When I was a kid growing up in Victoria, the best, biggest, and often the only fireworks display on the 4th of July was at the drive-in movie theatre. Then, as now, towns, organizations, and individuals didn’t risk shooting off their own fireworks because it was always hot and dry in July in South Texas. Then, as now, fire was a persistent threat. (People did, however, go outside and shoot off their guns into the air, an old-country ranch tradition, to celebrate holidays and other special occasions that even my own grandmother was part of.)
My very first fireworks experience was at that drive-in movie. I was very little. My parents had packed me up in the back seat of our Pontiac and out we headed to the movie before sunset. The routine was always the same: get there early enough to capture a choice parking spot in the center of the viewing area, situate the car up on the mounded row at just the right viewing angle and make sure the cord to the audio speaker box reached the driver’s window (and test it for sound, since speakers were often broken), and then get over to the giant concession stand in the rear of the lot to stock up on food and drinks before the show started.
Back in the 1950s, movies at drive-ins were always “family friendly” since it was assumed that families with kids in tow (even if they were asleep in the back seat) were the primary customers. In those days, admission was by the carload, not by the person, so first-run, big block-buster movies were reserved for indoor theatres. Interestingly, as I write this now, I realize that first-run movies still weren’t being shown at drive-ins and admissions were still being charged by the carload when we were teenagers in the 1960s, probably because teenagers went to the drive-in to eat, talk, visit with friends in other cars, and sometimes, to make out, but NOT to watch the movie.
At any rate, on July 4th, about 9:30 after the feature film had been shown, the fireworks display with accompanying music on the audio speaker began. Although you could sit outside at picnic tables back in the concession stand area, most people sat on top of the hoods of their cars, or on lawn chairs in the beds of their pick-ups. (What can I say … this was Texas.) Daddy got Mother and me situated on the hood of that Pontiac Chieftain, the loud music came on, and the sky exploded. And then I screamed and scrambled and ran for my life, reaching for the car door to get inside. I just knew those falling flames of color were going to land on us and burn us alive.
That introduction to fireworks stayed with me for a very long time and, to this day, I still don’t like loud noises or firecrackers, or even hand-held sparklers. My father was killed in an accident the year after that, and Mother and I didn’t celebrate much or even go to drive-in movies for a while. Eventually, though, we returned on the 4th of July, mainly because that concession stand at that Lone Tree Theatre had the best, biggest, most outrageously delicious hamburgers you could possibly dream of (and I still do). We went to eat, not to watch the fireworks.
But my most memorable 4th of July came years later, sitting at the expansive windows of a lower Manhattan office building overlooking the Hudson River with a perfect viewing position of Operation Sail, the 1976 Tall Ships Parade in honor of the Nation’s 200th birthday. Operation Sail celebrates a maritime tradition and commemorates significant moments in our history. Operation Sail, Inc., a non-profit organization founded in 1961 and endorsed by President Kennedy in 1963, coordinates these international events featuring sailing vessels from around the world. There have been six OpSail Parades of ships so far: to honor the 1964 World’s Fair, the 1976 U S Bicentennial, the 1986 Statue of Liberty Centennial, the 1992 Columbus Quincentennial, the 2000 New Millennium, and the 2012 War of 1812 Bicentennial.
The 1976 Operation Sail event drew 17 “tall ships” (square-rig training ships) from fourteen countries, plus 146 smaller sailing ships in the accompanying fleet. Altogether, this fabulous, historic event took place over five hours and 19 miles from the Verrazano Bridge up the Hudson, past the George Washington Bridge, and back down to tie up, for public visits, at piers in Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey. The ships sailed for review past 60 modern naval vessels from 46 countries and drew 6 million spectators (not counting those of us up in buildings) and 20,000 private boats along the edges of the Hudson. And then the whole day ended with the fabulous Grucci Brothers fireworks of Macy’s fame. And those fireworks didn’t scare me at all; they made me proud.
Still, few of my 4th of July memories include fireworks, although I do remember a year in a friend’s boat on Long Island Sound off the coast of Stamford, CT, when the famous Grucci Brothers again made their magic with dancing display of pyrotechnics in the sky to the music of Dirty Dancing. It was a beautiful night and a beautiful evening with friends whom we have not now seen in years. But I remember them and that 4th fondly.
For me, holiday memories are most often about the people with whom I celebrate them. I am not a joiner or a big “civic person,” have never been keen on parades or flag waving, and most certainly not likely to have been pictured in one of Norman Rockwell’s nostalgic American tableaus. This year, as always, I will bake and cook and grill (still trying to replicate those delicious hamburgers with their distinctive hot sauce dressing), and then I will settle down in front of the TV to watch the Macy’s fireworks from a safe distance. And I look forward to the day when drone shows, programmed and computer activated to produce brilliant pictures in the sky without risk of fire, will become more economical and more environmentally safe in drought-stricken in areas like mine.
This year, as always, I honor America and am grateful for the life I have here, but I realize more than ever that this life is not simply a matter of waving flags, spouting platitudes and proclaiming patriotism. This year, more than ever, we need to not only think about celebrating the America of our past 246 years, but to consider how we are going to preserve our America going forward. It seems to me we need a plan.