aren’t even citizens, celebrates the birth of this nation? On that day, this city is like a war zone, starting midafternoon and lasting until well into the wee small hours.
I lived through seven years of it. The first three I was on the edge of the city. Not much happened immediately close to my home, but I could see it on the horizon and hear it all over the city of Oakland, bombs bursting in air; but also on the pavement and sidewalks and front yards. And it kept me awake half the night. Then I moved to my current home and lo and behold, I was in the thick of it. All up and down my own street people were firing off all sorts of fireworks, putting not just themselves, but all of the rest of the neighborhood at risk as well.
A year and a half ago, a house across the street which had sat empty for years became occupied and last year on the fourth of July, the new residents made their presence known in the worst way. They set off fireworks in the middle of the street, right in front of my house, for hours. I sat in my living room, watching television, trying not to fume too strongly at the blatant disregard for the law and public safety. Trying not to be too angry at our sorely underfunded and therefore understaffed police department who did nothing to curtail this villainous activity, when suddenly BAM! A deafening explosion went off. The whole house shook. The windows rattled. My chair rocked… on its own. The cat jumped and my heart skipped a beat or six. I felt the explosion in my chest and it actually, physically hurt.
I went outside to see what had happened and there were my new neighbors, all eight of them (mostly adults in a very small house) sitting on the front steps talking and laughing while one of them went out into the middle of the street to kick away the debris from the last bomb and set up the next one. I watched as he lit a fuse and ran for the safety of the porch and within a few seconds there was a bright flash of light and I felt as if I’d been kicked in the chest. No colors, no movement. Nothing beautiful. Just an explosion.
I went back inside my house and called the police.
And got a recording prompting me to leave a message about illegal fireworks and where they were happening.
I left a message.
The police never came.
I decided then and there, that the following year, I would stay at a hotel overnight away from the war zone that my home had become.
This year, I stayed in the previously mentioned hotel in the middle-of-nowhere. Small, but nice, this hotel was in an unincorporated area in the middle of the Capay Valley of Northern California. There’s nothing around it for miles besides farms and groves. I hoped there would be a professional fireworks display there, but was perfectly content for there to not be.
How ironic, I thought, to have to go to unincorporated land, outside any city limits, to get the peace and quiet of not having to deal with illegal fireworks in my own front yard.