For several decades our family tradition was spending the 4th of July in my in-laws’ back yard. We’d light small fireworks all day until everyone smelled like smoke and gunpowder. My son grew to love the pyrotechnics and his uncle took him on road trips to sellers like Crazy Kaplans in northwest Indiana to stock up on fireworks for the 4th of July.
One year my brother-in-law invited friends to bring their stash and the sound and fury was so loud the police actually showed up and confiscated piles of unlit fireworks. The more powerful stuff is illegal in Illinois, so it was against the law.
But my quite-conservative father-in-law acted quickly and hid even more fireworks in the garage before the police could find them. He was literally born on the 4th of July. It was an important holiday to him. As a reader of the National Review and devout Missouri Synod Lutheran, his deep strains of independence stretched all the way back to his unbringing on the Republican River in central Nebraska. His brothers used to shoot an occasional bald eagle for sport.
As for my 4th of July traditions, I’d often find a race to run that morning. Typically they were four-or-five milers conducted in the heat and humidity or whatever combination July decided to offer. I well recall the year that I tangled with a local guy on his hometown course. I ran sub-20:00 for four miles and still place second. It was racing fireworks the whole way as we exchanged the lead repeatedly and tried to shake the other on the hilly course. It may well have been the best race I ever ran, but on that day, my competitor’s hometown pride carried him to victory.
I was pissed at losing, but watching his buddies smack his back in congratulation actually made me feel better. At least I gave him a good run. I was part of a thrilling contest for everyone.
After those races every year, I’d go shower and change into shorts and a tee shirt and join the fun blowing off fireworks while drinking beer and eating potato chips, hamburgers and birthday cake in celebration of my father-in-law’s Big Day.
The Big Show
Then twilight would fall and we’d gather in front of the house on Woodale Avenue to witness the unleashing of the Addison fireworks. Our perch allowed us to see everything but the ground displays, but I’ve always thought those were stupid anyway.
Some years I’d be so tired after racing in the morning and drinking and eating all day, it would be hard to keep my eyes open. But I liked when the super thick boom of a strong firework seemed to send a concussion our way. That sound was satisfying. But the strained traces of smoke floating through the air always made me a little sad. They reminded me that summer was also floating away.
Those fireworks displays lasted probably twenty minutes. The Grand Finale would rock the skies and we’d OOoohh and AAAaaah for a few minutes, then give a round of applause to no one but ourselves. Despite all the supposed honor and glory of 4th of July Fireworks and what they’re supposed to represent, in the end they’re just another form of self-pleasure, a form of visual masturbation if you please.
There’s nothing really wrong with that. America has always been a nation driven by symbols, pageantry and coarse stimulation. It is also a nation of self-gratification and perpetual distraction from the problems we actually face. Fireworks act as an antidote to the droll heat and humidity of summer, and the smoke keeps the mosquitoes away. People can’t pay attention to other matters when they’re swatting bugs away from their faces.
The longer I live the less fireworks grip my imagination. Plus the sound scares the daylights out of our dog, and many others. Last year I sat on the couch hugging our shivering pup, whose early life as a abandoned stray included sustaining a broken leg after being tossed out the window of a car. Then the poor thing was kept in a shelter next to a gun range. Now whenever she hears anything resembling a gun shot she cowers and tries to run for home. Even the nail guns of roof construction make her shiver in fear. For these reasons, I’m not particularly looking forward to the 4th of July.
Plus I’ve come to view such celebrations in alternate terms. I don’t like trucks bearing Old Glory flying next to Don’t Tread On Me flags. I’m not fond of flag-flying other than a modest, attractive, respectful display on a home or a flagpole. And if someone chooses to burn a flag in protest, I care to know the reasons why, not just write them off as a radical. The real American virtue is protest. Our nation was founded on that premise. It’s greatest changes have come about through revolutions of one kind or another.
It’s sad that so many people that live in this country have to fight for rights that the Constitution supposedly provides. That is true for blacks and Native Americans, Latinos and Chinese, Korean and Japanese, East Indian and Middle Eastern. The whole list is impossible to assemble, but it also includes woman and gays, transgender and autistic, the homeless and the homebound. And artists like me. There are as many kinds of discrimination as there are people in this world. Both the Bible and the US Constitution try to prevent that, but often fail.
A nation gripped in irony
To me, our so-called Independence Day has come to represent a nation gripped in irony. And those fireworks we set off every year? They certainly don’t celebrate the rights of all. But the skies may well be largely silent this year. The Coronavirus has turned such celebrations into a risk of spreading that disease.
Perhaps that means there will be even more people blowing off fireworks at home. The police may be kept busy chasing down the loudest of the loud in areas where such antics are still illegal. Here in Illinois, one can only buy the weak stuff. But the borders of Wisconsin and Indiana beckon. For some people, that trip remains a pilgramage. I’ve done that in the past.
Or maybe not. A WGN blog reported, “The fireworks industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. With 4th of July fireworks shows canceled across the country, many fireworks companies are seeing a 75 to 90 percent decrease in business. Greg Kaplan, owner of Krazy Kaplans Fireworks, joins Ji to discuss how the virus has impacted his business and the fireworks industry across the country.”
As we’ve seen in regions across the country, there is always the chance that people will flock to fireworks stores once they open up again. Health officials will issue their standard annual warnings about the dangers of fireworks.
People will still go out and blow off fingers and knock out eyesight and damage hearing.
That appears to be what Americans are best at doing, blowing off the law for the right to endanger themselves and claim independence. It’s a frightful little cycle of violence and disenfranchisement that America embraces. But that’s our tradition.
At some point, perhaps in the near future, we’re going to figure out that it’s not the fireworks that really matter. It’s the people watching them, every kind of people, who symbolize the real independence we all claim to celebrate.