As happens around the 4th of July every year, the papers told again the story of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dying on the same Independence Day. I noticed a few of them mentioned that one or the other of the great men heard the fireworks that day, and I thought, that’s pretty rich; the Revolutionary War was then within living memory, yet people were celebrating by mimicking the bombardments that carried off a lot of their loved ones.
Actually in Philadelphia they’d been blowing off fireworks since a year after they signed the Declaration. On July 4, 1777, a contemporary account had it, “The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Everything was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal.”
The war had six more years to go, and some of these boys were going to hear real bang-bangs soon enough, and get arms, legs, and lives taken off by them. Our forefathers were made of sterner stuff. They also drank beer and cider all day and their life expectancy was about 34 years — oh, and the rich ones kept slaves, so while I admire them I don’t feel we’re letting the side down if we don’t replicate every single one of their values.
But I’m American enough that I like loud noises. Fireworks are legal in the District and plywood stands selling them, crammed into corners of parking lots, do brisk business in the last weeks of June. Pandemic July was a quieter than previous years but this one was lit. I dropped by the Mall to see the first post-COVID fireworks crowd gather. The people mainly seemed happy to have a real public spectacle to attend. They sprawled on blankets, read, played cards, ate picnic lunches. The spectators nearest the Washington Monument, the front row so to speak, were pretty well jammed up, but the crowding eased as you went back toward the Capitol, and some folks just said fuck it and hung around the Congressional reflecting pool and even further back on Capitol Hill, content with the beautiful summer weather and to share it with friends and be part of an old-fashioned festivity.
I left before the show and in time for the local amateur fireworks, which were awesome — not as elegant or consistent as that of the pros, but spirited and persistent. As soon as I passed Union Station the bombardment was constant — firecracker rain-showers, M-80 thunderclaps, skyrocket blossoms, and clouds of smoke. One of several set-ups was on the traffic island bordered by 14th Street NE, Tennessee Avenue and E Street; a flight of missiles and rockets would blast off and, as the pile smoldered, shadowy figures would creep in with fresh ordnance as locals watched in silent approval from corners, stoops, and retaining walls. In dozens of such stands they churned out explosions for hours, winnowing around midnight.
Thousands of dollars went into it — and it’s not like there’s a lot of disposable income among the architects of the fête — all because, like Andalusian penitentes and Sardinian trick riders, it’s what they do because they’ve always done it. There’s something noble about that. Something else I like about it: Six months ago we had a bunch of assholes try and overturn the election at the Capitol, but that didn’t put a pall on our fireworks. Despite its revolutionary provenance, the Fourth can’t be commandeered by any jerkoff with a Gadsden flag. It’s good to know.