At 8:47 p.m. Saturday night, my husband and I tossed some bug spray, lawn chairs, bottles of water and our cameras into the car and headed for Emporia State University.
“It’s going to be the best fireworks show yet,” Jim said, as I maneuvered the car into a parking space. Realizing that we were about to walk through Wilson Park, I doused my ankles in bug spray. Luckily for us, we didn’t need the lawn chairs; there was still plenty of room in Welch Stadium.
While I was growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, the only fireworks banned by municipal law were bottlerockets and any explosive the size of an M-80 or larger, which meant that Kansas City, Missouri did big business with all of the KCK folk driving across the river. A week or so before the Fourth, tents and plywood shacks cropped up all over town overnight like mushrooms after a storm. Handmade signs screamed FIREWORKS! and us kids vibrated with excitement.
“Can we get some fireworks? Please dad?” My brother and I asked, year after year.
“Not until the day before,” he almost always said, and we sagged in disappointment.
Finally, the big day came, and dad gave us each $5 to spend at the fireworks stand. It was time for the big question: Quantity, or Quality? For kids aged 10 and under, the answer was almost always quantity.
Some years, we would load up on snaps, which we gleefully threw at each other, and Black Cat firecrackers, which we used to blow up mud puddles and G.I. Joe dolls. (Safety, schmafety.) Some years we tried the prepackaged bags of fireworks, full of weird explosives with Chinese instructions we couldn’t decipher, and could only guess at what they would do.
“I can’t figure out how to light this,” I remember saying. “Maybe you just set the whole thing on fire,” one of the other neighbor kids would answer. And when nothing happened, we all wondered how much time to give it before assuming it was a dud.
My brother had a fondness for the little tanks, that were supposed to propel themselves while firing through their barrels, but rarely worked right. I personally adored fountains, though I was never patient enough to wait until dark to light them, minimizing their beauty.
While my brother and I piddled away our begged-for five bucks on those little things, our neighbors, the Wilsons, shelled out for the fun night stuff. When it was finally dark—and it seemed like we waited FOREVER for nightfall–the entire neighborhood would gather in the street on our dead end with with whatever fireworks booty was still remaining. And Jack Wilson always pulled out the cool stuff. Especially to the 10 and under crowd.
Before I say more, I must confess: as much as I love watching fireworks, I hate being the one to actually light them. After having a firecracker blow up prematurely, burning my leg and leaving a permanent scar, my modus operandi when it came to fireworks was touching the punk to the fuse and running like hell before even checking to see if the fuse was burning. There were just enough instances of fireworks gone wrong – I still shudder at memories of being chased by renegade jumping jacks and ground bloom flowers – to keep me cautious. I had to force myself to be brave and not throw a sparkler to the ground as it burned down closer and closer to my hand, gripping with the care of a welder finishing the seams on a bomb casing.
Then there were times a fountain or a roman candle fell over before it finished firing.
But us kids were willing to overlook those moments of terror while a ground bloom flower spun and whistled and changed colors, or a fountain shot a stream of sparkles twenty feet in the air, or a roman candle shot all of its charges into the sky.
As long as I wasn’t lighting them, it was magical.
Lighting fireworks in your yard really wasn’t part of the downtown Los Angeles experience, and I had almost forgotten about that Fourth of July tradition until I moved back to Kansas. Emporia didn’t allow fireworks in city limits at that time, but the community display was a BIG DEAL. So my husband and I walked from our house to the Lyon County Fairgrounds and joined the throngs of people gathering in the parking lots and sitting on the street curbs to watch the show.
It started out beautifully: big, majestic blooms of color. Then a horrible thing happened. The stand holding the pyrotechnics fell over, the the fireworks fired sideways.
It was childhood terror, all over again.
The community fireworks show decided it was time to retool a little.
If you have ever watched a fireworks show, you know there is a rhythm to how the fireworks are set off. A few big colorful explosions warm up the crowd, then some teasers, then a break to clear the smoke before the grand finale. Bernie Toso, our local pyrotechnic, and his crew are genius at picking just the right series of colors, textures, and sounds to keep a half-hour show interesting and beautiful. And this year, thanks to contributions from Lyon County, the City of Emporia, and the Clint Bowyer 79 Fund, Bernie and his gang of pyromaniacs had the funds to do a great show. The fireworks show was also moved to Emporia State University, a space big enough to allow for a bigger crowd, and a safer distance between the crowd and the things that go boom.
My husband and I settled onto a bench in Welch Stadium. The stands were filled with families, kids so excited they were running laps around the track. I watched a little girl in dress shoes run four laps around the track pushing her brother in a stroller.
And then the very first firework exploded in the sky, and everyone stilled to watch.
They bloomed like flowers. Their fingers sprang from a central core, reaching out until you thought you could reach back and touch them. The colors, the textures, the sounds: it was mesmerizing. The crowd was enchanted, quiet with only an occasional murmur of admiration. There was no music, only the crackle and thunder and as the sound waves hit you in the chest.
After the last explosion, darkness settled over the stadium, and it was completely silent. Just for a heartbeat. And then the crowd broke out into whistles and applause.
And just in case you missed it, or you want to relive it, here is the grand finale of this weekend’s Emporia Community Fireworks Show, complete with cheering and train whistles, as shot by my husband, Jim Deane.