By In Stuff


I am the first person in my family to be born in the United States. My parents moved here less than three years before I was born and they were the first people in their families to do that. Because of this, I always said, I was raised on America. Our first holiday, the one that always meant the most, was Thanksgiving. Our second might have been Oscar Night. My parents raised me on baseball and Hollywood, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, “I Have A Dream” and running through sprinklers, hard work and occasional nights out for ice cream at the Cream O’ Freeze, barbecues and neighbors who mow your lawn when you are on vacation and the power of the vote. We did many things because we were Americans — we always sat around the television to watch the Miss America Pageant, we spent 10 hours at least watching (and contributing) to the Jerry Lewis Telethon on Labor Day, we always went to the mall for Washington’s Birthday sales. These are not big things, I know, but they were ever-present. You know that speech you sometimes see in movies and television shows about immigrants, the one where the mom or dad says in a thick accent to the son or daughter, “In America, you can be anything. You can even be president.” My parents gave me that speech many times. And even when they did not say it, that speech was implied. Always.

Every Fourth of July, we would go looking for fireworks.

We never, not even once, shot off our own fireworks. That just wouldn’t have fit; this is a bit hard to explain but my father is more or less the last sort of person you would expect to shoot off fireworks. That just isn’t his style. I’ve told this story before, but it fits here too: Once we were at a shooting gallery at an amusement park, and I was wasting quarters shooting at targets that I was not even coming close to hitting. I asked my father if he would try, and as I expected he did not want to do it. But finally I bugged him enough that he stepped in, put in a quarter, and he promptly went on to hit every single target in the gallery. Every one. After a while, strangers were walking up to him asking him to make the skunk raise its tail, to make the piano player play a tune. It was incredible. He never missed. But for me, as a son, it was beyond incredible, beyond impossible, because not only had I never seen my father shoot a gun (not a real gun, not a cap gun, not a BB gun, not a water gun), I had heard him on more than one occasion talk about his dislike of guns (including real guns, cap guns, BB guns, water guns). It was like he had these secret superpowers I had not known about. It was like watching Clark Kent become Superman. Anyway, his general dislike of handling firearms, both real and make believe, carried over to fireworks.

But that did not make fireworks unimportant. No, quite the opposite; fireworks were among the most important things of my entire childhood. We spent every fourth of July looking for them. We watched fireworks, like we did all those great American things, with seriousness of purpose. There was an order. First, as light began to fade, we would drive around our neighborhood in Cleveland with the windows down and look and listen for firecrackers and bottle rockets and roman candles and flying spinners and sparklers. Any cracking sound would spark someone in the car to point and shout, “Look!” No firework was too small or too insignificant to elude our oohs and ahhs. Sometimes, when a family had a particularly good show going, we would stop the car and get out to watch, applauding each burst of color.

Then, as it got darker, we would begin to go big-game firework hunting. We would go to a nearby park to see the show. We would head downtown and follow the brightness of the sky. Later, after we moved to North Carolina, we would go every year to the mall to watch them shoot fireworks over the Gap and J.C. Penney and Orange Julius. But that was later, and what I remember more is those disorganized firework hunts in Cleveland. Some years, we saw more fireworks than others. But they always ended the same way: We would go back home and stand on the crumbling and entirely unsafe balcony that someone had injudiciously built on to our tiny house. And there, we would see my favorite fireworks show. It wasn’t a show at all; it was just the scattered and broken rhythms of family fireworks — a red flare to the left, a blue flare way in the distance to the right, then two flares at the same time, a whistling sound, two kids running down the next street over, named Colony, waving sparklers, and then maybe a big, booming sound and the explosion of multicolored stars so close it seemed like they might fall on our house.

And even when our balcony show began to flicker — like those last few popping sounds of a bag of microwave popcorn — our American responsibility to watch fireworks was not over. Then we would go downstairs to the living room — we would do this every year — surround the television and watch the big Cleveland fireworks display, I believe from Edgewater Park. Looking back, this was an astonishingly comical experience. We would be gathered around our, whatever, 17-inch television with rabbit ears on the top, and we would watch fireworks that did not look very different on our screen from the inevitable static of the UHF channel. The Cleveland Orchestra would be playing, I guess, though you could never really hear them. In my memory there was an announcer of some kind providing firework commentary like, “Oh, wow” and “How about that one, folks.” Maybe I’m wrong about that, maybe there was no announcer, maybe that’s just the peculiarity of memory, but I can still hear him. “Look at those colors!” “Wow, what a night!” One thing that I know was true was that before each set of fireworks they would show the cannon firing them off. Even as a kid, I didn’t not understand why — I guess it was supposed to be dramatic. So we would sit there, and it was ridiculous, parents on the couch, kids on the floor watching a cannon burn white for an instant while you could vaguely hear “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and then watching a spray of colored dots glowing through white static. But in those moments, we did not see it as ridiculous. We saw it as Americans.

My daughters love the Fourth of July. My youngest just walked in here wearing red, white and blue and reminded me that I have to do the same. We have our own tradition; wearing red, white and blue is one of them, and there will be time at the pool, and at some point we will talk about what’s cool about America. One of them will talk about George Washington, of course, and another will talk about how tall Abraham Lincoln was with his hat on (this is general height reference for our youngest; she will see someone in the mall and say, “He’s even taller than Abraham Lincoln with his hat on”). I suspect we will talk about Broadway and Kansas City barbecue and the shops on Rodeo Drive*, Putt-Putt at Myrtle Beach and Mickey Mouse’s house at Disney World and the freedom to get any flavor of frozen yogurt you want at YoFruitty or Yoforia or Pinkberry or wherever.

*My daughters just saw Rodeo Drive for the first time, and it must have been like the feeling the father of Rudy had when he first saw Notre Dame Stadium.

Then, we will talk about how one set of their grandparents lives in a tiny town in Kansas, 35 miles away from the closest McDonald’s, and they own a farm, and one was a school teacher, the other a truck driver, and they believe in fishing and quilting and helping out for the local Rock-A-Thon, a community fundraiser built around chairs rocking for 24 straight hours. We will talk about how their other grandparents came to America almost 50 years ago, moved from place to place in search of a better life, how one worked in a factory for most of his life, how the other went to college as she approached 40 and became a computer programmer, how they now watch enough television to single-handedly raise the national average.

And then, as the sun descends, we will go looking for fireworks. This is a wonderful thing about America. We won’t have to go far to find them.

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18 Responses to Fireworks

  1. Thank you Joe, this one is excellent. I know exactly what you mean about the scattered family fireworks being better, somehow, than the giant displays. One of my favorite memories from growing up in Orlando: My father would always buy us a pack of fireworks that comes in a bundle from the grocery store. We’d launch them in the street, to keep the sparks off the grass, because more than half the time in Florida you’re under a brushfire warning. Cars would have to stop to watch the firework finish, and almost every time the would wave at us or wish us a happy Fourth of July as they passed.

  2. contrarybear says:

    Great stuff as always.

  3. jim says:

    This is awesome.

  4. Mikey says:

    Nice. The image of the fireworks over the mall killed me. That’s being a kid in America in the 80s.

    Joe, if you’re doing any readings in KC during the ASG break please let us all know.

  5. Damn, Joe. Your essays are among the best written and most emotionally honest I can find anywhere, and you give ’em to us for free. I’ve written to say thank you before, and I suspect I’ll be doing it again.

  6. Ozdoltorps says:

    I read articles like this and I wonder if your talent is being wasted on sports. Seems like you have at least 3 or 4 amazing novels in you.

  7. Frankie B says:

    Joe, I love everything you write. Thank you. And thank you for this essay. It sums up the 4th of my childhood wonderfully.

    I am waiting breathlessly for your review of HoodiePillow:

  8. PatGLex says:

    Your essay really hit home for me. Yesterday, for the first time in a while, I bypassed the fireworks at my mom’s. [She had thought they weren’t going to happen because of the drought here and fear of stray sparks setting off fires. I did spend the day with her; I just hadn’t planned to stay for fireworks.] She and my late father would sit outside their house and watch the county fireworks from the ballfield, which is on the other side of the main highway and just up the road from them. People line the main road and the side roads and put up their chairs to watch it. And before the county show there is a family on the other side of their house that sends up their own lesser show in their field. Usually on my drive home from their house after the county show is over, other household fireworks inevitably can be seen, and if I’m lucky, the Big City fireworks in the Big City an hour away from Mom’s. I’m sorry now I didn’t stay when I saw the fire truck at the end of their road. It is part of America, and family, and home.

  9. phenom says:

    This hits pretty close to home, although my dad’s Clark Kent became Superman when he lit fireworks on the driveway every 4th. It was as if his age alone allowed him the skill to handle bottle rockets and such that would surely kill a lesser man who even dared get close to the unlit wick.

    Furthermore, another part of my summers was the Rock-A-Thon, which was a 4H fundraiser for my friends and I. We’d do our best to stay up as late as possible, rocking the night away, so to speak. During breaks we’d play Kick-the-Can, which we picked up from watching late-night episodes of The Twilight Zone. What a great time that was.

  10. Mark Daniel says:

    It sounds like your father was more like Steven Seagal than Superman. Working class, humble, family man who is secretly an expert marksman. I wouldn’t be surprised if your dad had been a part of clandestine operations in Cambodia until the Agency left his SEAL team to die out of political expedience.

  11. Mikey says:

    I can’t be the only one who read that part about the marksmanship and thought of Jem and Atticus Finch.

  12. dwpittman3 says:

    I was just in Myrtle Beach, and saddened to find that the official Putt-Putt was no longer there. Now just themed mini-golfs. Just not the same.

  13. Dang I love the way you write.

  14. Did your Dad, or another family member, ever reveal the source
    of those marksman skills?

  15. Harry B says:

    Joe, thanks again for the great memories. This one really hit “home”.
    We lived on Colony from 1967 – 1980, right behind the Cedar Center movie theater. My brother and I would always start off the fireworks with bottle rockets and Roman candles, and then turn over the show to Dad. It’s pretty cool to know that maybe you were enjoying our back yard show over the years.
    Although Cedar Center has changed quite a bit, the house on Colony still looks the same.

  16. Mrs. N says:

    No, Mikey, you weren’t the only one to be reminded of One-Shot Finch. 😉

    Joe, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bookmarked your essays to share with friends, relatives, or students. Thanks for being an excellent writer. And, by the way, no, your writing is not being wasted on sports – I’m not a sports fan, but some of the most intelligent and thoughtful people I know are sports fans, and they deserve to have good writers in their arena, too. Thanks, again.

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