I am a sucker for a good fireworks show.
There's something about standing in a large crowd and looking skyward, waiting for that first shot of color and noise to rip apart the darkness, that fills me with both joy and awe.
My mother's birthday was July 05. Each year, on the Fourth, we'd have a big cookout in our back yard, partly to celebrate Independence Day and partly to mark her birthday. This was a major event as marked by a couple of deep-seated traditions, one of which was Dad cooking outside.
Dad hated cooking outside ("Why would I haul all the stuff from the kitchen to the yard, just to prep a meal and eat out there, just to haul it all back inside and clean it up?"). But for this event, he relented and would drag out the tiny hibachi grill, fill it with briquettes, douse the black squares with lighter fluid, and, to our pyromanical glee, ignite the pile into a mini-mushroom cloud of flame.
But after dinner, the real magic started.
We lived with walking distance of a huge tract of community land that had space for four baseball fields, one at each corner.
Each year, the local fire house staged an impressive fireworks display in this field.
And best of all, we had easy access. Whereas other viewers had to deal with the traffic snarls (and cranky back-seat kids) associated with entry/exit into the neighborhood (and parking), we merely left our backyard, walked half a block to the field, and were set.
The sunlight would eventually start to loosen its hold on the day, turning pale yellow, then gold, then orange. And each color progression ramped up the excitement level.
As the sun disappeared altogether and the sky turned purple on its way to black, the technicians would test-fire a shot or two, to gauge the wind, I suppose. But when these singular streaks of light would launch for the sky, everyone's attention was immediately focused upward, hoping that it signaled the start of the show.
Alas, it was just a test shot.
But eventually, the initial salvo would begin and the explosions and bursts of color were a wonder to behold.
I loved every minute. The different shapes. The chrysanthemums. The screamers. The cascades. The waterfalls. And the thundering impact of the shells, which left dots on the inside of the eyeballs from their bright explosions. And thuds in the pit of the stomach.
Best of all -- and this factor seems to be gone from modern-day firework displays -- this show always included a ground display or two. This would be an array of sparklers or pinwheels that were lit at ground-level rather than being launched into the sky. I most remember the formation of an American flag, blazing in red, white, and blue glory. Or a bald eagle. Or some other patriotic image.
Not sure what has happened to these displays. But they seem to be absent from most modern-day shows.
I believe it was Dad who taught me that the quality of a fireworks show can be judged by the number of times the color blue is represented. Apparently, according to him, the chemical mix required to burn as blue is the most expensive; therefore, the more blue, the more the outlay for the show.
The finale was always the best. Shot after shot in quick succession, until the sky was painted from horizon to the moon with a kaleidoscope of hues. And those explosions, where the displaced air pressure would cause the cuffs of my shirt and shorts to twitch in response.
And then. Silence. Followed quickly by a rousing cheer.
The neighborhood fireworks show was a beloved tradition when I was a kid.
But it wasn't a permanent one.
It was eventually cancelled by the community, much to my bitter disappointment. Some neighbors whose properties bordered the field complained about safety issues, and although I could see their point, it didn't make sense to me as a kid. After all, how much safer could you get than a fireworks display sponsored by a fire house?!?!?
But my love of fireworks stuck and remains to this day. No matter where or when, I'm always eager to see those magnificent, earth-shattering lights in the sky. If we're driving along and see one in the distance, I'll always pull over and gaze, ignoring the clock or the kids' complaints in the back ("Fireworks are boring!").
The community we now live in sponsors a yearly show on July 04, and again, it's a walkable distance to attend (it's amazing to me how many echoes of my own childhood continue to reverberate in my adulthood). And we go every year. Even our elder-teen who complains ("Fireworks are boring!").
Things haven't changed much with pyrotechnics over the decades. Sure, the days of men running with torches to light physical fuses have been replaced by computer-fired methods, but the centuries-old attraction of colorful explosions against a canvas at night remains.
Computerization and technology now allow more precise firings, which has led to an increased ability to synchronize shows to music. It's a great effect and can increase the power of the emotional response to fireworks.
For example, Disney uses a blend of music, imagery, and fireworks to close Epcot's operating hours every day. The first time I saw "Illuminations, Reflections of Earth," it brought me literally to tears, swept away by the sheer power and emotion of the combo. Even hearing the music, without the visuals, can cause the hair on the back of my neck to stand on-end.
The one thing I insist on with fireworks, however, is attendance. Fireworks displays are absolutely magical in person.
And lame-lame-lame on television.
Maybe it's the knowledge that you're there with family and friends, huddled on a blanket in the cool grass, grateful that the heat of an early July afternoon has ebbed away, giddy with excitement over that first volley.
Maybe it's the thrill of seeing thousands of faces lit by the backwash of light, turning them in unison to blue, green, orange, white.
Maybe it's the percussive whump that signals a new shot, followed by a corkscrewing streak of light hundreds of feet up, a pyrotechnic tadpole that the bursts open into a flowering shower of color for all to see.
Maybe it's the comic sight of the kids who jam fingers in their ears to protect against the earth-shaking booms that follow.
It's probably all of it.
All of it together.
Whatever it is, I will be right there in the dark with you. Smile plastered on my face. Eyes bright. Oooh-ing and Aaah-ing.
No more test-shots. Let the show begin!