There is no way around it. The 4th of July makes me think of fireworks.
When we were small there were always fireworks in Fair Haven, a town located on Lake Ontario about 8 miles away. We lived on the top of a hill and the distant fireworks just cleared the horizon. So every year we went out to the back yard and watched them small and bright against the falling night.
I would have to say, of course, that dropping bombs in Cambodia on July 4, 1973 was the most unusual type of “fireworks” I have ever seen and certainly the loudest. I wrote to my wife:
“4 July 1973: To celebrate today I am again off to Cambodia to drop some firecrackers and sparklers. I will be glad when the war ends, but it appears that they will be stepping things up now that we have to be out of Cambodia in August.”
If I found myself in combat on Independence Day, I was not the first one is my family to do so.
On July 3, 1863, my great-grandfather Colonel Freeman Norvell (1827-1881) found himself on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in the midst of that most terrible battle. He was not alone, three of his brothers also were at Gettysburg: Major John Mason Norvell, Lt Dallas Norvell, and Major Edwin F. Norvell. One can only imagine the noise of the battle and the realization that the outcome of the fight would determine the fate of the Union. As July 4, 1863 dawned the men of the North realized that they had prevailed. It must have been a very special Independence Day for them.
My own time in combat in 1973 was followed by reassignment to Alaska. Now fireworks in Alaska are never shot off until about 12:30 a.m. in the morning. That is because the sun never really sets in Anchorage in the summer. It becomes dusk and slightly dark and then the sun is back up by 2 a.m. The squadron that I flew with had a policy for returning combat veterans that they didn’t have to sit alert on any holidays that first year. Since aircrews were on air defense alert 24 hours a day every day, it was a nice surprise to be able to enjoy that first Independence day home after the war even if the fireworks went off after mid-night. But even more special to be with my wife and back in the U.S.
As we moved in the Air Force, we discovered that California and Virginia allowed the purchase of small fireworks for home displays. As we lived on the base in California we went to a friend’s home to celebrate; in Virginia we had our own home and along with the neighbors set off small firecrackers and fountains in the street. Much to the delight of our daughters.
The most exciting personal displays occurred at our family camp in Ontario Canada. There you could buy rockets, roman candles, and all kinds of explosives. My sister loved to purchase a large selection and as the night settled in at camp, she would have her husband set them off over the lake. Sometimes things went well and sometimes the fireworks seemed to have the upper hand. I always worried that someone would set himself on fire, but if he did, as least he could dive in lake. That never happened.
Americans mark their lives by holidays: where they were, what they did, and of course who they shared them with. We remember them when we are little and our parents seem to always be there. We remember them when we are far away. And we remember those who are now gone that made them special.
Those 4th of July celebrations are in many ways the most precious of all.