On Fireworks and Being a Fuddy Duddy

Photo from smashingmagazine.com

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.

Photo found on flickleflu.com

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.

Photo found at jeffw.org

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.

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El Diablo

I’ve been trying to think about how to write this.  I actually started a post earlier and got to about 1000 words before realizing it really wasn’t working the way I wanted it to.

I had an experience this week-end I feel the need to write about, and yet I’m not sure of the best way to do it….

I was faced with an opportunity, of sorts, this weekend.  An opportunity to confront ignorance and, I would even argue, homophobia, head on and I didn’t back down.

I went to a barbecue at Michelle’s sister, Monique’s house.  Based on my decision-making avoidance strategy, or D-MAS, of wearing whatever’s next in line (as long as it coordinates), I ended up wearing this t-shirt:

This picture is not me. I'm much more booby-licious than this.

Among other people, one person in attendance was someone who has been a friend of Monique’s for years, but whom I have only met a handful of times.  His name is Damien, which for anyone who cares, is in some circles thought to be a name for the Devil.  Just thought I’d share that.

Anyway, through the course of the afternoon and evening Damien made a number of comments that were very insensitive and ignorant and instead of sitting by silently and letting it pass, I spoke up.

Michelle told a story about the guy she had been “training” for the last two weeks while in Tulsa.  The purpose of the story was to illustrate how “lame” this guy’s personality is.  She was asked to go there for two weeks to act as a Subject Matter Expert, or in Project Management parlance, a SME (pronounced smee).  On one particular occasion, the gentlemen she was working with (who is really kind of a dud as far as the job goes, but that’s none of my concern) had need of input from Michelle and another “SME” and upon completing the conversation, said, “We just had a smeeting!”

Now understand, I think that’s hysterical!  Michelle on the other hand thinks it’s a terrible joke.  Michelle’s friend Suzanne who was also at the barbecue and sitting next to me during this conversation and I both burst out laughing.  Damien on the other hand, rolled his eyes and said, “That’s gay!”.  I turned and looked directly at him, and while never removing the smile from my face and without taking on an angry tone, I told him, “Excuse me, but, that is not OK.”  It took Damien a second to register what I meant.  I continued, “What makes it ‘gay’?”

He acknowledged what I had said, and apologized.  While I’m not convinced of the depth of his sincerity, I accepted his apology.

At another point the subject of Gay Pride came up.  Suzanne asked Damien if he’d ever been to pride.  His vehement response was “Fuck no!”  I pointed out that his reaction was disproportionate to the question.  If Suzanne had asked me that question, I would have said, “No.  I never have been” and that really that would have been a sufficient answer from Damien.   He went on to say that his ex-wife had wanted him to come to Pride (her company was a sponsor and she had to work) and he said the only way he would ever go was if she bought a pair of handcuffs and he could handcuff himself to her for the duration of the event so that all the gay guys would know he was straight and taken.

Later, he brought up the subject of same-sex marriage and prejudice against homosexuals.   Damien is half black and half Puerto Rican.  I only know this because he told us so.  I had no idea before he said so.  He doesn’t look black in the least and I’m not the least bit surprised that he hasn’t experienced much discrimination in his lifetime (something he also told us.)  He told those of us involved in the conversation, “I don’t think there’s any difference between being discriminated against because you’re gay or because you’re black.”

I spoke up.  “Woah!  Hold on just a minute now.  I don’t, for one second dispute the fact that prejudice still exists in this country and I’m sure that just about every black person alive has experienced some extent of discrimination.  But you can’t tell me that it’s the same thing.  First of all, in this nation today, we have institutionalized discrimination against homosexuals who want to get married, or visit their partners in the hospital and more than 1000 other ways.  And while it’s true that there are still bigots in this world who will treat black people badly just because they’re black, I don’t think too many of those people are going to be any nicer to a homosexual.  Meanwhile there are laws on the books outlawing discrimination against black people. There are specific laws on the books that make it legal for a mixed race couples to marry while there are also laws that prevent two people of the same gender who love each other from marrying.

“Plus!  You’re born black, and from the day you’re born there’s no question to anyone who sees you that you are black.  On the other hand, most gay people don’t realize they’re gay until well into their teen years if not longer.  You can’t always tell a person is gay just by looking at them.  So while it sucks that black people still get discriminated against, you’re not exactly unprepared for it.

“Now imagine for just a minute, that you’re the most average man in the world. White skin, blond hair, blue eyes, couldn’t be more average.  For the first 30 years of your life you experience absolutely no prejudice or discrimination whatsoever and then you wake up one day and you finally realize you’re gay and for the first time in your life you have to face the reality that people will hate you.  Your own mother will hate you.  That you can be fired from your job in many places because you prefer men over women.  That the nation as a whole says you are not worthy, that you don’t deserve to live and have the same happiness that they have.

“Imagine that for one minute.  There is no way you can tell me there’s no difference in the kind of prejudice that gay people and black people experience.”

Damien started to argue the point, but can I just tell you…  Everyone else in the conversation actually, literally cheered.

~~~~~

Let it be said that as a whole, the barbecue was a lot of fun.  I enjoyed myself quite a bit and I didn’t allow Damien’s ignorance or commentary to negatively impact me or ruin my experience.

Let it also be said that it seemed incredibly clear to me that Damien is struggling with some issues.  I think it likely that he himself is in fact gay and he’s struggling with accepting it.  And after he left and I expressed as much to Monique and Michelle, Monique said, “Oh yeah!  I’ve thought that for years.”  So on that front, I hope he figures things out for himself.  I hope he does it soon and I hope he doesn’t ever have to encounter the kind of ignorance that he was spouting on Sunday.

~~~~~

So, uh…  How was your holiday week-end?

Fuddy. Duddy.

I love a good fireworks display.  I really do.  Always have.  The kinds of displays put on by professional pyrotechnicians have never ceased to thrill me.  I love the power of the concussive force as the cartridges explode in a myriad of colors and patterns in the sky.  When I was a kid I loved the Fourth of July and could not wait for one or the other of my parents to take me to a fireworks display.

These days, my love of professional pyrotechnics is confined to New Year’s Eve, when I’d sooner suck on a salt lick than sit at home alone, missing the celebrations!  Why a salt lick?   I don’t know.  It’s just the first thing that came to mind.  So many of the professional Fourth of July fireworks shows that I once loved have been called off due to expense and the ones that are still in effect are a lot of trouble to get to for a 20 minute display followed by a 90 minute trip home because of the amount of traffic (on a school night, no less.)

As I write this, I’m sitting naked in my non-air conditioned apartment with the doors and windows open, because it’s been too hot to have the place closed up, and I imagine what it might have been like to live in any number of places in “The Gulf” during our many attacks on the “bad guys”, which is to say that on this night, every year, I feel as though I’m living in a war zone.  It starts in the early afternoon and will continue until well after I go to bed; a constant bombardment of explosions and sizzles and bangs.  Noises that, only because of what day it is, are brushed off (mostly) as the sounds of some unwise, amateur pyrofile getting his (or her) jolly’s, but on any other day would prompt me to pause the television and wait for the sounds of the sirens that one would expect to follow gunfire in the neighborhood.

I hate this, immensely.

Maybe it’s because I remember watching my father holding roman candles IN HIS HANDS while they shot off their seven or eight colored orbs into the night sky.  Maybe it’s because I never got over the fear of being burned while holding a thin wire with sparks shooting off of it in my own hands (what sense does that make, I ask you?)

Maybe it’s because I live in what some might consider the Murder Capital of the United States (certainly of California) and the sound of gunshots is neither uncommon, or comforting, and it can be difficult to differentiate between a hand gun and rampart.

Maybe it’s because I live in a place where most of the time, everything is so dry that it will catch fire if you look at it sideways.  Maybe it’s because I watch the news and hear the stories that are inescapable of the various types of injuries and even deaths that take place every year as unqualified and unintelligent people operate fireworks IN MY FRONT YARD (figuratively.  I don’t have a yard, just a driveway and a crowded street.)

Maybe it’s because I’ve learned enough in my EMT training to not be cavalier about the possibilities on a night like this (and fully expect that if ever I get a job as an EMT I’ll never have the Fourth of July off work again).

Maybe it’s because I’m an egalitarian and amateur fireworks within city limits are simply illegal.

Whatever the reason, I’ve grown to hate this night, in which I will get no sleep (this raucous will continue until the wee hours of the morning) and I will have to fight hard against my nature to become angry because hundreds of people, who I do not know, have decided to take it upon themselves to take away my choice, my freedom (on Independence Day no less) to have a good nights sleep, free of noise polluted disruption, free of fear at whom might be dying from gunshot wounds (the sound of which might be mistaken for fireworks), free of fear that my house might randomly catch fire from a stray, or misdirected rocket, well into the early morning hours.

This  is not what Francis Scott Key had in mind when he wrote “The rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night…”