New York has much better fireworks, I'm sure, although up till then I had only ever seen backyard fireworks that you had to go across the city limits to buy: they were illegal in Sioux Falls but not in Minnehaha Country. Everyone's family only ever bought the safest assortment: Roman candles, snakes, sparklers & maybe one cone with a little pizzazz.
In 2007, my birthday fell on the Chinese New Year, and for once, fireworks were legally allowed to be set off in Chinatown. What a thrill to walk just a few blocks and get both fireworks and birthday at one & the same time.
Fireworks are like birthdays. You grab ‘em as they go by—or you don’t—and if you miss them, that’s it, the carousel doesn’t wallop you around again anytime soon. Look up! Look up, they’re bright, surprising, free, and like my niece said (when she was 3, about pink), they “mean nothing.” They mean nothing the way lenticular clouds, or a poem in a bus, or spaghetti with oil and garlic mean nothing—that is, they mean as much as they need to. Hating birthdays is like hating fireworks is like hating all the little joys that give life beauty & mystery.
Fireworks were invented in China, no later than the 7th century, and China is still the largest manufacturer and exporter in the world. Fireworks use noise, light, smoke, and floating materials (such as confetti) to get their effects. They may burn with flames and sparks of many colors.
On the Bicentennial, in 1976, I was hitchhiking home to Maine, and all across Pennsylvania on the highway saw red, white, and blue skies from every distant little town.
Philip Butler, who married into the Grucci family, said in the National Geographic that after 30 years in the fireworks business the closest he could come to explaining the appeal of fireworks is that we humans have a primal attraction to fire. “If you go on a camping trip you must have a campfire and you are mesmerized by it,” he said. “That is the same attraction we put in the sky with colors and it does the same thing. During the show people are mesmerized.”
Maybe 20 years ago, my friend Maggie & I were bike-riding in lower Manhattan. I remember asking the cops why the FDR Drive was blocked to traffic. The Gruccis were commemorating some event but no one was sure what, just that it wasn’t the Brooklyn Bridge centennial or quasquicentennial. In any event, we had a front-row view from the drive along with a handful of other people. The most beautiful and memorable effect I ever saw was their spangled waterfall pouring down from the Bridge.