Jul 042012

I was my son’s age when I saw the bicentennial fireworks in Washington DC in 1976. At the time I thought they were the biggest fireworks spectacle I was likely to see. After all, a celebration like that only happens once every 100 years.

Of course, I didn’t take into consideration 1970s pyrotechnic technology compared to what they can do today or, as I was to experience years later, the sheer volume of small scale fireworks in an urban environment.

When Merran and I moved to Brooklyn my sister told us stories of buying fireworks on the black market. A guy she worked with did it all the time and gave her instructions worthy of a speakeasy. “Go to this address in Chinatown and tell the guy out front that Joey sent you. He’ll take care of you.” She followed these instructions and was taken to a small room in the back of a tenement. The men with her were smoking as they led her into a room packed floor to ceiling with crates of Chinese fireworks.

These guys were used to people coming to buy huge amounts of real fireworks, mortars, roman candles, the big stuff. My sister was casually window shopping, picking through the stacks taking a few sparklers here, a smoking snake there. They didn’t know what they were dealing with and she walked out with a small shopping bag.

I thought this was just an amusing story and the Chinese have a long history of fireworks but what I didn’t realize was that the people in the neighborhoods, especially in Brooklyn, took advantage of this source of illegal explosives to celebrate the 4th of July in a way I had never imagined. Each block would essentially fill a trash can full of fireworks and set it on fire. It didn’t matter what was in there, rockets, firecrackers, M80s, and various other explosives.

The best place to see this spectacle was on the roof so we would go up onto the roof of my sister’s apartment and watch the main New York City fireworks over the Statue of Liberty or the Brooklyn Bridge. It was fine, they were way off in the distance and they were pretty like traditional fireworks always are, but coming up around us from every direction were these amazing explosions, cacophonies of noise and light rising up from every street. Rockets shooting off occasionally, staccato bursts of what in Beiruit or other war zones would have been machine gun fire. You really got a sense of what it might be like to be in an urban war zone during a large battle. It was incredible.

Merran hated it.

You had to be prepared for rockets to come whizzing by your head because they were launched from the street below and would come spiraling up and blowing off in your direction unexpectedly. It was hazardous and noisy. It would go on all night accompanied by fire engines and police sirens blaring constantly through the explosions and crackles of the celebration. It would last for three or four days starting the day before the 4th of July, reach a crescendo on the 4th itself, and continue for a day or so after petering out slowly over time. It was a sight I will never forget.

Someday I would like to take our kids to see the fireworks in Brooklyn. I imagine they are as impressive as always.

Since we’ve moved to Seattle and have kids we’ve done our fair share of fireworks displays. Staying up late, hiking through to the best viewing locations. For several years we had an apartment that had the perfect view of the Elliot Bay fireworks. We also have the picture of our daughter in bed with her hands over her ears because that’s how she fell asleep with the noisy fireworks exploding off in the distance.

With some friends we’ve come up with a new fireworks tradition that harks back to those black market days in Brooklyn, although it’s more gray market or even strictly legal at this point. We go to a nearby native american fireworks stand and purchase the massive boxes of pre-packaged fireworks with mortars that are remarkably close to the professional displays. Our friends have a house on a bluff overlooking the water and we set up the explosives on a platform at the top of the steps leading down to the water. The mortars are positioned so they angle out over the water in a lovely arc. Everyone sits on the deck at a comfortable distance and admires this truly impressive personal display. It’s good fun.

However, we have our son who is Mr. Safety Man. He is very concerned for everyone involved no matter what small and insignificant firework we might be doing – from sparklers, which could give you a decent burn, to the smoke snakes and tiny little fountains. He’s the first one to go grab the giant bucket of water or the fire extinguisher. Even though he doesn’t technically know how to use a fire extinguisher, he’s got it and he’s on the spot ready to jump in at any time and put out anyone who might be on fire. Happily we have not had to avail ourselves of his life-saving services but he relishes the role of safety warden for our 4th of July and we’re happy to have him there reminding us all how careful we need to be. I don’t think there are going to be any accidents with him constantly prevailing on us to be cautious.

I suspect he’s not going to be terribly keen on the Brooklyn fireworks being as safety-minded as he is, either way, it will be fun to watch.

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