About ten minutes outside of town, down a long stretch of highway between Saint Louis and Columbia, sits a large, white and yellow striped pop-up tent in a field of unkempt grass.
A cardboard sign the size of a truck bed is leaned against one side of the tent, big enough to be seen by the steady stream of commuter traffic zipping by. It reads Bob’s Fireworks in big red and white letters, and by the looks of things, Bob is doing a-ok.
A dozen dusty vehicles line Bob's makeshift parking lot. Families navigate their way in and out of the tent, the successful ones stumbling out into the hazy sunshine, their arms loaded up with bottle rockets, whistlers, jets, streamers and other certifiably dangerous payloads.
I feel like a kid at Christmas (a hot, muggy Christmas) and I practically leap from the passenger side door before our car rolls to a complete stop. I walk swiftly towards the entrance, gray gravel and dry grass crunch beneath my sandals. I duck down to avoid a low hanging tent flap, step into the space and scan the scene. By the signage plastered all over the tent, one thing is made very clear: there is to be absolutely no smoking at Bob’s.
Walking just behind me is my friend in crime for the weekend, world traveler and novelist, Colin Wright. Earlier in the weekend, I sensed a general ambivalence towards the coming festivities from my companion and now that we were moments away from the most important decision we would make all day, I was determined to drum up some excitement.
I look Colin square in the eyes and point my finger at his chest.
“It's the 4th of July, guy! You gotta get into this!”
“I’m into it!”
I squint at him openly, and assess his level of enthusiasm. He returns my look with his own wide-eyed stare of innocence. After a few seconds, I find his energy level acceptable, so relax my shoulders and break into a wide smile
“Alright! It just so happens that the 4th of July is one of my favorite U.S. holidays, right behind Thanksgiving. Also, I haven’t set off fireworks since I was a kid and I'm psyched!”
I'm really, really psyched.
Since leaving my Oklahoman hometown for college in upstate New York, I’ve only ever lived in close quarter, urban style communities. The cityscape backdrop of my life as an adult is a far cry from the open heartland I had known as a child.
Back then, summers were packed with pick-up games of baseball and frisbee, hiking and camping, sitting on the front porch and watching the storm roll in, or catching fireflies in dusky glass jars stolen from the pantry. On special nights, there were fireworks and backyard BBQ, with crickets singing their little hearts out in the background.
When I was in middle school, the July holiday meant my family and I would drive our old Cadillac across state lines, past acres and acres of cash crop fields, and down little dirt roads into Hayti, Missouri. My grandparents and a few of my aunts, uncles and cousins live there.
When I wasn’t indoors sweating like an ice cube under a magnifying glass, I was running around outside on the property, playing games and exploring. Either that, or riding into town in the bed of one of my cousins’ pickup trucks, buying bags of fireworks, picking up charcoal and sides of pork for the grill. Perfectly imperfect summers. Mysterious and exciting.
This summer, nearly twenty years after those childhood days, I find myself back in Missouri and celebrating the 4th. I’m with friends rather than family, but my feelings now are the same as they were then: eager, excited, jumpy and alert.
At the register for Bob’s, a girl in cut-off shorts and bright blonde hair chews lazily on her gum and eyes us as we move towards the many, many rows of fireworks.
A little brown haired girl snakes between my legs on her way to the tables as another boy hops past me, crowing loudly to his Dad about all the fun to come.
If you've never bought your own fireworks, there is only one thing to know: there are no wrong choices...only questionable ones. Oh! That actually brings me to a second thing to know: read the label.
Picking up box after box after box and you'd be hard pressed to believe any of these fireworks are safe. Do not hold. Do not breathe in. Do not stand near. Do not light?!
When I was little, all that writing might as well have been in another language. All the information I needed was contained in a carefully marketed, beautifully illustrated graphic. Did it have a bald eagle on it? Check. Cool dragon? Awesome. Angry cat? Perfect. Fiery skull? Why isn't this lit yet???
As an adult, all the surgeon general style warnings come sharply into focus. I start to envision lost limbs and charred skin in my mind's eye. However, those thoughts are immediately wiped away as I find myself cracking up at the firework descriptions. It seems that if you’re in the business of selling fireworks (and since all fireworks essentially do the same thing) your only hope to stand out is through a solid sales pitch.
Future Ex-Wife: A lot cheaper to shoot this Future Ex-Wife than your future ex-wife! But like yours, this one is not very colorful but is loud and obnoxious! WOW! $19.99
Or less offensive lines:
Slam the sky with bright breaks from this great set! A great little bag for the budding junior pyro! These are the biggest shells you can legally buy!
As I round my way back towards the entrance, on prominent display are the 'party packs' which combine a number of common fireworks, with different varieties of artillery, matched to different budget needs.
It takes me all of two seconds to decide on the spot to buy Party Pack #6, a middle of the road package standing four feet tall, that promises me “4 Vortex Rockets, 8 Stellar Rockets with whistle and report, 4 Double Report Rockets, 2 Triple Report Rockets, 6 Texas Pop Rockets, 1 Silver Fish Rocket, 2 Supercharge Jet Rockets, 6 Black Cats, 6 boxes of sparklers and 2 boxes of Snaps.”
Colin and I agree to supplement our box of destruction with some individual, one-off fireworks on display.
We load up a small basket with a few bottle rockets, more black cats, a couple of flair packs, some roman candles (at my insistence as they are pivotal to my childhood memories) and a bitchin little rocket ship on plastic wheels. We heft our bounty up to the cash register and close out. I mentally high-five my nine year-old self.
Back in Columbia, the neighbors have already started setting off their supplies, though it’s only 4pm in the afternoon and in bright daylight. To pass the time till golden hour, we get to grillin.
The menu is a simple: Beef franks on fresh potato rolls, elotes (or Mexican-style street corn), lemon and garlic asparagus and homemade mint lemonade.
At around 7pm, with the sun hanging low in the sky and the clouds stretching out over the horizon in a brilliant mixture of muted purples, blues and reds, we head down to the driveway and make ready for war.
I tear, half mad, into the party pack and inspect the goods up close. Bald Eagle? Check. Cool Dragon? Awesome. Angry cat? Perfect. Fiery skull? Why isn't this lit yet???
We keep level heads and decide to start small. I eye Colin sideways and definitely detect a hint of elevated spirits. He’s holding an unlit pack of Black Cats in his hands and it’s practically vibrating.
“My brother and I, we use to get a bunch of Black Cats and then tie them together by their fuses," he murmurs aloud, lost in the past. "Then we’d set them all off at once. It was fun. Plus they're pretty loud."
We burn through a few sparklers and move to some bottle rockets. I stuff the end of one bottle rocket a little too firmly in the ground. Without the ability to fly off into the air, it terrifyingly explodes and smolders on the lawn. We get a cup after that.
Next, we move through the Snaps, the littlest christmas tree of gunpowder play. We toss these Skittles-style fireworks at each other's feet shouting “Dance! Dance!” like they do in old western movies and Looney Tunes cartoons.
We light the rocket ship, which sparks brightly and begins to roll forward. Unfortunately, after two feet, one of it’s wheels melts and the rocket fizzles out, living the remainder of it’s life in a stationary position.
Our first big firework is the Silver Fish, a box with multiple reports the size of my two hands. I place it in the center of the drive, light it and haul ass to the side wall of the house.
The burning fuse disappears into the box and out pours a screaming stream of towering sparks and spiraling smoke. It reaches up twenty feet high before dipping back down to earth, showering the driveway with tiny flecks of light and fire. I grin and giggle like an idiot (Colin lets out one of his signature chuckles) and I dive back into our supplies for more.
We stay at this for a good hour and half, setting off fireworks big and small, lighting up the sky in a series of bright colored blooms. Colin’s family joins us after a while so we fire up more sparklers (and I fire up my Nikon) and we paint our inky surroundings with light.
We make a game of it, trying to see what each person is creating before reviewing my captures. Our light paintings start out as simple shapes but graduate quickly to purposeful forms. Robots, people, dinosaurs, hearts and words all get painted in shimmering sparks of white and gold.
The night is not without incident: one of the larger packs shoots off an errant report in our direction and I bolt in terror, completely blind to my surroundings.
In my panic, I slam into Colin, pinning him against the wall as he simultaneously tries to shield me from becoming a Buzzfeed entry on What Not To Do When Playing With Fireworks.
Afterwards, with the firework pronounced dead and my heart returning to its normal rhythms, I turn to Colin in order to apologize and thank him for his gallantry. He spits out a few spider webs in reply.
Near the end of the night, we gather up our most dangerous shells, the shells too powerful for our little driveway, and walk down the end of the road to the cul-de-sac in the middle of the neighborhood.
Here we join a small group of gathered families, sitting in a haphazard row of plastic lawn chairs, staring up into the night sky.
Many of these families have lived in the town, if not the neighborhood, nearly their entire lives. Converging at the end of the cul-de-sac for the 4th of July is tradition, bringing their little community together every year, to reveal in fire and light.
At the center of the circle is a sad graveyard of riddled with a variety of charred and burned firework boxes. I watch as a lanky teenager in a backwards cap leans down to light a fresh mortar before scampering backwards into the crowd.
Woooom! A powerful jet of blinding light slams into the atmosphere. Riding a fiery line of solid gold, I see a feathered head of blue sparks rip its way up through the sky and burst like a thunderclap in all directions, whiting out the night, setting clouds on fire.
Woosh! Another. Crack! And another. Fwoooom! And another.
Between shells, we chat idly with the neighbors. One woman is propped up in the back of her truck, her legs swollen, recovering from a firework that toppled over and rocketed into her earlier that day.
There’s also whisperings of worst incidents from around the county. It seems that some guy (probably drunk) set off a mortar on top of his head and died. I shudder inwardly.
As the night comes to a close and as I watch light after light burn its way through the sky, I find myself humming America the Beautiful.
“I wonder if they can see this from space,” a woman to my left asks aloud.
“I think they can.” I reply with a grin, imagining the site from the space station, the United States bursting in little flecks of glowing light.
Looking up into the sky through my lens, I press the shutter and freeze every moment I can, capturing them like those lightning bugs in glass jars. All around me, I feel the community knit together. Dad’s pull their son’s close. Mother’s embrace their daughters. Couples lean their heads together. Everyone holds their breath. I snap away into the chaos.
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain...
Click! Beautiful flowers of gold and white burst into puffs of smoke in the still night air...
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
Click! Ten and twenty bright purple and green sparks whistle and spiral into the black abyss...
God shed his grace on thee
Click! A proud shock of red, white and blue streamers fly out of earth and sail across the sky, then return to ground in a majestic hiss of shimmering light.
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
*Additional photo credit: Felicia Williams with sparklers courtesy of Colin Wright.