I can’t remember what I did for most of my 24 birthdays, but for some reason I seem to know exactly where I’ve been on Independence Day almost every year of my life. And my birthday is at least a holiday in its own right: Halloween. Maybe it’s the fireworks. Maybe I would remember my birthdays better if there were more fireworks involved.
This year I am sitting in the sunroom of my parents’ house listening to “ rather than watching – fireworks being set off by my neighbors. The ones climbing and exploding five minutes’ west in Reisterstown sound like tree branches cracking, splitting and falling through the other branches and leaves until they hit the forest floor. Others sound like the popping of green wood in a campfire, as the moisture or sap heats to bursting. As for the rest, all you can hear is their whistling ascent.
Before last year, we had a massive wooden playset that sat in the side yard of my parents’ house. It was transplanted from my childhood home in Randallstown a decade ago, when I remember it took many of our very large male neighbors to move it. Years after I gave up sliding down its fireman’s pole or hanging upside down by crook’d knees off its rope ladder, I would climb atop it on July 4th to watch the fireworks invisible to me from 10 feet below. A couple years ago, my father decided it was time to get rid of it. At first he tried to sell it, but when that didn’t work, he put a sign on it that said, “If you can haul it, you can have it.” The house faced the main road and that was pretty much all the advertisement needed.
A man came to the house one day when my father wasn’t here and said he could take it and would like to. It seemed like his entire family, including a very small child that could not have been two, turned out for the purpose. My brother, Justin, and I agreed to help get the sliding pole out of its anchor in the ground so the structure could be moved freely.
My father is a very ¦¦. efficient person. If he builds a deck, or lays a tile floor, or fixes a concrete step, it is done to an almost overwhelming and unnecessary degree of perfection. And when my father secures a child’s playset to the ground, it is done to last the ages.
My brother and I set about the task of digging out the fireman’s pole with the relaxed naivety of people who think their task is going to be easy and short. We started with garden spades. Eventually we got a shovel from the garage and took turns digging and piling up the dirt. The shovel eventually made a clanking noise. We removed a few rocks from the hole, and then more, which my father had apparently put all around the pole to steady it in the earth. Periodically, we tried to pull the pole straight up, but it would not budge. Even the very large man who had come to take the playset couldn’t move it.
When all the digging was said and done, and the pounds of rocks removed, it was apparent my father had sunk this pole a good couple feet into the ground and attached a wooden plank perpendicular at its base to keep it from being pulled up vertically. Then the years had done their part to settle this thing firmly into the yard.
Once it was free, the man’s entire family guided it through the front yard to the truck they’d brought. It was a long truck “ the sort that furniture or appliance movers use “ but it was not very wide, and there was no good way the playset would fit into it. As all this was being figured out, the child kept trying to crawl into the back of the truck with the playset hanging half out of it. We all kept laughing and taking him out.
We didn’t know this family and have never seen them again, but there is something about the way moving a large piece of anything requires teamwork and brings strangers together in that moment. For the duration of that endeavor, it’s like you have all known each other all your lives. You laugh and joke freely. You know the other people feel the same strain in their muscles and in their minds as you. You get each other cool drinks and tell each other similar stories of how tasks like this have been surmounted in the past. At that moment, you imagine you might get together like this for family dinners at some later time, but really you know better. This is all just the magic of the moving of something really big and heavy.
Eventually, it was decided the playset would be wedged into the open back door of the truck and balanced on the ramp that folds out so you can roll sensibly sized things into it. My brother went to the garage for some rope, and with all his Boy Scout skill, fashioned knots with names I know not until it was as steady as a giant wooden playset hanging out the back of an 18-wheeler can be, and we said our goodbyes to its new owners, who hauled it and had it indeed.
I wonder if that kid is perched on it right now.
Before I had my personal firework-viewing tower (and since I lost it), I have seen the Fourth of July fireworks from many other places. My parents’ favorite method was to park on one of the highway overpasses looking out over Baltimore City. We did this for years, and still I never got over the way my insides would seize every time a passing car shook the concrete beneath me.
The summer I held down the fort at the University of Maryland student newspaper, I lost my photo editor to law school and his assistant to the Army reserves, and had to do all of the art for the week of July 4th myself. I bought a lawn chair, sunscreen and a single use camera, and spent the entire day taking pictures and talking to folks camped out in one of the university parking lots for the night’s fireworks display. When the show started, I stood with my camera pointing directly above me, praying I could capture one good solid firework before deadline. I took about twenty pictures, trying to time my clicks just right. Not knowing how to develop my own film the way the real photographers had, I took it to the local convenience store, and an hour later I had one good
Two years later, I went with a boy to one of the western Maryland battlefields, and sat next to a cemetery to watch the fireworks. And as they were exploding what seemed like right above our heads, he leaned in to kiss me and was interrupted at the last second by the searching calls of his friends coming up over the hill. I think he cursed.
And one year I sat in the middle of an empty field and watched them all alone.
I’ve always had mixed feelings on what it must feel like to be a firework. All this kinetic energy ¦ this unrealized explosion for which you were born just stored up inside of you. And then you climb, hoping to be the big burst, not
really knowing what you are until you open up like a baby bird spreading its wings for the first time. But you only get to fly that once. All eyes on you as you are all noise and light, and then you finally start to fizzle and fade
and turn to ash. And then you fall to earth. A few seconds’ glory. That’s it for you.
Is it great as lives go or incredibly sad?
And this year, what is July 4th to me? It is my friend Dan Zimmerman’s song-that-is-my-personal-hope-anthem, “Placid 4th”: “My eyes have seen the light/ It ‘s dim, but it’s there/ My eyes have seen the glory/ of the ending of this fear.” It is the tattered flag my mother found while cleaning today, and that I suggested we should burn on the front lawn “ not because I feel strongly about burning flags, but because that is how you are supposed to dispose of damaged ones and my brother, as a Boy Scout, is one such person who can perform the ceremony. I was curious. I mean, how many people can say they’ve legally seen a flag burnt?
Okay, so it is not a flag burning. But it is a seafood dinner and my first corn-on-the-cob in a year and fireworks I can only hear. And it is a scar in the side yard of my parents’ house.