One of the “Top Posts” on WordPress over the 4th of July holiday was CheapOair’s suggestions for the ten best places in the country to view fireworks. All of the locations were cities and, as I read through the list, the criteria used to judge a “best” location began to emerge. Historical significance played a role (Philadelphia) as did general appeal to tourists (Las Vegas, San Diego). But in this list, size did matter, and bigger obviously was better.
In Washington, celebrations would begin “with a giant parade”. Las Vegas’ Americafest would feature a “world-class firework display”. New York would be “displaying its patriotism through massive fireworks”. Boston would celebrate “in a big way”. San Francisco and Chicago both promised “spectacular” evenings, while New Orleans and San Diego would tow out the barges to make it all happen. Of the ten sites, only Orlando, Philadelphia and Atlanta were listed with a certain restraint and basic information.
I’m a great fan of fireworks myself, and like spectacular shows as much as the next person. Ribbons and cascading swirls of light, gigantic dandelion-like blooms of red, blue and green sparkling in the sky, terrible thundering, percussive noises that make dogs run and children cry – I love it all. Throw in a little John Phillips Sousa as background music, and I’ll be waving the flag with the best of them, telling anyone who tries to talk to me to “BE QUIET! Can’t you see I’m WATCHING????”
That said, it still is true that the best fireworks display I ever experienced took place in isolation and nearly-total silence: unless you count the presence of a couple of friends, the sound of a car engine and the hum of tires on a deserted road.
We’d been in Port Aransas, Texas, planning to spend the entire holiday sailing. A massive storm on the 4th sent the Coast Guard rescuers out to sea even as it washed fishermen and sailors back to port. Considering the weather and the low probability of being able to get back on the water the next day, we decided to drive back to Houston.
Our route, State Highway 35, is a nice, two-lane road for much of its length, winding along past some of the loveliest coastal prairie you’ll ever see. There are fields filled with maize and cotton. There are bays -Copano, Aransas, Tres Palacios and San Antonio. There are marshes and sloughs, and the edge of the Aransas Wildlife Refuge, winter home to the endangered whooping crane.
From Aransas Pass to Port Lavaca, you drive through relatively unpopulated territory. But from Port Lavaca north to Bay City, there are little towns and communities scattered across the countryside. Francitas, Blessing, Olivia, Caranchua Community, LaWard, Palacios, Collegeport, and Markham are unknown even to most Texans. Many are invisible from the highway – you have to get there on County Roads – but they do exist: tiny, hidden bits of American life the casual passerby never will see.
Never see, that is, unless you happen to be driving the coastal prairie on the Fourth of July. As the last bit of glowing sunset faded from the sky and darkness gathered us in its arms, we thought at first we had seen lightning from a distant storm. When another flash caught my friend’s eye, she turned quickly enough to catch a glimpse and exclaimed, “Fireworks!” Looking around, we saw not one display in the distance, but two, three – and then four. We slowed in amazement, and then stopped at the side of the road.
Standing outside the car, we absorbed tiny displays of color and light sent up from the tiny, hidden towns that surrounded us. There were no showering cascades of light, no pulsing, exotic displays of pyrotechnics. There were single rockets blooming in the night sky, or an occasional pair. Within five minutes, they were gone. The end of the shows wasn’t marked by glorious excess, but by simple bursts of light sent higher into the sky. If we had been watching with those gathered in the towns, we would have been forced to look up, toward the stars. In utter darkness, against a hidden horizon, the exploding lights were beautiful beyond belief. When we realized the end had come, we hardly could move.
Eventually, we drove on. For another hour we watched displays shoot up around us and then fade away as hidden Americans in little towns with not much of a civic budget did what they could to express the impulse of the day: to celebrate, and bless, and rejoice in America. No television crews recorded the events, no newspapers sent reporters. If YouTube had existed at the time, a teenager or two might have thought to record the night for strangers, but then again, perhaps not. Love of country, a sense of community and the sheer pleasure of celebration have no need of publicity, and even the smallest showers of light filling a sky emptied of everything but darkness can satisfy much of America.
We live today in a country dedicated partly to the proposition that all are created equal, but primarily to the proposition that bigger is better. I have no doubt that more people in this country know which corporation is associated with the phrase “super-size me” than know the author of the Declaration of Independence. While big cars roll down our roads, big money affects the political process, and mega-churches preach an interesting “gospel” of self-actualization. Family farms disappear while questions about the safety of corporate agriculture increase, and media conglomerates continue to blur the line between factual reporting and entertainment.
Given these realities, it makes sense that publicists for America’s birthday celebration should choose to highlight the big parties, the rock-concert-like events, and the sheer spectacle of it all. I have no real quarrel with that; I enjoy spectacle myself from time to time. But we need to remember that out in the country darkness, in the wilderness of the inner city, beyond the well-kept fences of the suburbs, there are fellow Americans celebrating in a different way.
Many are struggling. Most don’t have “names” and few have big money or great power. What they have is love for the country they call home, a willingness to serve that country and work for her preservation, and a commitment to values that include self-sacrifice and responsible stewardship. They also have an ability to rejoice in the gifts they have been granted, and to appreciate simplicity as well as spectacle. However it may distress the powers that be, this is their country, too, and they have a right to participate in their own governance.
Because of circumstances, I thought I would miss any sort of fireworks this year. I had made a quick trip to the grocery store and was certain I wouldn’t be home in time to see anything. To my amazement, I walked out of the store into the parking lot just as the city fireworks began. I hadn’t realized that the lot would be a perfect viewing spot, but it was filled with people, coolers and chairs. Some surprised shoppers perched on the hoods of their cars. Others just stood, chatting with perfect strangers as the show unfolded.
It was a beautiful display, nearly 20 minutes long, neither perfectly simple nor as spectacular as what would come later in Houston. When it ended with a huge, cascading spill of color, there were “oohhhs” and “aahhhs” to spare. And then, it was over. Folks picked up their chairs, put the coolers away, loaded the rest of their groceries into their cars and began to leave.
As I walked my cart over to the collection point, I heard someone behind me, whistling. I turned to look and discovered a man in blue jeans, a white sleeveless shirt and work boots. He needed a shave, and probably should quit smoking, but he really could whistle his song of choice: The Stars and Stripes Forever.
Thanks to OSHNBLU for the images posted in this blog!
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