By the Rockets' Red Glare

© 2010 by Dick Jordan

For the past three nights I’ve heard the explosions from miles away.  I’m not in Afghanistan or Iraq; I live near San Francisco.  It’s just fireworks, bombs bursting in air, going off in the sky over the nearby County Fairgrounds.

When I was growing up as a kid in Seattle, the Fourth of July was a big event.  The rain and drizzle that had persisted since the Fall was largely over.  Summer with mid-70 degree temperatures and puffy cumulus clouds floating like ships slowly passing over Puget Sound had arrived.  But the best part of the Fourth of July for kids of that era was the opportunity to literally blow yourself up in a dazzling display of pyrotechnic splendor.

Sometime around late May or early June the fireworks catalogs would show up in our mailbox.  You could order a variety of dangerous devices:  Roman Candles pulsating variegated globs of fire toward the Jovian heavens, strings of firecrackers resembling bandoliers of bullets, and skyrockets that would roar off toward outer space like the Saturn V’s that would later fling Apollo spacecraft towards the Moon at the end of the 1960’s.  There were pinwheels which would spin wildly around their axes when nailed to a tree or telephone pole, and stinky coils of some burning stuff that would melt into a fetid pile on the sidewalk.

Back then, it was a totally unsafe and insane Fourth of July.  Things did burn down, and kids had their fingers or whole hands blown off by “Cherry Bombs,” small spheres with immense, destructive power.

You could have all of these highly flammable Fourth of July toys delivered directly to you by Railway Express, the forerunner of today’s FEDEX and UPS freight companies.  Of course, you had to be careful about setting off these incendiary devices in your own neighborhood; burning down the house next door or the church across the street was frowned upon, if not patently illegal.

But I was luckier than most kids.  Not only could I have all manner of personal fireworks sent to my home, but I had a relatively safe place to set them off:  My grandmother’s farm in Idaho.

When school was out each June, I would be driven across Washington State to the Palouse, an area of rolling hills that runs eastward from the lava lands of the Columbia Plateau to the foothills of the Bitterroot Range in neighboring Idaho.  I would stay until about Labor Day, then be trucked back to Seattle for the start of a new school year.  Two things accompanied me on these journeys to the farm:  A three-speed “English Racer” bicycle, and my stash of fireworks.

The next farmhouse was a safe mile or more from the launching pad for my weapons of potential destruction.  While some fields were filled with ripening waves of barley or wheat, others were “fallow” —- nothing but clods of dirt interspersed with the stubbly remnants of last year’s crop, and generally impervious to ignition from my gunpowder-fueled items of amusement.  For me, the Fourth of July was always a real “blast.”

Thirty years later, long after those days had come and gone, I returned to Idaho to visit my grandmother who had retired from farming and was living in Moscow, home to the University of Idaho.  We took a long, hot drive south,  down a long, steep grade to Lewiston and into the baking confines of the canyon where the Clearwater and Snake Rivers meet.  There we purchased some tame fireworks, mostly sparklers and pop-bottle rockets, which we set off back in Moscow to celebrate Independence Day.  A few days later we drove north, past Indian reservations where much more potent fireworks could be bought free from laws regulating their sale elsewhere in the state.

This year I’ll be spending the Fourth of July at an annual party hosted by friends.  If we stay late enough, we’ll be able to see municipal fireworks displays as we gaze from their deck northeast across Concord towards I-80 running from San Francisco to Sacramento.  If we leave earlier, and the famous summer fog that blankets San Francisco Bay stays offshore, we could be lucky enough to catch three, separate night-time blasts emanating from the southwest as we drive through Oakland, directly ahead as we turn toward San Francisco, and finally to the northwest when crossing the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

It’ll be safe, it’ll be sane, but it won’t be the same as Fourth of July when I was a kid, lighting fuses, running from danger, and watching in awe, as I filled the sky over my part of America with glorious, glorious color.  *****

sitkaTravel writer Dick Jordan escaped death by dinosaur in the Children’s Reading room of Sitka, Alaska public library.  The stories of his travels to the 49th U.S. state appeared in the Dallas Mornings News, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle.  When he is not hanging out at Book Passage, he writes the travel blog, Tales Told From The Road ( where By The Rockets Red Glare first ran on July 4, 2010.