I hope everyone is well and happy and that my U.S. readers are celebrating a wonderful Fourth of July with family and friends!
Of course it wouldn’t be the Fourth without fireworks, would it? I enjoy them, but you won’t catch me handling them. Even sparklers kind of scare me, so I’m happy to leave incendiary devices in the hands of the professionals. You know, people like your hotshot neighbor with the umpteen cars, the go-fast boat and the ginormous house. Or your judgment-challenged husband. Yes, I’m speaking of one particular July 4th that none of us in this family will ever forget.
Long before Glen and I moved to the honest-to-goodness country four years ago, we had moved outside of the Austin city limits. The last place was a one-street subdivision with acreage lots: the sort of place where, unlike in the city, setting off fireworks isn’t illegal—provided no burn ban is in effect. Only half the lots had houses on them, which gave all of us neighbors plenty of elbow room to do pretty much as we pleased. That changed once the rest of the houses were built, but those first few years were heady times. Which brings me to one memorable Independence Day around twelve years ago.
That evening at nightfall, fireworks began to bloom in the sky above a couple of houses on the street. Glen, The Daughter and I, plus a few friends who’d come to celebrate with us, went outside to watch. Glen had bought some fireworks for us, too, and he set off several in the driveway. Then the free-spending neighbor across the street (“across the street” only in the most literal sense; he was still two or three hundred yards away from us) got into the act. He was having a July 4th party and doing some showboating, putting on a display for his guests that was calculated to impress and keep them talking about it until the next July 4th. We watched for a time, oohing and aahing, and then Glen touched off a few more of ours. This seemed to send the neighbor into an explosive frenzy.
Shrieking, whizzing, starry bursts and meteoric booms filled the night. Every time Glen sent up another firework, four or five skyrockets and Roman candles launched across the street. The wind was blowing toward us, and soon we (and our house and our yard and our driveway) were covered in the gritty remains of the neighbor’s spent fireworks—that stuff that’s such a nuisance to sweep and rake up the next day. (Katie and I should know; cleanup duty was always our job.) Some of it was still burning and we had to run to stamp it out. What had started out as an amazing display was becoming annoying.
At last there was a lull. Clouds of smoke drifted across scorched asphalt and concrete. We assumed the neighbor’s show was over; all of our own fireworks were long gone. So we brushed the paper shreds and ashy bits out of our clothes and hair, did a last check for small fires on the landscape and started to head indoors. But that wasn’t the end of it. Turns out the neighbor was re-arming. Soon, fresh volleys of fireworks began hurtling skyward, and each new blast seemed bigger and louder than the previous one. Call us paranoid, but we all felt there was a bullying, “mine’s bigger than yours” taint to his extravaganza. (Interestingly, not too long after that night he ended up in a bit of trouble with the feds over some pesky fraud charges.)
Finally, Glen had had enough. “I’m going to my truck,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” Then he vanished into the acrid haze as spent fireworks debris continued to rain down on us.
When he returned, we could see he had something small in the palm of his hand. He went to the circular parking pad at the end of our driveway and waved at the rest of us to stand well back. We didn’t retreat far enough to suit him, so he waved us back some more, and then still more. As we peeked out from behind a stone wall by the front porch, hands over our ears, we saw him put a lighter to what looked like a pencil stub and drop it to the concrete.
And then he ran like hell.
The roar that followed felt like it was going to bring the house down. It was seismic, cataclysmic, like the detonation at the end of the world when the Earth tilts screaming into the Sun. At the very least it should have blown out our windows. But amazingly, everything stayed in one piece. Even the driveway.
In the aftermath there was a deafening silence. We stood there for a few minutes—stunned, wide-eyed, gasping—waiting for the pyrotechnic barrage across the street to resume. It didn’t. There was not another . . . single . . . firework. Glen raised his arms, triumphant.
As we all went into the house, giggling like fools, I asked him, “What in the world was that?”
“Just a little dynamite,” he said. “I figured a quarter-stick should do it.”
Happy July 4th to my U.S. readers! (And don’t try this at home!)