Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Rocket's Red Glare

I had the luxury of small-town American 4ths of July. My little New England town had its fireworks funded by the AmVets organization every year. They were held in a community park on the baseball fields. Each year we would walk through the darkening evening along "The Dike" through the woods. The Dike was a long anti-flood dirt wall that ran through the town along parts of the flood plain. Mostly it ran through what were then fields and woods at the edge of developed property. We were never allowed to go alone on the The Dike, because it was rumored that "hobos lived down there". But on 4th of July, walking with Dad and half the town, it was fine.

Mom would stay home each year with our cocker spaniel, Princess, who would be terrified by the fireworks. Mom would hand us blankets and a bag of goodies as we left, and Dad and I would walk over to my best friend Sandy's house. Sandy would bring her blanket and her bag of treats and off we would go to the fireworks.

Along the way, AmVets would be greeting people with tins to collect money from people to help fund the next year's efforts. A good part of the fun was "walking the Dike" in the twilight, listening to tree frogs and watching fireflies.

We'd sit on the park lawn on blankets in pretty much the same spot every year. As it began to get darker, but not dark enough for the fireworks, a small town band would play in the park gazebo. There must have been about 10 people in this volunteer band, mostly playing on key, and giving their most earnest renditions of everything from Souza marches to Viennese waltzes.

Sandy and I would sit chatting merrily, munching on homemade popcorn, waiting for it to get dark enough for the displays to begin. And it never seemed to get dark fast enough. It was like a New Rule of Physics - "On 4th of July, time will slow between twilight and darkness." But at last the first few test rockets were set off, and we townsfolk would get quiet and attentive.

The rockets seemed so splendid to me - every color imaginable with deep and thunderous booming sounds that rattled my spine. Big yellow chrysanthemum displays with shooting waterfalls of red and blue. Ice blue rockets that ended in huge bangs! Wild bursts that started green and opend into orange. Each one was more magnificent than the next, until the Grand Finale with several minutes straight of bursting colors and explosive booms from every imaginable direction.

These were the years before Vietnam. It would be only a few years before the boys on the next blanklet with their Dad would hear those booming sounds for real. These were the years boys in my town and in towns across America could still see and hear the display and not have it accompanied by memories of carnage. None of us knew at the time how very special those nights were, and how for some of us, they would soon be forever transformed into nightmares in jungles thousands of miles away.


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