The Glorious Unsafe Fourth

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After supper there was another round of activity, beginning with a carnival that included such attractions as the man whose heart was exposed to view, a snake charmer, “real” Hawaiian dancers whom we referred to as “hootchie-cootchies,” a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, snap-the-whip, chamber of surprises, and a whole row of booths where you could buy something to eat or take a chance or try your skill in a variety of ways.

Money by this time was running short; we had to choose from all these temptations two or three. I chose a hot dog, a cone full of pink spun sugar—cottony stuff that dissolved into sweetness on the tongue— and the chamber of surprises, where I fell down collapsing stairways, looked at myself in rippled mirrors, and spun around on revolving floors.

The carnival brought to our quiet town-life a kind of gaudy splendor and activity that were a welcome change. The shouts of the barkers, the horrible painted canvases advertising the two-headed man and the man-eating savage from Borneo, the rows of tawdry prizes, the confusion of sounds, smells, movement, and garish lighting—all these suggested a possible world wider and brighter than the one we lived in, yet they also established in a subtle way the solid dependability of our own.

By nine thirty it was dark enough for the fireworks exhibit to begin. This was announced by two or three aerial bombs bursting with such magnificent strength that we could feel them in our chests and throats. As amateurs, we appreciated the professional excellence of those explosions. We ran to the edge of the ball field where the set pieces had been put up, their skeletal shapes showing dimly in the dark.

The pieces were mostly patriotic. There was an airplane with a pinwheel whirling around for a propeller. Uncle Sam rode in a car with revolving wheels. As the pieces were set off one after another against the velvet backdrop of the night, the burning colors with their deep pure shades had a quieting effect on us. It was as if we had been initiated into some mystery of beauty whose meaning we did not understand. Each time a piece was set off a chorused “Ah-h-h” came from the watchers—quiet, spontaneous, like the voice of the ocean.

Then an aerial bomb would burst over our heads in an umbrella of colored flowers. And at the end an American flag appeared in full and glowing color, a barrage of bombs exploded in little bursts of light above us, echoing up and down the surrounding hills, and the display was over.

But there was one event still to come. We had our own night pieces to shoot off. Because our yard was large, friends brought their stuff over, the neighbors collected, and we had another celebration. Pinwheels, Roman candles, flower pots, sparklers, fire fountains, and skyrockets—we had them all. Knowing that the sparks from the sparklers were harmless, we liked to hold our hands out to be bombarded by this magic fire that did not burn. Otherwise, we considered sparklers rather tame and sissy. As for the Roman candles, my brother was always pointing them at the crowd in his excitement and causing sudden alarums and excursions.

With a fine disregard for fire hazards, we also sent up hot-air balloons, carrying their own bit of candle to keep them buoyant. I remember them rising in the darkness, their red paper glowing in the dark, floating and bobbing about like buoys in a harbor until they were out of sight.

But best of all were the skyrockets, because they were the most dangerous. We placed them in a wooden trough that was aimed at the open space between the tall elms, just over our barn roof. But skyrockets had a somewhat mulish disposition. They made a great sputter before moving up the trough, and sometimes they burned without taking off at all, or went where they were not expected.

The principal of our school was one of our neighbors, and I suppose he thought it was with premeditated malice that one of our rockets chose to go after him. It chased him around the yard and ran him up a steep bank in a way that was gratifying to see. It was a perfect conclusion to a Glorious Fourth.

With the laws against fireworks and the arrival of radio and allegedly sophisticated forms of entertainment to supplant the human fly, the parade, and the oration, the Glorious Fourth has ceased to be a part of our national life. Maybe it is for the best, since accidents inevitably resulted from the presence of so much gunpowder in eager hands. Yet if we have learned anything in recent years we have learned that danger is inseparable from living.

In any case, no one old enough to remember such a Fourth of July is likely to forget, as long as he lives, the excitement of the dawn awakening, the wonderful pungent smell of gunpowder filling the air, the unaccustomed leniency of parents, the mood of a young nation innocently exulting in its strength and freedom, the glitter of the carnival, the beauty of colored flame burning against the great backdrop of night.