Say ‘fireworks’ to most any soul on the planet – child or adult – and there will follow a fountain, a vivid geyser, of story. The pyrotechnics celebrated in lore and poetry are rooted after all in spiritual struggle: their boom and flash created to drive away shades of misery and misfortune. But they end up transfixing us mortals even more – and not only as evanescence. A filigree wonder etches itself into memory.
Every year when Indian Independence Day approached our town (August 15), as children we would wander the bazaar browsing the lady-fingers, the cherry bombs and roman fountains in search of a rumored rocket, it was said, that could arc across the sky and explode into an icon of Jawaharlal Nehru himself. Alas, the Father of Modern India passed away before the magic could be perfected. But the rocket-that-never-was still leaves its trace across earnest dreams.
Those dreams often lead to the state-line rocket vendors who huddle along certain stretches of American interstate highways. It’s amazing what savvy can do with gunpowder. As I wandered such a supermarket of sizzle, the unstable merchandise wrapped in garish color and tinsel (what someone called ‘a deafening Christmas in July’), I noticed a burly gentleman keeping watch at the exit. At his waist, under a camo jacket, lurked a snub-nosed side arm. It then dawned on me how delicate were the surrounding variables. A single attempt to restore order in this gunpowder world would turn a tranquil corner of Carolina into a smoking crater. We fled to the parking lot and drove away without so much as a backward glance.
Our travels took us one year on the 4th of July to the lake country town of Brainerd, Minnesota once home to the Ojibwe who lived along the upper reaches of the Mississippi. Outside town, state highway 371 leads north past Fleet Farm and Target toward Nisswa skirting the edge of a lake – an ideal spot for holiday fireworks. There, hundreds of holiday-makers had crowded the highway shoulder on a steamy summer night. As the extravaganza proceeded, the sky festooned with streams of fire, a rival drama began to announce itself in the west, first, storm flashes and then the murmur of thunder. Phones began to light up with warnings about severe weather. Cars began veering out of the orderly line up and roaring away into the darkness. It was apparent that before long there would be mass flight from the fireworks ritual. Something more impressive, more menacing and urgent was brewing. We joined the hasty retreat pulling under the friendly canopy of a gas station as sirens began to wail.
Travelers from Mobile, Corpus Christi, Cheyenne and a dozen other distant cities were cowering midst nervous laughter in an inner hallway of the convenience store. The unstable summer air had birthed a cluster of twisters that were raking the surrounding resorts in real time. Hail began to punish the gas station as the gale had its way with the birches and pines. In time the all-clear sounded as we shook hands all around, taking affectionate leave of those who had been our kin in a God-forbid moment. And no one gave a thought to the upstaged fireworks show that was to have been the center-piece of the evening.
Having driven through the dark woods to our lakeside cabin, stopping now and then to drag fallen branches out of the sandy track, we sat on the dock in the hush of aftermath. The waves had made peace with the shore, and we found ourselves drawn to the silent show swinging high above, the crystal fire of stars and nebulae, the galaxies and gas clouds: the inebriating and primordial pyrotechnics, spectacle of eminent story and witness.