Posted: June 5, 2008 in Culture, Tacky

Most bits of Americana have long since been coopted by other countries, just as America has coopted traditions originating elsewhere. Still, those of us of age and experience inevitably have indelible associations with examples of Americana such as parades, state fairs, circuses, drive-in theaters, Sousa marches, baseball (and baseball park hotdogs), and fireworks. Although my boyhood experiences with these are imprinted on memory, my adult relationships to most Americana have changed. I no longer feel the swell of pride in community, largely because urban living (among other things) has rendered community life dead. My most complete turnabout, however, is with fireworks.

Who doesn’t love fireworks? They’re goofy, meaningless fun. And boy oh boy do people like to see shit blow up. My family used to pile into the station wagon and go to the drive-in on July 4th for the annual fireworks display. Once per year made them special with that unique sense of childhood wonder. Flash forward a few decades, and fireworks are nearly year round. The biggest displays are usually still reserved for July 4 (or in Chicago, July 3, presumably so all the suburban families can also enjoy their local township displays the following night — a two-fer!). First Night displays are also commonplace. But now, baseball and football games, air and water shows, the Olympics, and hell, even Saturday are all now occasions for fireworks. Chicago’s Navy Pier has fireworks all summer on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I caught the display last weekend and didn’t oooh and ahhh as was the practice in my boyhood. Rather, there was an oppressively loud dance music soundtrack that I guess was intended to raise the excitement level. Most people watched calmly and went on their way afterwards without fanfare or any particular sense of occasion, just like people look a fine art in a museum and, lacking context and education to appreciate what they’re seeing, think “um, check, saw it — next!” (The audience did erupt a bit at the end when the traditional crescendo marks the opportunity to witness not merely blowing up shit but blowing up a lot of shit at once.) Of course, that doesn’t stop drivers in the vicinity of fireworks from stopping in the middle of the road to watch or weaving wildly as they crane their necks in an attempt to drive and watch simultaneously. July 4 is a very dangerous night to be on the road (which I’ve experienced too many times).

My favorite fireworks memories are playing American marches under the night sky during fireworks. Since I was playing, I didn’t get to see much, but it felt good, patriotic. Fireworks at the end of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, another familiar tradition, never seemed as fun. A few years ago, I played a concert where the end-of-show fireworks were sent up directly over the orchestra. The proximity was just too close, and it ruined my favorable associations with fireworks, just like the time I stupidly lit a too-short firecracker fuse, which promptly blew up in my hand and had my ears ringing for hours. Dumb, dumb, dumb ….

  1. Brutus, I wouldn’t have guessed you like fireworks! It must feel great to join in the spirit. Imagine feeling patriotic; that’s eluded me my whole life. I’m a stickler when it comes to public oaths and have yet to find many who share my annoyance at certain displays and pleasure at others, the pleasures usually occurring in small spaces or little, intermittent bursts. Few things rub me as wrong as forced glee, which all too often is the best I can muster.

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