On fire

July 4, 2011

This essay appeared some years ago in an area weekly and I also got to record it for our local public radio station, so there’s no denying it’s recycled, but the topic is timely and I haven’t posted in far too long.

July 4, 1977, State Fairgrounds, Raleigh. My grandfather is dancing on the cloggers’ stage with the mayor, little 4-foot-8-inch, tennis shoe-shod Isabella Cannon. He is drunken ebullient; I have never known him to dance. I am eight and want to dress like the cloggers, in beribboned tap shoes and gingham dresses with crinolines. I ride ponyback in a slow, bored circle. The ponies smell sweet from hay and manure, and next year I’ll be too big to ride them; already my toes drag the ground.

The long version of “American Pie” plays all day on the radio. It ends on one station and we twist the knob until it resumes. I don’t understand what the words mean, but the sad chorus keeps turning in my chest. Drove my Chevy to the levy … them good old boys … this’ll be the day that I die.

My father and great-uncle have been setting up for the fireworks since morning. City workers have buried steel pipes for launching the bombs and fire trucks idle close by. By sundown many cans of Pabst have been drained and a flat, tea-colored pint makes the rounds. No one’s scared of anything but rain.

It’s hardly worth coming just to sit in the stands; we’re down by the racetrack with the shooters and get to lie atop car hoods and watch the display projected directly overhead. The bombs come in parcels the size and shape of ostrich eggs and have exotic names from China: Dragon Dancing with Phoenix, Blossom After Thunder, Golden Silk & Silver Rain, Happy Song.

My father wields a sizzling flare, backs up to each fuse and ignites one after another. Missiles hiss skyward, break open into umbrellas of green and gold fire. Branches of red lightning crack and dribble, hurling glitter. A white-dot bomb punctuates all the color, and I dig my knuckles into my ears, anticipating the blast that comes a beat later.

The finale is the only part my father gets to watch because it’s all on one fuse. He crouches to light it, springs away, and rolls to get clear. The firmament erupts with pulsing streamers; hot ash rains down. He is hidden in smoke. I scream myself hoarse. He’s back on his feet when the haze clears, deaf and reeking of gunpowder. Bombs have exploded 10 feet off the ground, spit flame in his face, and my father walks away grinning, on fire with his own potent mixture of nerves and luck.

 

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