4th of July

posted in: Memoir, Poetry | 0

Two very different takes on fireworks, with pieces by Jack Ritter and Victoria Wyatt. 
6 minutes


One of the things many of us think about when we think about the 4th of July is fireworks. On this episode, two very different takes.

Jack Ritter said this next poem “sprang from my rural Wisconsin upbringing. We spent whole summers lighting off fireworks and experimenting with pipe bombs and Estes rockets. I was 14. I had a lab in the basement. It was the ‘60s.” Here’s Jack Ritter’s poem “Blowing Up Things.”

Cherry bombs.
Bottle rockets.

Wisconsin summers on Beaver Lake.
Those were the true days.

We blew up things:
Stumps. Gopher holes.
Toilets. Ant hills.
Barbie. The lake.

The instructions on Black Cats:
“Light fuse, then retire quickly.”

We were masters of shredded red paper tubing,
gods of carbon-charred craters.
We didn’t retire.

In August, we decided it was time
for a pyrotechnical paradigm shift.
Being the best team out there,
we stepped up:

black powder,
match heads and shotgun ammo,
potassium nitrate and powdered sugar,
Clorox and Drano.

We mixed, tested, sniffed.
We led the industry.

Then summer ended, and the god of
fourteen-year-old boys who blow up things
became weak-kneed.

White smoke, black smoke —
we had it all.

Jack Ritter’s poem “Blowing Up Things” from Passager Issue 66.

Victoria Wyatt’s essay “Independence Day,” by contrast, is about her aversion to fireworks. Here are some excerpts.

It’s the Fourth of July, one of the days I dread most . . .

. . . With each passing year, these Independence Days are growing just a little easier for me. Tonight I will make a studied attempt to create a celebration for the sake of my little son. We’ll go with friends to a grassy hill for a picnic and then to watch the fireworks display. My goal is to be close enough to the Washington Monument to delight my son, yet far enough away so that my old fears will not well up to make me tremble.

. . . My first ten or so Independence Days were spent every year at the Great Western Drive-in Theatre, or as we called it, The Drive-in.

The owner was Jay Wooten, a drinking buddy of my parents. Jay was a huge noisy man always talking in an overloud voice or hurting my ears with his big booming laugh. I think this was because he was never quite sober. Every Fourth I was sentenced to spend the evening alone in a parked car at the Great Western while my parents partied with Jay in his trailer “office” at the edge of the drive-in’s grounds. There were always three movies (“triple blockbusters,” screamed the billboard) with a fireworks display between the first and second movies. Or was it the second and third ones? I cannot remember exactly, because I spent the evening huddled in the car, windows up (to block as much sound as possible, which made it stifling hot), doors locked (I was afraid of strangers), and my eyes barely peering over the dashboard.

The movie plots never interested me. All my energy was spent trying to calculate how near we were to the fireworks. I was absolutely terrified of them.

Once they began, I pushed my index fingers as far inside my ears as possible, forcing myself to watch each explosion of sound and color so that I would know, or could at least guess, when the next one would come. The noise truly seemed as though it would burst my eardrums. From the time I was very small, extremely loud noises had actually hurt my sensitive ears. The colored showers that fell only pushed me to new heights of terror. By the time the movie began and the last of the sparks had faded, I was stiff from my cramped position on the floor of the car. The horrible odor — a choking mixture of smoke, matches, dirt, and gravel — managed to penetrate even my tightly sealed fortress.

As I slowly relaxed, I fell into an exhausted sleep.

Now Jay Wooten is dead and the Great Western Drive-in Theatre is owned by some movie franchise. I don’t know what it is called, or whether they still have “the biggest fireworks display in Western Kansas!” Now I have a real family of my own and loving friends who understand that the Fourth of July isn’t much fun for me. They don’t ask why it is so, but they show their love by their gentleness when we make our plans.

To this day I still have difficulty understanding why my parents never asked me why I was sleeping on the floor of the car, or why the windows were closed so tightly in the heat of July.

Excerpts from Victoria Wyatt’s essay “Independence Day” from Passager Issue 68.

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For Kendra, Mary, Christine, Rosanne, and the rest of the Passager staff, I’m Jon Shorr.