Thursday, July 05, 2007

Easy on Those Fireworks

This essay first appeared on the op-ed page of the Chicago Tribune back in 2002. I was going to write a new piece about the proliferation of fireworks displays, but lo and behold I realized I still had this one on my hard drive. It’s five years old but even more applicable today.

On April 26 [2002], the Portland Beavers beat the Iowa Cubs 7-5 in a Pacific Coast League game. The temperature was down in the high 40s by the time the game was over, but a couple hundred of us stuck around anyway to see the post-game fireworks.

And it occurred to me while I was sitting there in a sweatshirt and jacket and hat and gloves that there’s something very strange and disconcerting about watching fireworks on a chilly night in April. In fact, it might be even more strange than the fact that a baseball team from Iowa is playing in the Pacific Coast League.

It’s strange because when I was growing up, fireworks were reserved for special occasions. Well, one special occasion, actually: the Fourth of July. You could see them on the third, too, between movies at the Ben-Hur Drive-in Theater, but for the most part you had to wait until Independence Day itself to ooh and aah over the big professional fireworks. We were told they were expensive as all get out, which is why it was a good thing they were only needed once a year. I don’t have any idea how much fireworks cost in 1970s dollars, but it was enough that we were supposed to feel grateful we got to see any at all. I always imagined we had a choice: one more cannon cracker or a fully staffed fire department for the rest of the year.

Not only did we have to wait a whole year between fireworks displays back then, there were also excruciatingly long character-building intervals between individual rockets. I remember one Fourth when the people in charge shot off one rocket every twenty minutes like clockwork. And you’d hope, watching that rare rocket streak to its apex, that it wouldn’t be another one of those little ones with the tiny explosion and fewer sparks than you could get from a Bic lighter—but that’s generally what it was because that, for the most part, was what the fireworks committee could afford.

Still, though, they’d manage to throw in a huge one now and then, the kind where the sparks shoot out in the shape of a gigantic boutonniere, and the crowd would ooh and aah in legitimate awe. If it was a particularly good display, there would always come a moment when people in the audience realized they were all saying “Ooh” and “Aah” in unison. From then on there would be self-conscious attempts to add other sounds to the mix, like “Ohhh” and “Wow” and “Neato” and what-have-you, but when you’re truly impressed by a fireworks display, nothing really beats or sounds more natural than “Ooh” and “Aah.”

And if you were lucky, there’d be a grand finale.

Some, of course, were grander than others. Depending on the budget.

These days you don’t have to wait a year to see fireworks. (Evidently they aren’t as expensive as they used to be—that or a whole lot of sponsors have a whole lot of money in their explosives budgets.) Minor league teams regularly schedule post-game displays to help get people in the seats (even on chilly nights in April), and you’ll occasionally see them advertised as part of other events that have nothing to do with Independence Day. I don’t know if this is good or bad, although I can say without a doubt that the fireworks themselves have come a long way from what I grew up with. There’s no booster club member taking twenty minutes to set up the launcher and then realizing he’s out of matches, so there’s no waiting between rockets. Today the whole display looks like a hundred grand finales from 25 years ago, one rocket after another, sometimes a dozen going up at once in a non-stop spectacle of dazzling light and tremendous noise. They’re synchronized to music these days, too, usually a medley of stirring, brass-heavy songs from Star Wars or Aaron Copland. You don’t see a lot of fireworks displays set to Leonard Cohen.

But the most strange and disconcerting thought that occurred to me on that chilly night of April 26 is that I’m afraid someday we’ll reach a point of diminishing returns on our expanded fireworks season. I’m afraid someday we won’t even hear the self-conscious oohs and aahs because the most astounding displays will have become too commonplace to astound people anymore. I’m afraid someday we’ll see people leaving the game after the last out because, hey, we saw fireworks last week.

I like the idea of saving fireworks for a special occasion, and wouldn’t mind seeing them with less frequency.

Especially (and I apologize for resorting to this phrase) if it keeps people from being burnt out on them.

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