I walked with my wife through the streets of Oakland on the Fourth of July. Around us, bombs were bursting in the air and we were bathed on the rockets' red glare. She grabbed my arm and enthused mightily at this moment. We were at ground zero for freedom. No one was swooping in to take all this fun and fire away. There were no prowling patrol cars looking for the odd firecracker or stray pop bottle rocket. This was a free-fire zone that started up well before sundown and reached its peak sometime after eleven o'clock, but kept up an ever-diminishing pop and bang until the very wee hours of the following morning. Happy Fifth of July, observed.
As we strolled through the exploding streets, I felt myself drawn time and again to the prohibition that was in full effect: "Safe and sane" were the only types of fireworks allowed by state and city ordinance. That wasn't what we were meandering through. This was pretty insane and not particularly safe. Everything I need to know about fireworks I learned from my older brother who read a series of warnings off several pieces of pyrotechnic. "Light and run away." Two separate actions, but both were intrinsic to the process. Lighting would necessitate the running away part, and if you forgot that part, you pretty much got what was coming to you. The running away part was what I focused on for my formative years. It wasn't until I was well into my teens before I realized that I really needed both hands to light a fuse and I couldn't really spare one finger to keep squished in my ear in anticipation of things blowing up. Sticking around long enough to make sure the fuse was lit caused its own flurry of misfires. As I grew older and more experienced in lighting and running away, I became more cavalier and daring. Read: stupid. Cones that spit sparks and fire should not be set off on apartment balconies. Pop bottle rockets should not be fired indoors and almost as certainly not at your roommate. Festival Balls should be launched from their cardboard mortar tubes, not left to skitter off down the street and explode underneath a parked car. These three examples are known violations of the marginally safe and barely sane ethos I learned to apply to my recreational pyrotechnics. I never did put one of these on top of my head and set one off.
A twenty-two-year-old guy from Maine did that and he died. Instantly. Then there was NFL star defender Jason Pierre-Paul who suffered severe burns on his hands, apparently unable to use those highly conditioned reflexes to do those two things that would have made his Fourth of July one he could remember without visible scarring. In both instances, there was a third element that brought back more hazy memories: heavy drinking. As indestructible as most twenty-somethings consider themselves, after they have consumed their weight in beer, they believe that they are made of Kevlar. Which gave me some ideas about how next year's stroll through the neighborhood might be more relaxing.