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Star Spangled Bangers July 5, 2009

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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I wouldn’t say that I’m fascinated by fireworks. Compulsion is probably a better word to describe New Year’s 2000, sticking Roman candles into a bucket not of sand but of loose snow in my backyard in Fargo, N.D. I don’t think it was exceptionally cold: probably hovering within ten degrees of zero give or take. When I lived up north I had to remember to buy enough Roman candles and fountains and rockets to have some left over for New Years and store them carefully in the garage. Fireworks are not a big tradition in the frigid New Years night. There is something obsessive about setting off fireworks under those circumstances.

There is something almost religious in my zeal, although I don’t suffer for it living here as I did up north, part of it the ritual nature of shooting off one’s own. First there is the obligatory trip across the river to buy them (as they are illegal in Orleans Parish), taking my son along to initiate him into entire event. I usually purchase the same sort of things: ground blooming flowers (crackling and plain), fountains, Roman candles, the little ground effect items–hens laying eggs, rocket propelled race cars, tanks spitting sparks–that my son loves. I select the items not for their explosions but for their spectacle.

On the trip back the car is filled with the fine silver smell of gunpowder, not the essence of the individual constituents but a smell in its own right. I won’t smoke in the car even though the fireworks are in the back, this small denial allegedly so I don’t set the car on fire but also a part of the liturgy, and so I can breath the aroma and begin to build the anticipation. Like any pleasure which must be deferred–dinner before seduction, waiting patiently for cocktail hour–the build up enhances the satisfaction of the ultimate moment.

Then comes dusk. Perhaps it’s just my German ancestry that makes the preparation and presentation as carefully choreographed as a fine meal or a high mass. The fireworks are laid out in such a place and such a way to make them easy to select and keep them away from stray sparks. I chose the pieces in certain orders not only for variety but also so that one thing flows naturally into the next: first a few of my son’s sparkling cars, them some ground blooming flowers leading up to the fountains. A break for beer, bathroom, and more ground blooming flowers while we wait for everyone to reassemble and the cycle repeats until all of the fountains are gone. The Roman candles, my one remaining fascination with aerial effects, come last.

There is a ritual aspect to the lighting as well: carefully unfolding the red paper to find the green fuse, placing the item just so in the street (checking the overhead wires, and for oncoming cars), then kneeling before it with a cigarette or smoldering punk in hand to light the fuse. Then I stand up, bent over slightly to watch that the fuse is good as I step back carefully and watch the sparking light disappear into the tube or box and wait for the powder to ignite.

Then comes the reward: the first small sparks and the whistling hiss of the escaping gas as the colored cinders launch up and out, the plain yellow of the burning powder turned to flowering blues and greens, reds and violets by the mix of powdered metals, the sharp snapping and popping and occasional big bang of the reports. Good fireworks have an arc of presentation, the initial trail of sparks building as colors are added onto colors and the tiny explosions of the crackling fountains and loud report of the Roman candles popping off high in the air.

God, I love it.

So the same preoccupation that sends me over the bridge to Gretna twice a year to buy fireworks will find me on the river levee Fourth of July waiting for the big show. My own little presentation is really just the appetizer for the big event, for the carefully choreographed presentation over the river. New Years is a bit more complicated. I will buy fireworks of my own, but my preference is to stay by the house for the more atavistic Mid-City Bonfire. On that night the fireworks just over the tree tops down the site line of Orleans Avenue are just a side show, although the street in front of my house will be littered with the charred shells of one firework or another. The big show is the great blaze of Christmas trees.

When we lived in Washington, D.C. we of course had the big national show, although it was difficult for plain folk to get close enough to see the orchestra it was piped in at various spots along the mall to you could hear the music. My wife remarked last night that it just didn’t seen as fine with out the Boston Pops banging out the 1812 Overture. But as we wandered back down the Algiers levee the riverboat Natchez calliope let loose with Stars and Stripes Forever just behind the batture trees, so everyone was pleased.

When we lived up north public fireworks were exclusively a Fourth of July event, and we first lived in then kept a boat at a small town called Detroit Lakes which hosted a passable show. Mostly the town was overrun on Independence Day by teenagers and 20-somethings in search of the beach party once written up by Playboy as great destination. The locals lived in fear of this event, stretching what we called up there snow fence (that orange webbing you see around construction excavations) across their yards to keep people from defecating, making love or just passing out on their laws.

I found the whole thing pretty tame but then I was used to Mardi Gras Day downtown. I would sit on the stoop of my 1910s house just up the block from the lake and watch the crowds pass back and forth. And of course, come fireworks time, we would wander down to the lake shore with all the other families. After we moved up to Fargo we would watch it from the cockpit of my little 18-foot sailboat Tchoupitoulas parked in the Detroit Lakes marina. (There were just too many damn pontoons rafted up in the lake all day for a late comer to try and get a decent spot).

Now I get my fix of large pyrotechnics on the Mississippi River levee if only once a year now but I also remember the time before riverfront redevelopment when the holiday fireworks were a feature at Pontchartrain Beach and were watched instead from the levees along the lakefront. Fireworks on the river are tied to the World’s Fair of 1984 and the subsequent redevelopment. The Moon Walk was built in the 1970s but until the downtown wharves began to be replaced with the open promenades and shopping gazebos there was simply no place to put all the crowds.

As I’ve grown older there is a memory that always comes to me as I watch the fireworks over the water. Some quick arithmetic tells me it was New Year’s 1967 somewhere along Lakeshore Drive with my family, a boy of 10 who marveled at what looked to him like the explosions of distant stars. While we waiting in the gathering dark I was talking to my father, and we wondered what the fireworks on New Years would look like in the year 2000, at the turn of a millennium. We wondered how long and loud and extravagant such a display would be. And we figured out that in the year 2000, I would be exactly the same age as my father was that day–45–and would probably be sitting with my own son watching the show.

When 2000 came, there was no big fireworks show in Fargo, N.D. Instead my family watched me crowded around a basement window in the fireplace room, kneeling in a row on the sofa as I ventured out into the white-breath shivering night in Fargo to put on my own little show. It was not extravagant by any means. A handful of fountains and two packs of Roman candles. I knew as early as July that I would be the only fool out in the cold, and I wanted the extra Roman candles not only for my neighbors to hear but to be able to see the stars bursting overhead if they stepped outside to figure out who was crazy enough to be out in that weather lighting fireworks.

That would be me. I just can’t help it.

July 4th, 2009 July 4, 2009

Posted by The Typist in 8-29, Federal Flood, je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA, Sinn Fein, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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On this day, I will remember the heroism of the Coasties and the moment Lt.Gen. Russel L. Honore told the soldier at the Convention Center “put down that rifle, son. This is a relief mission.” I will remember the tens upon tens of thousands of good Americans who have come on their own time and their own expense to rebuild a city.

And I will remember that at first the Guard came with rifles and no water and until Honore came they watched the people die in fear and horror because no one in command could figure out what to do. And I will remember the photograph of the elderly woman at the Convention Center, her body hidden beneath the American flag. I will remember the other pictures I have seen of bodies hidden under flags torn down to cover them because after the storm the flags were still there.

I will remember it wasn’t much of a storm here in town (never forgetting the rest of the coast, the Hiroshima barrenness of Waveland) but instead that here the Federal levees failed. And I will remember that this city has largely been rebuilt by the survivors and those church groups and earnest college kids while the central government discovers new ways not to compensate us for the failure of their works. I will remember they rebuilt Hiroshima, and did not need fraternities and church clubs from the Midwest to do so.

And through all these thoughts I will join the tens of thousands of others and Go Fourth on the River to watch the fireworks because if you detect feelings of ambivalence here you are fucking well right, but America is not something I left behind because I think I’m so damned smart and Euro-leftie-sophisticated. It is something that was brutally taken from me, the last illusions torn away by the Federal Flood and its never ending aftermath. I still miss it sometimes.

So I will stand on the river levee and watch the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air here on this transient earth in the only place to which I can honestly and without reservations still pledge allegiance: New Orleans.

You may roast your weenies. We will boil our shrimps. Eh la bas.

Goodnight, America July 4, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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Fifteen thousands watts of oral circular polarization. That’s what he said, right? Ten hut!

Is this a great country? Or what?

“Why don’t the Pentacles keep their evil spirits away?”
— Jourma Kaukoken