One thought ahead. Two sentences behind.

The 4th


When it comes to The 4th of July, there was only one thing on my mind growing up – fireworks.  Thoughts of freedom did not come into focus when balloons of cascading color exploded in the sky.  Thoughts of independence did not hold a candle to the shooting sparks of silver dancing across the front lawn.  Thoughts of what our forefathers sacrificed were hardly remembered when the night turned to day and it was fantastic.

I still remember the summer of ’76.  With concerts, parades, picnics and marching bands, the United States was gripped in a full, festive spirit.  Even my hometown of Sioux Falls, SD commemorated the nation’s bicentennial by placing a time capsule under the statue of Michelangelo’s David. *

*A replica that caused such a stir some town members either wanted David fully clothed in bib overalls or halfway submerged in the Big Sioux River.

It was a grand time to be alive.  Everybody wore red, white and blue.  Everybody showed their patriotic colors.  It was almost impossible not to be patriotic.  The United States was celebrating two hundred years of freedom and not many countries had done the same.  It was the right time to be alive and living in a small town.  Even I felt a sense of pride as my heart swelled in my chest and climbed into my throat when I sat in the grandstand of the city’s fairgrounds and watched:


The spinning, twisting, ever-changing colors flaring into multiple directions…

The subsonic booms bouncing from building to building, pounding deep into the chest…

The full-bloom of an electric lotus…

The snake-like sizzles that twist and turn, criss-crossing into a dying crackle…

The single white flare that climbs and climbs then silently fills the night like a neon Ferris wheel…


Nothing could possibly top watching the fireworks for the first time except for one thing: lighting the fireworks yourself.

The state of South Dakota had a pretty lax policy when it came to buying fireworks.  Basically, anything could be purchased except for shoulder-fired missiles and hand grenades.  I’m not kidding.  There were actually some fireworks that were relabeled sticks of dynamite.  South Dakota allowed such a free range of fireworks that most stores were located right on the border so neighboring states could buy enough explosives to level a pole barn.

This laissez-faire attitude towards destruction never extended to my parents.  We could buy fireworks, but nothing that could send chucks of cement flying into the air.  So instead of getting our hands on M-80’s and Turbo Bottle Rockets, I had to spend my hard-earned money on:


Snaps that popped if you threw them against a hard surface…

Bombs that released plumes of purple, green or blue smoke…

Lady Fingers that sounded as loud as your aunt cracking her back…

Snakes that poured forth funnels of black carbon…

Roman Candles that shot multi-colored sparks a whole twelve inches into the air…

Battle Tanks that rolled two inches, shot flames from the gun turret and went kaput…


Oh, how I longed to launch a couple of Turbo Bottle Rockets into those disabled tanks, but not on my parent’s watch.  They were wise enough to know that I was at a certain age of destruction.  So I made do with what I had.


Whenever I lit a harmless sparkler, I ran like a Kamikaze Pilot…

Whenever I lit a Lady Finger, I lit the whole pack…

Whenever I lit a Snake, I stacked twenty tablets on top of each other to create a spiraling mess…

Whenever I lit the Battle Tanks, I faced them towards each other…

 And whenever it came to the Bombs, I pretended they were hand grenades and always launched them towards unsuspecting victims…


It was a thrill to see such a relatively harmless firework cause panic on unsuspecting victims.  But I should have used a little more common sense and not picked my parents.  I should have been smarter, but maybe I was a mad when I lit a Bomb, stepped out from behind a tree and launched it towards my parents as they walked to their car.

Now, my dad knew that I didn’t have any fireworks to harm a butterfly, but that did not stop his instincts from taking over when he saw the high-arc of purple smoke streaming towards him.  He grabbed my mom, and as their bodies collapsed into a bed of grass, I knew that they would never let me touch a matchbook let alone another firework as long as I lived.

After those reckless days, the 4th failed to capture my full attention.  It wasn’t a planned demise.  The fireworks display may have gotten bigger and better but in them were kernels of previous years.

I still remember sitting on the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol, watching fireworks being launched to a montage of patriotic songs.  It was by far the most impressive display I had ever seen.  But the only thought that went through my mind was how long it would take to get to my car when the thousands of people around me decided to do the same.

Gone were the days when the 4th filled me with awe.  Gone were the moments where my swelled heart moved into my throat.  Instead, a slight dread resided, knowing it would take me the remainder of the summer to get out of Saint Paul.

And that’s how it went.  The years rolled by, the 4th kept coming and watching fireworks became a civic duty like voting for president or cheating on your taxes.  You went to watch the fireworks because that’s what you did.  Then my curiosity perked when friends and family suggested Powderhorn Park.

Powderhorn is not the first or second option one would pick when it comes to watching fireworks in the Twin Cities.  Boom Island, Lake Minnetonka, these are the places that draw the crowds, but Powderhorn?

Going to Powderhorn at night would normally not be a smart play, but since the fireworks display was a city-sponsored event, we went because we knew the police would be there and more importantly, parking would not be a problem.

As we entered the park, I immediately felt the festive vibe.  It was as if we crashed a U.N. party as friends and family from different cultures ate and played on the terraced slopes that descended to a small lake.  And next to the lake played a reggae band played a laid-back beat.  The funky shouts of freedom and war rolled up the slopes and swayed the crowd.

This was not a traditional 4th of July event.  The people who came to this park were not from the suburbs of Vadnais Heights and Chanhassen.  They came from lands much further, bringing their own customs and beliefs.  For them the 4th was a brand new affair.

The reggae band finished up as the sun began to set.  So our small group found a place on the slopes and waited for the sky to be lit once again.

Even though I had seen my share of fireworks over the years, the ones now above me looked different.  They were not shot from a lonely island or down a quarter-mile track.  Instead, they were fired from the banks of the tiny lake.  And with our angle, being nestled in the terraced bluffs, it looked like they were right above us.

The crowd was thrilled.  Since most were recent transplants, they did not carry an attitude of “Seen that!” or “Not again!”  No, they were experiencing their own summer of ’76 as their glowing faces changed from red to green, to purple and blue. And at that moment it was hard not to feel patriotic once again.  Where else could such a diverse group come together as a collective whole?  Not Gorky Park, not Tiananmen Square, but here in South Minneapolis at Powderhorn Park.  People from Morocco and Mexico…  Ethiopia and Liberia…  Russia and Croatia…  Peru and Honduras…  Vietnam and Laos…

Even in our small group we had friends from India and Costa Rica.  Even I was only a generation removed from being a Polish war refugee.  We were all transplants from another time and another place and we came to this New World because a bunch of renegades no longer wanted to pay taxes on their tea if it didn’t involve their representation within the royal realm.

I’ve never really understand those who are opposed to immigration.  Maybe I am partial because my Grandma never lost her Old World accent.  I not only see immigrants as a good thing but vital to all our well-being.    They are the ones who bring a new energy.  They are the ones to revitalize overlooked neighborhoods.  They are the ones who open boarded-up shops.  They are the ones who take the jobs no one else wants.  But more than anything, they are the ones who still show the excitement of an eight year old who sees a fireworks display for the very first time.

As quickly as they started, the fireworks reached a loud crescendo.

Then quiet…

A few people got up from the terraced slopes and headed home, but most remained.

The night air was more comfortable than a stuffy apartment or sun-baked home.  It felt nice to sit on those blankets, overlooking a quiet lake under a bed of smoky stars.

I don’t know how long we would have stayed.  The opportunity did not present itself when the police moved in.

Foot patrols and squad cars entered the park.  Even a helicopter hovered above and swept a powerful beam.

The cops moved in because the park had officially closed.  But why slam the door?  There was no rioting or mayhem.  Sure, there may have been alcohol, illegal fireworks and weed amidst the crowd, but not nearly as much as any police break room.

Our small group watched with disbelief as the police corralled groups of people and escorted them out of the park.  Then our turn came as a squad car drove past, shined a heavy beam and ordered us to leave.

It’s a delicate balance is it not: liberty vs. protection; welcoming immigrants while thwarting those who wish to do us harm.  I still think this is a great land, perhaps the best, but we as its caretakers should always remember what separate us from the nations whose citizens leave for greener shores.



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