Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Safe and Sane Fourth

For the last several years we missed the impressive Town-Gown Fourth of July Fireworks display mounted in our community, and we were on schedule to miss it again. Our fecklessness and indolence bear some responsibility, but so do the unknown civic organizers. One fairly predictable thing about a Fourth of July event, in my opinion, should be that it take place on the Fourth of July. But here the town fathers, most of whom are mothers, have adopted a Precept of Approximation according to which the Second of July will do just as well—in fact, even better. So there we were about nine o’clock on a Saturday night, contemplating the prospective comfort of bed, when several loud boom-boom, ka-boom-boom-boom noises, emanating from the west, rattled the house.

I must pause to say a couple more words about our house. It is in most respects a splendid house, but it has one serious liability: a flat roof. The academic architect who designed it long before our tenancy was apparently dreaming of summers in Marrakesh, or maybe Bristow, California. Flat roofs are not recommended for central Jersey. Quite apart from its intermittent failures, I spend too much time on the roof, sweeping away debris and trying to keep the gutter spouts clear. For this reason there is usually a ladder leaning against it.

"Take me to your ladder.  I'll see your leader later."

A second point is this. Until about a year ago there was a huge linden tree that blocked out most of the skyline west of the house, but it blew down in the Tornado of Twenty Ten, missing the house by inches.

As is well known, it is an ill wind that blows no good. Joan, who is quite acute at seeing unlikely connections, intuited a way to combine two deficits—a flat roof and a lost linden—to create an unanticipated asset. “Let’s climb up on the roof and watch the fireworks,” she said. And we did so. The prospect of two septuagenarians with waning eyesight (one of them in his bedroom slippers) clambering in the dark up a ladder to roam around their roof is perhaps not one to make the heart of an insurance adjuster sing. But for the septuagenarians themselves, who after all were the principals, it was a tuneful experience indeed, and one that brought to mind madcap ventures jointly undertaken half a century ago in and about Oxford University.

The view was perfect, like a carefully cropped I-photo that isolates the essentials and discards the distracting periphery. A darkened tree line blocked out all but the upper reaches of the rockets’ ascent and the pyrotechnical bursts themselves. Only as the scintillating fragments were falling did we hear the reports of the explosions that had sent them skyward, followed by faint and muffled oohs and aahs of spectators so unfortunate as not to have their own distant rooftop from which to watch. The effect was, in a pleasing way, rather like that of my misbehaving Samsung 630 television set, from the screen of which a lean and dapper young man silently moves his lips, then purses them emphatically, after which the set says “I’m Alan Cumming, and this is Masterpiece Mystery.” It was an experience that vindicates Saint Augustine’s theory of the primacy of sight in the hierarchy of the senses.

I grew up in a climate of pyrotechnical deprivation. Our idea of a big Fourth of July time down on the farm was to explode a couple of blasting caps with .22 rifle shots. Blasting caps were used (and I assume still are) to make a small explosion sufficient to encourage a huge explosion in a pack of dynamite. The origin of these caps was mysterious. They were generally attributed by my uncle to “a guy I know at the quarry”. If they were the “wrong” kind, they couldn’t be detonated by percussion at all. But the “right” ones did make a hell of a noise.

the Royal Fireworks of 1749 threatened to burn London down

I had heard of cherry bombs and ladyfingers, but I could only fake familiarity with the exotic names of devices sometimes invoked by my classmates. No doubt a comprehensive investigation of these names would yield an interesting study A few years ago, when I was working on some eighteenth-century musical materials, a librarian friend directed me to one of our library’s treasures: the original printed schedule for the Royal Fireworks of 1749, ostensibly celebrating the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, for which Handel wrote his deathless music. The list is an orgy of technical terms deriving, apparently, from the nomenclature of battlefield artillery, already greatly developed by the middle of the eighteenth century. The were no Black Mambas or Whistling Busters, but practically anything else you can buy today on the Tennessee interstates is there.

My first experience of real fireworks was deliciously unreal. It was in the wonderful Hitchcock film To Catch a Thief (1955), which is about upscale criminality on the Riviera. In it there is a memorable scene in which literal and metaphorical fireworks spice up an encounter between Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. Its effect on my adolescent consciousness was to render the national American holiday permanently if subliminally erotic.

in congress assembled