I’ve seen some pretty spectacular Fourth of July fireworks displays in my life, but I don’t know if any of them have been more memorable than the ones we did as a family when I was a kid on the farm.
For half a century, Nancy and I lived in Pierre. We watched the Fort Pierre Fire Department’s annual display each year. I’ll tell you what, those Fort Pierre folks go all out. If you’ve never seen it, you should. The display happens right after the evening go-round of the rodeo. The firefighters use a flat spot near the rodeo grounds, right along the shore of the Missouri River. When each shell bursts into fiery flowers and stars, its reflection is captured on the surface of the water and its explosion reverberates from bluff to bluff down the river valley.
It’s a good show. All the while it’s going on, though, other residents are shooting impressive fireworks of their own. As a result, there’s a lot of light, even on a dark night. Back on the farm, the only competition for the family’s fireworks came from the moon and the stars. Sometimes in distance a kid could see an occasional burst of light from the neighbor’s place. But for the most part, it was just us and our own fireworks.
Compared to many people today, we didn’t have all that many firecrackers and other kinds of fireworks when I was young. We thought we did. A couple of packs of Gorillas or Black Cats and we thought we were in heaven. Toss in some Ladyfingers to ease my mom’s worries about one of her kids losing a hand (“Look, mom. These are tiny. See? There’s no way anybody could get hurt with one of this dainty things.’’) and we were set to celebrate the nation’s independence.
We always had a few packs of those goofy snake things — you know, the small black triangles that, when you lit one corner, would emit a sort of black ash-like rope that coiled and uncoiled like a bull snake cornered in a crack in the footings of the barn. I don’t really know why we even bought them. After one or two, the thrill was gone. Maybe we had them because even my mom couldn’t get too worried that one of us might lose a finger. Those little snakes just didn’t have much fire power.
You know what my mom didn’t mind? Sparklers. Imagine that. This woman who turned worrying into an art form, who could see the worst-case scenario in the rosiest of situations, thought it was just fine — kind of fun, even — to light a piece of wire and watch it throw sparks all over the back yard.
Fortunately for us kids, my mom didn’t have access to the internet in those days. If she had, she’d have learned that sparklers can burn at anywhere from 1,800 degrees to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That would have been all she wrote for the Woster kids and sparklers on the Fourth of July. Instead, she thought they were relatively harmless, although she did worry that one of us would poke another kid in the eye while twirling around and around.
The big stuff, the sky rockets and Roman candles? Those things were left for my dad to set off. Even he didn’t trust any of us kids to handle those. He had a tube — probably an old section of cast-iron water pipe — half buried in the lawn in the backyard. He’d stick the end of the rocket in the tube so the fuse could be reached. He’d take a wooden match and, as our mom exhorted us kids to “get back, farther, no, I mean it, farther,’’ he’d light the fuse and saunter away, as if he had all the time in the world, as if he couldn’t hear his spouse scolding him to “get over here, get away from there.’’ He always made it to safety before the rocket ignited and painted a trail of sparks across the southern sky.
I was a big kid before I understood that Dad wasn’t really taking big risks. He was just making it look that way. And I was that old, too, before I understood Mom wasn’t terribly worried about her spouse getting away safely. She worried, but not that much. She had her role to play in our Fourth of July pageant, too.
I wouldn’t mind going back and seeing the whole show once more.