Playing With Fire

I’m a fireworks fanatic. But I want my pyrotechnics the way some folks want their government hand-outs: abundant and free.

There should be bombs – plural – bursting in air and rockets redly glaring in dizzy profusion and boisterous joy. I want the sky lit to the horizon in a tumult as fun and exuberant as the freedom we once had. Wheels and fountains and Roman candles and shot cakes, cascading through the night, dazzling the heavens and our eyes and ears as they limn a liberty dearer than life. Optimally, the Declaration is recited against this background, but I haven’t yet figured out how to hear it over the thrilling thunder.

We lived for about a decade in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, a working-class neighborhood near Coney Island. Each year, its large Italian population matched my fervor for fireworks. The first firecrackers exploded on the afternoon of July 3, in broad daylight. From then until nightfall the next day, they multiplied in number, extravagance, and joy. The zenith occurred about 10 PM on July 4, when every foot of the firmament blazed with white stars, serpentine tails, red, white and blue sparklers, spirals, cones. We would stand on the roof of our apartment building, mouths agape and necks craned, slowly revolving to savor the giddy and wild wonder of it. No matter where we looked for the next few hours, the sky laughed with color, life, happiness. The fact that all of this was illegal only made it more rapturous. What better way to commemorate the greatest rebellion in world history than to flout Leviathan’s silly little taboos?

Contrast that with the tame, choreographed fireworks beloved by municipalities across the country. After my years in Sheepshead Bay, I find these oh-so-professional displays not only boring but insulting. They are the State’s sop to slaves, more akin to the Roman Empire’s bread and circuses than to John Adams’ famous prescription for celebrating the Fourth. Radiation Outbursts, Monster Sparklers, and Armageddons tamely wait their turn to perform at Our Rulers’ command. All that power, all that glory, biding its place in line, as controlled as the sheeple who throng to watch. Line up, shuffle into the park after a punk rifles your bag in a warrantless search, sit down between the ropes where the cops tell you to, no bottles or glass allowed – I’d rather stay home.

In a further tyrannical twist this year, a community on Long Island’s beachfront banned not only unofficial fireworks but refrained from even the official ones yesterday. It seems the piping plover, an endangered shore bird, might be further endangered by Leviathan’s weak-kneed imitation of a genuine fireworks extravaganza. The village’s government cited a Federal law prohibiting fireworks within 3/4’s of a mile of a plover’s nest, so the pyrotechnics were cancelled this year. This pitted the citizens who figure even thralls are entitled to their circus against those who ascribe to the environmentalist faith. One resident in the former camp publishes a newspaper; he printed a recipe for grilled plover, reasoning that if the birds are extinct next year, the fireworks will be reinstated. But I’d rather grill bureaucrats: “Who are you to dictate to me?” and “Why should I ask, ‘Father, may I?’ every time I want to light a Roman candle?”

Dangerous, risky, exciting, glorious. Like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And, like them as well, fireworks are increasingly stifled by the government they so effortlessly outshine.

July 5, 2005