The rockets’ red glare. The bombs bursting in air.
These words from Francis Scott Key’s poem reflected his observation of the British siege of Fort McHenry in Chesapeake Bay in September of 1814.
These days they could just as easily describe any Fourth of July just about anywhere in the country.
Americans love their fireworks. Last year, we lit some 175 million pounds of fireworks. That’s a lot of bottle rockets. The fireworks industry reports annual sales of some $940 million. That’s pretty remarkable given the number of places fireworks are illegal to use, or even to possess, such as right here in Enid.
Fireworks have long been a passion of mine. During my childhood, they were sweet forbidden fruit, enjoyed in small, tantalizing bites, and only with heavy parental supervision.
I love the thrill of lighting the fuse, the snap, pop, fizzle as it burns down and the exhilarating “bang” it produces, or not, depending upon whether or not it is a dud.
I even love the smell, the nose-assaulting stench of burning sulfur.
Fireworks, however, very nearly led me to a life of crime.
We were on a family vacation, my parents and I, driving from our house in Michigan to my father’s family home in Minnesota, but going by the northern route, which took us around the shore of Lake Superior.
It was a glorious trip, the weather cool, the scenery wonderful, but I didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was that we were going to buy fireworks and smuggle them back into the U.S.
OK, perhaps smuggle is too harsh a word. Or maybe not.
At any rate, on the day we crossed back into the U.S. in northern Minnesota, we waited in a line of cars as we approached the border checkpoint.
The fireworks were safely stashed in the trunk. One by one, the cars passed through the checkpoint, until it was our turn.
The immigration official began by asking if we had anything to declare. My father said no. It was all I could do to keep from blurting out a tearful confession, hoping for a reduced sentence.
Then they asked us where we were born. My mom told them she was born in Erie, Pa. I nearly came unglued. She was born in Easton, Pa. I figured by the time they added lying to a government official onto the charges of smuggling a couple of packages of Black Cats back from the Great White North, I wouldn’t get out of the slammer until I was old, gray and wrinkled — at least 40 or so.
The immigration guy looked us over, glanced at me in the back seat, and waved us on. I nearly cried with relief. But I spent the rest of the day looking out the rear windshield for a pantheon of flashing lights that would signal the end of our flight to freedom. Thankfully they never came, but as I shot off those fireworks that Fourth on the family farm, I watched for police behind every tree.
Many years later, when I was old, gray and wrinkled — at least 40 or so — we spent the Fourth of July with some friends outside Ponca City.
Where their house sat, fireworks were legal, so we loaded up and prepared for an evening of sanctioned, if not particularly safe, pyrotechnics.
There were four adults and two kids. My bride spent the evening in the house with the smallest child, a boy, who was frightened by the noise. The rest of us set about trying to blow up everything in sight.
We had purchased one of those big fountain things with all kinds of fireworks bound together in the center. We lit the fuse and waited, but nothing happened. We kind of poked at it with a stick. Still nothing. So we walked up to it, bent over and stared, as if that would somehow help.
There we were, three allegedly sane and reasonable adults (we made the little girl stay back), with their faces just inches above a device packed with at least half a pound of gunpowder. I guess the old saying that God watches out for fools is true, after all.
Sometime later, with the smoke of exploded ordnance hanging low as the dusk drew itself around us like a shroud, someone pulled out a tiny rocket, not two inches long, set it on the ground, resting on its little plastic fins, and lit the fuse.
At that precise instant, the rocket tipped over and, instead of shooting straight up into the air and exploding in a shower of patriotic glory, suddenly tracked like a guided missile straight toward my friend.
And its target was quite specific, the most private, most sensitive part of his anatomy.
He began scrabbling backward faster than most people can run forward, trying to avoid the tiny flying terror. The rocket missed him, thankfully, and it exploded harmlessly, while his wife and I collapsed in paroxysms of helpless laughter. He was not amused.
That said, for God’s sake, be careful if you are going to fool with fireworks this Fourth. In 2012, American hospital emergency rooms treated an estimated 8,700 people for fireworks-related injuries. In 2011, fireworks caused an estimated 17,800 reported fires nationwide, including 1,200 structure fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Go to a professional fireworks display, or at least shoot fireworks under the supervision of a mature, responsible adult. Not me, for crying out loud. We used to have bottle rocket fights when we were kids, and I have had firecrackers go off in my hand more than once.
So enjoy the fireworks, and as you view them, remember Key’s words, especially the part about our flag still being there.
And it is, thank God.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at email@example.com.