May 07, 2021

Holiday fireworks delight kids, adults July 4 displays once posed greater danger

Ca-phrump, the rocket sounds from afar, jettisoning the first shell into the skies where it will burst into particles of colored light.

Before the fireworks display begins, boats position in the bay while throngs of people who are landlocked line the streets and shore. Impatient horns are honked from land and sea in an attempt to nudge the nightfall … and the first glare of glittering design overhead.

A few firecrackers pop in the distance. Some youngsters run across a nearby yard, waving sparklers and looping them into wide 8s. We wait and wait in the dark, fidgeting in anticipation and swatting mosquitoes, eager for the show to begin.

The Fourth of July celebrations traditionally culminate with fireworks – thousands of dollars in pyrotechnics – blown to smithereens while spectators ooh and ah, clap and whistle, when one after another boom reverberates throughout town, rattling windows and setting dogs to howl.

Other shells explode like dandelions, the spores shooting through the sky and illuminating it with red, white and blue. Circles upon circles of bright lights provide a spectacle as onlookers crane their necks and blink their eyes. Twinkling gold lights whiz above us like blazoned arrows. The rocket again fires, and suddenly a cloud of green emerges, then fades to pink, then yellow. Two, three, four shells are launched, and colored lights scatter in all directions, layers of them falling and vanishing as quickly as they appeared. The crowd erupts in applause.

Our fascination with fireworks is age-old.

Author Charles F. Haywood, who wrote “Yankee Dictionary,” described earlier celebrations of the Glorious Fourth when “fire balloons” were used, among other patriotic manifestations such as cannon crackers, dynamite caps on street car rails and touching off backhouses – no doubt prohibited by statute then, as now.

Fire balloons were made of paper, with excelsior or a sponge in the lower part upon which the celebrant poured a little alcohol or kerosene. “When he touched a match to it,” Haywood wrote, “the resulting fire caused hot air to fill the bag of the balloon, the hot air made it rise, it burned brightly in the night sky, trailed a pretty shower of sparks and then it came apart and dropped to earth.

“Upon these occasions when it dropped not to earth, but upon some citizen’s dry wooden shingle roof, there was added to the Fourth of July celebration an extra feature. The box was pulled, the fire alarm whistle blew, everyone gathered to watch, the apparatus came galloping in and if their arrival was timely, a chemical line sufficed to extinguish the blazing shingles.”

But if the firemen were elsewhere when the alarm sounded, the balloon could end up causing an inferno; thus, it was outlawed and became extinct.

Today’s fireworks displays are complicated feats, designed to delight us – young and old – with brilliant starbursts white as lightning and noise loud as thunder.

They are something to behold, no matter how fleeting they are. Even after the finale, sparks are drifting to the ground, and the last boom is echoing in our ears … if only in my imagination.

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