My visit a few weeks ago to the North Carolina city where I was born brought back memories of two of the biggest blasts I’ve ever experienced on the Fourth of July.
Neither was supposed to happen.
All of us have recollections of outstanding fireworks displays we’ve seen in celebration of Independence Day, but few of us appreciate the skill and artistry needed to make them special. I’m led to believe that modern technology has helped reduce the dangers inherent with producing these shows, but you’re never out of the woods when you’re dealing with things that go “boom.”
Maybe these fireworks displays weren’t the biggest in the nation, but everything looms larger than life for a child, and those memories seldom disappear — even if they do have to be jogged from time to time.
The community’s primary city park was always the scene of the big holiday fireworks shows, and the anticipation in our house would always build over the weeks. In one particular year, the family loaded up the car with lawn chairs and snacks and made the 10-minute drive across town. We had hardly settled in our place along a curb when the show got under way. After a few minutes a quiet — and dark — period of time went by, and we could tell that others around us were getting as impatient as we were.
Then, a massive fireball rose from the trees around where the show was being staged, and an incredibly loud series of explosions was heard. Obviously, something had gone horribly wrong.
Word slowly spread throughout the crowd that there had been an accident, and no one knew whether the show could be salvaged or not. We waited it out, and after some time had passed, a relatively small display was seen. Compared to previous years, it was rather anticlimactic.
We read in the local newspaper the next afternoon that two men had been injured in the explosion, one very seriously. But it wasn’t because they didn’t know what they were doing, because both were experienced and licensed. But accidents do happen.
The other big boom happened on the Fourth of July, again while I was still in elementary school, but it wasn’t connected to fireworks. For a youngster too young to fully comprehend the significance of the Revolutionary War struggle, the Fourth of July is not much unlike any other summer day. With schools closed until September, the living is easy. But shortly after 9 a.m., the neighborhood was rocked by one incredibly large blast.
This was the era of CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation) radio frequencies and community bomb shelters in the event of nuclear attack, so what was our first move? We ran into the street to see if there was a mushroom cloud on the horizon.
No such (bad) luck. It was just another warm and humid North Carolina morning. The birds were flying around nervously, but everything else was normal.
Dad, who was an avid ham radio operator, fired up his transceiver and began scanning the frequencies for information. He could have just as well called his buddies on the telephone, because no power had been lost.
He learned that the owner of a local discount store had gone to his store to open up for the big holiday sales, and smelled gas when he got inside. Instead of doing the prudent thing, which is to leave and call the gas company, he instead decided to investigate. He made his way to the basement, opened the door to the utility room and — boom — the entire place when up in smoke. Incredibly, and fortunately, it all did go straight up… and out, so the man not only survived, he was able to walk away and was sitting in the parking lot when the ambulance and firefighters arrived. The store was leveled, but the story in the paper in the next day quoted him as saying it was fortunate that he had arrived before his employees — and well before the crowds of holiday shoppers he was anticipating.
Hopefully, the fireworks this holiday will be memorable for good reasons. Using some common sense and adhering to the traditional precautions can make it so.
Gene Deason is editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. A version of this account was originally published in July 2006. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.