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07/06/2004 Archived Entry: "July 6, 1775: A Call to Arms"

JULY 6, 1775: A CALL TO ARMS. The prose may lack the elegance of Jefferson at his best (he was only co-author of this piece; his work was "toned down" by John Dickinson). But the sentiments are every bit as stirring -- and as pertinent -- as the Declaration of Independence.

This is where the colonists stood less than one year before they finally broke the ties with Britain.

So many people wrote to say they'd read the Declaration of Independence to their families on Sunday! That's fantastic -- especially reading the Declaration shortly before going out and blowing things up. ;-) Jim Bovard was the only one who said he'd also read this document.

I skipped Independence Day. Tons of paltry reasons. Too busy working. The dogs don't share my joy at fireworks. And of course ... that naggy feeling that there's not so much to celebrate these days. But talking with with Jim reminded me of July Fourths past.

I used to crew on a municipal fireworks display. Strictly grunt work. Every year, 30 or 40 of us would turn up to load mortars. We'd pick up six-inch (diameter) shells and stand in ranks, holding the paper-wrapped shells under our clothes to prevent drifting embers from landing on them. On signal, a row of us would dash forward, slide the shells into metal tubes buried in the ground, then run like hell. Pick up another shell, wait with it tucked against our bodies, and do it all over again. Somebody from the real pyrotechnics crew would light the shells off.

There was always just enough potential danger to give a little frisson of pleasure. Burning embers did drift down around us, sometimes two or three inches across. There was always the possibility that a little spark left in "the hole" would ignite a shell before its time. But the risks were small; just enough to give us a feeling of doing something really, really cool.

And nobody's ever had a better "seat" at a fireworks show. When you're on the mortar crew, the concussions of exploding bombs nearly overhead thump you in the chest -- boom, boom, boom! -- with every detonation. Embers and ashes rain down on your shoulders. And oh boy, the delicious smell of gun powder! It clings to you. You take it home with you afterwards.

One year, something happened just at the beginning of the grand finale. We on the mortar crew were kept far away from that -- a huge series of powerful fireworks all wired together in close order. It was out on the end of the peninsula overlooking the lake where the show took place, far from any people. Seriously dangerous stuff. Anyway, something happened -- a fuse broke or burnt out -- shortly after the big display began. The finale fizzled. It went dark and silent.

The chief pyrotechnician instantly tapped his 18-year-old son, who went running out to the end of the peninusula, right into the middle of the big array, found the break, re-lit the fuse, and bolted as if his life depended on it (which, in fact, it may have). The finale reignited when the boy was just a few leaps away -- breathtaking bursts of thunder, even from where we stood. The kid was in mid-stride, fully off the ground, when the first explosion roared. In the sudden light, we saw his dark profile as he flew forward. Still completely upright and running, he was like the bionic man. He covered 10 or 15 feet in a single stride, or so it seemed. And then his forward foot his the ground again and on he pelted, not even missing a step.


The next year I showed up to crew as usual and found barricades and policemen manning the entrance to the crew area. Only invited people were being allowed in. (Before that, anybody could just show up, volunteer, get on the mortar line; no names asked, no credentials required.) It was the end of my fireworks crew days. But it was an experience I'll never forget, for sure.

Posted by Claire @ 10:44 AM CST

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