This year we celebrated our nation’s independence kicking back in the grocery store parking lot. That was where my girlfriend insisted I take her to watch fireworks. To secure the best seats it was necessary that we arrive two hours ahead of time, and when I say the best seats I mean the ones in the back with the great views of the valley and the trash compactors. Somewhere, down in the valley, meandered two-dozen guys from Big Bang Fireworks, Inc., whose sole function was to man mortars and aerial shells one night a year. Not a bad gig if you can get it. (Evidently these guys spend the rest of the year recuperating from the repercussions, flashburns and broken eardrums.)
Being a guy, I was, of course, more concerned with finding a good parking space than a good seat, knowing that right after the pyrotechnics concluded there would be a mad rush for the exits. And I was right. It took us nearly a half hour to reach the outer road. Almost as long as the show itself.
Like the masks and costumes children (and childlike adults) wear on Halloween, fireworks are another holiday custom rooted in medieval superstition. The first documented firework extravaganzas were the work of the 12th-century Chinese and were intended to scare away evil spirits. I’m not sure of the reasoning behind that. I would think that evil spirits would enjoy fireworks as much, if not more, than I do, especially if the evil spirits were female. Let me explain. Men like to shoot off fireworks because it’s fun to blow up things and it seems to impress the ladies, but we aren’t too interested in just sitting in a parking lot and oohing and aahing over horsetails, crossettes and spiders. Perhaps we feel neglectful of our duty, sensing that we should down in the valley manning the mortars, and impressing our womenfolk. Anyway, being a dutiful boyfriend I fetch the lawn chairs from the back of the truck, find an ideal spot, prop my feet up on the cooler and, to my horror, realize I have forgotten to bring a bottle opener.
But wait. As fortune would have it we are in the parking lot of a supermarket, a supermarket with a large selection of bottle openers. Thus the evening is saved from being a total dud.
THE IDEA OF FIREWORKS on July 4 is as old as the Founding Fathers. John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail, predicted the great day would be celebrated with “solemn acts of devotion,” and with “shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” Adams’s idea about “solemn acts of devotion” on Independence Day sounds wonderfully naive today, and he got the day wrong too. But he was right about the illuminations. The second president believed July 2 would be memorialized as Independence Day since that was the day the Continental Congress declared independence from British rule, while July 4 was simply the day Congress stopped haggling over the words of the Declaration of Independence long enough to adopt it. Adams and other Federalists soon had additional reservations about the holiday. According to Constitutional scholar Kevin R. C. Gutzman, “if you were a Federalist in the 1790s, you likely would celebrate Washington’s Birthday instead of the 4th of July…It was the anti-Hamilton, anti-Washington, anti-nationalist holiday.”
From our vantage point we could see not only our fireworks display, but competing shows in neighboring cities, towns and, no doubt, unincorporated areas. At times it seemed like the siege of Ft. McHenry out there with bombs bursting in mid-air all around us. Every town seemed to be competing with every other as to which could spend the most revenue on fireworks. Some towns must have decided to blow their entire budget on fireworks — roads and sewers be damned — for their Fourth of July celebrations went on for three nights. (Always the third, fourth and fifth, and, it should be noted, never the second.)
This year’s display was even more impressive than last year’s, which was more impressive than the year before that, and I think I know why. During Maoism, the Chinese were lackluster fireworks makers at best, having no incentive to expend much effort on anything, but now the industry has been privatized; the old oriental creative juices, dammed up for decades, have been loosed. We were seeing the awesome fruits of unfettered ingenuity, here was creative capitalism at its explosive best.
Still, it did seem odd that here we were in the middle of a string of financial crises — housing, oil, food — and the local government was dumping a fortune on Chinese firecrackers. I wondered how could we afford such expense? I asked the folks sitting around us. “Don’t worry about it. Just enjoy the show,” was the official answer. Anyone who knows me knows I wasn’t about to let it drop. It’s those traffic cameras, I said. The speed cameras and the red-light cameras. They’re everywhere, raising hundreds of millions in revenue for local governments. Why, a single camera can raise $1 million in tickets annually. That’ll buy a lot of fireworks.
Fortunately for local governments, they can count on the apathy and indifference of the citizenry, who mistakenly see cameras as a way of keeping their taxes low. “If I keep to the back roads, I can get out of paying my fair share of taxes. We’ll make the scofflaws pay for my sewage treatment. Besides with every ticket you get a free portrait of yourself driving your car. What a deal!”
I may have been wrong about where the money for all those fireworks was coming from, but either way I didn’t feel much like celebrating freedom. Not with all those police cameras watching. I wonder if John Adams would have felt the same?
Christopher Orlet is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.