I do not have a great memory and perhaps this explains why I have gravitated towards a life of writing. I have to write stuff down to remember a damn thing. Yes, I tend to ply in fiction, but embedded in all those imaginary people and places are my own memories, hopes, dreams and accomplishments. It is impossible, I think, not to write about yourself. Even when one endeavors to write about other people, that which is being written is still focused through the prism of one’s one mind, heart, experiences and education. Anyway, I suppose that initially I intended to write about my garden or chickens or something other than COVID or a general lack of national leadership, when I remembered ... fireworks.
My Dad had a clear pyromaniacal streak and it isn’t incorrect to say that I may have inherited this genetic love of fire. I can remember my Dad, on a few occasions, dropping a substantial amount of money on Fourth of July fireworks, and the excitement I felt as a little boy, watching him get excited. There really isn’t anything better: watching an adult tiptoe up to a roman candle, light a fuse, and then jog awkwardly away, fingers plugged into ears, face gleaming with happiness as they orchestrate a celebration of explosions and noise. If you think about it, what you’re really watching is a pile of money decadently burned. It’s always entertaining. Especially when it isn’t your money.
When I was a 13-year-old Boy Scout, I attended the 13th National Jamboree in Fort AP Hill, Virginia. I suspect it cost my parents quite a bit of cash sending me to that jamboree and I don’t remember a whole lot: being disappointed Bill Clinton wouldn’t address us, the unrelenting heat, the rumor that (Eagle Scout) Steven Spielberg was somewhere on site … But the thing I remember now, some 27 years later, were the fireworks. There had been some kind of motivational speech, and then, if I remember correctly, Lee Greenwood took to the stage to belt out “God Bless the USA.” Tens of thousands of teenage boys sang along with him before the sky exploded in a visual riot of color, a cacophony of blasts and detonations. I believe every boy there simultaneously laid back onto the parade field and watched the spectacular show. My patriotic fervor would reach a high-water level that night; it’s been all downhill since.
Another memory, much foggier ... My Dad handing me a firecracker and book of matches and saying sternly, “Just don’t hold onto it. You light it and throw it away from you.” I marched off, my body trembling with anticipation and delight. I lighted a match, lit the fuse, and ... stared as the fuse burnt down to the firecracker which exploded in my little hand. Then I remember doing what an old boss of mine affectionately called “the pain dance,” which is to say that, embarrassed and hurt, I whimpered, sucked at my wounded fingers, and high-stepped in a helpless circle until I couldn’t stand it any longer and cried to my Mom. In retrospect, I don’t blame my Dad at all. He gave me perfect directions. And I think, in hindsight, he wanted to share the sort of magic of the Fourth of July, of fireworks, or frivolous celebration.
Last memory, also foggy ... There’s a family reunion of sorts at my grandparents’ home in northern Michigan. It is nighttime on the Fourth of July and there are no more fireworks, and yet, everyone wants more fireworks. What to do, what to do? Well, if you served in the Merchant Marine during World War II and later as the head engineer on many different cargo ships, you retreat to a workshop, where you know you’ve been storing lo these many years, not one, but two! signal flares designed for sailors in distress. Then, with your entire extended family in tow, you march down to the lake’s shore, where you navigate out as far as your little dock will protrude into the dark freshwater. You can’t immediately remember how to light the flare, and perhaps you’ve had a few too many celebratory adult beverages, but you also don’t want to let all those children and grandchildren down, so eventually, you figure it out, and aiming out into the night, you fire the flare ... directly into the lake, where the bright, phosphorescent pink light still burns — even underwater! Your grandkids are beyond amused. Fire in water! What a miracle!
Memory is a tricky thing, and all day I’ve been trying to remember if what I recall is accurate or not, but I think Grandpa did manage to light and successfully fire that second flare, proudly, boldly, out over Stanley Lake, all of us gathered along the shore, watching our pater familias, our patriarch, shoot that most authentic of fireworks ... watching that pink star drift slowly down, sizzling finally into the water. Anyway, I like to remember it that way.
People tell stories to remember who we are and where we came from. Stories link us together, and very few great stories are boring. We don’t tell stories about our most mundane days or years. And I think fireworks are this way, too. Fireworks are celebrations, fireworks are superfluous, and fireworks are meant for a collective experience, when all our faces are turned the same direction, in adoration and appreciation — apart from the tedium of our lives, ooohhhing and aaahhhing and arguing what explosion is the most dazzling, what color is the prettiest.
Pink, I think. Pink might be my favorite color.