Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Last 4th of July

In the long ago summers of the 1970s, public parks around the city held their own fireworks shows every 4th.  As the day dissolved into dusk, people would come with their families, their blankets, their food and drink, and stake out a small patch of grass to sit and enjoy the cool air and the show.  As night descended, the fireworks began.  You could lay back on the grass and stare up at the heavens.  The crowd oohed and aahed approval at the fire in the sky, the explosions that rumbled the earth beneath them.  The finale seemed to dynamite the moon out of its orbit.  Then, as the smoky night settled, people collected their things and made their way through the suburban streets back to their homes, another 4th of July slipping away into history.

It was on one of these 4th of Julys in the park near my childhood home in the San Fernando Valley that we came to enjoy the fireworks show.  My family joined another with whom we carpooled to school and socialized.  They had three kids to our four, and I had a major crush on the middle daughter, Carol.  She was a quiet, studious girl, and although I gave it my best twelve year old try, she pretty much ignored me.

We staked our claim on a sandy strip of real estate near a fence where we would have a good view of the show.  My parents spread the blanket alongside our friends, and we dined on Kentucky Fried Chicken (long before it was known as simply KFC).  After we finished eating, Carol and I ambled down the fence line, wanting to put some distance between us and our parents.  I was focused on impressing her.  Carol’s mind was elsewhere, I could tell.  As we walked, I quickly ran out of things to say leaving us in awkward silence.  There were hundreds of people around us, on blankets, in lawn chairs, strolling through the dusk.

On the baseball diamond, I could see technicians and fire fighters setting up for the show.  They fired off a few preliminary explosions as a preview.  I walked to the chain link fence to watch while Carol stood behind me.  I did not notice two older boys on the other side, one swinging a long stick of bamboo through the air like a drum major’s mace.  As they passed me, the boy with the bamboo poked it through the fence and into my right eye.  The pain exploded into my brain and I staggered backward and fell.  The boys laughed and kept going.  Tears rolled down my face, and every time I moved my hand away, poisoned daggers of sharp light flashed in my head.

I tried to stand up, but dizziness washed over me and I retched with nausea.  I staggered back toward my parents, my male pride and my eye both badly wounded.  My mother asked what had happened, and when I couldn’t answer with the vomit pooling in my throat, Carol told them what little she knew.  I rolled away from the blanket and threw up.  I was afraid I was going to black out.

My father kept telling me to calm down while my mother tried to get a look at my eye.  I heard her gasp, which made me more upset.  I finally collected enough air to tell them what happened and give my father a description of the boys, however I did not remember much beyond the slash of bamboo coming through the fence.  It turned out the bamboo switch was enough for my father to hunt down and identify the boys.  He returned about fifteen minutes later.  “They won’t be poking anyone else,” my father said.

I lay face down on the blanket as the fireworks started.  The pounding explosions in the sky, replete with flashes of color matched the pain and light in my brain.  I did not understand why my parents didn’t take us home.  My father took out his handkerchief, soaked it in ice water from the picnic cooler and dripped the water into my eye.  He wrapped up some of the unmelted cubes and placed the package over my face, but the weight made the pain worse.  My eye felt like it was full of splintered slivers of wood.

Once the fireworks were over, we had to walk to our car several streets away.  Each step was excruciating, the impact of my feet slamming up my body and into my brain.  I was still crying when we got home.  My mother checked my eye again and saw that the white around the iris was bloody.  That was enough for them to take me to the emergency room.  There, the doctor determined that my eye was severely lacerated.  He cleaned it thoroughly and gave me several small vials of antibiotic and anti-inflammatory drops as well as pain medication.

My eye remained bloody and swollen for more than two weeks.  There was, however, no permanent damage; I was lucky, according to the doctor.  I do not remember ever attending another fireworks show at the park.

It is weird how childhood can end in an instant.  I loved those summer nights watching the sky explode in brilliant Technicolor.  I can still taste the chicken and a cold bottle of Coke from the ice chest.  I can smell the gunpowder and acrid sulfur of the pyrotechnics.  I can feel the summer warmth and cool dusky breeze of a July night, and hear the sighs of the crowd mesmerized by the flash-bang shimmering sky.  Autumn and a new school year were a lifetime away.

But on that 4th of July, the magic ended.  These days, fireworks don’t hold me in awe.  Often, I step outside as night falls and try to pick out the celebratory explosions from some idiot down the block firing a gun into the sky.  In recent years, I have seen too many riots on the evening news with police launching tear gas canisters into a crowd and firing warning shots.  I have witnessed one riot in my city.  September 11th, the Boston Marathon bombings, the federal building in Oklahoma City—there are too many explosions that introduce massive destruction and loss of life.

Thankfully, I can still see, but I don’t find a cannon shot into the sky all that entertaining anymore.

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