Thursday, July 2, 2009

An Independence Day Memory

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
-From a letter written by John Adams to his wife, Abigail, on July 3rd, 1776.

Founding father John Adams missed it by a couple of days, mainly because the actual document--our declaration of independence from Great Britain--was dated July 4th. But, otherwise, his prediction has come true, as Americans of every ilk take time to celebrate the date “from one end of this continent to the other.”
We certainly celebrate it around here. My holiday activities and responsibilities in Galva have kept me from sampling other communities’ celebrations in recent years, but I can say, for sure, that they do it up right in my home town.
Of course, no matter how many parades, games, shows and municipal fireworks displays we’re offered, there will always be those for whom the fourth means one thing:
Not the big ones that everyone gathers to watch on the evening of the fourth, but the not-so-legal ones, smuggled across state lines for the guilty pleasure of making a bit of noise in one’s own back (or front) yard.
It was interesting to discover that there are still 39 states, plus the District of Columbia, that allow a full range of consumer fireworks to be sold. Illinois and five other states allow sparklers or other novelty items, while five other states ban all consumer fireworks.
I’ve actually never been a huge advocate of the right to blow my fingers off, though that doesn’t mean I’ve never been guilty of trying. But I come from a long line of incendiary rebels, as illustrated by this memory.
My family rarely went on vacation. My father owned the local drug store, where he was the sole registered pharmacist. One year, though, my mother somehow convinced my dad that our young minds required a trip to Washington D.C. It was a great trip. I was all of six years old, but I still remember climbing the Washington Monument, visiting congress as they debated Alaska’s impending statehood, and my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean.
It was on the way home that my older sister and brother and I somehow convinced my parents to stop at a fireworks stand. This was amazing times two, as my thrifty father would have, no doubt, looked at buying fireworks as akin to blowing up actual dollar bills, while my legal-minded mother would have expected immediate retribution for breaking the law.
She got her wish.
The car--my dad’s 1951 Packard--had been suffering from a mysterious malady called vapor lock as we traveled through the mountains of Pennsylvania. Some guys at a gas station gave us a coke bottle filled with gasoline, with instructions to pour the raw gas directly into the carburetor whenever the car started acting up. My 12-year-old brother was given the task of pouring the gas, as my dad operated the controls. Anybody with a basic understanding of internal combustion could probably predict what happened next: The gas ignited and whooshed into the air. I still remember the size of his eyes as my startled brother dropped the coke bottle. The resulting maelstrom briefly filled the engine compartment with flames. We all jumped out of the car, leaving--you guessed it--the fireworks, locked in the glove compartment of the car.
“I knew it was my punishment for letting you kids buy those things,” mom said said later.
It would have made a better, more exciting story if the family car had erupted into a shower of man-made pyrotechnics, but, fortunately, that was not the case. The flames were quickly extinguished and the car--apparently frightened into good behavior--got us home without further incident.
A few days later my father, with the tacit permission of Galva’s Chief of Police, set the things off in our backyard. It wasn’t much...a few roman candles, a couple of pinwheels and a small ground display.
But to my young eyes, they were the most beautiful fireworks I’d ever seen.
In my mind’s eye, they still are.

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