The small development north of Seattle was the perfect place for a fledgling family: miles of trails through the surrounding Northwest forest, playgrounds on every third block, and community festivals for every regular summer holiday — and some made-up ones, too. Our neighbors were the kind of people who burst at a full sprint out their doors to chase a teenager fleeing an accident (he totaled my sister-in-law’s parked car with his mom’s SUV): a police officer, a CIA employee, a Gulf War veteran. People turned their houses into princess castles for Halloween. You could refurnish your house and make five lifelong friends for $15 at the spring community garage sale.
And then came the Fourth of July.
Fireworks are illegal in Massachusetts. In the region of Washington state where we were living at the time, Roman candles, smoke devices, shells, spinners, multiaerials, and cone fountains were absolutely legal. The illegal list included bottle rockets (except on tribal land) and firecrackers. Also homemade bombs, just in case there was any doubt.
Our first Fourth there started out with an all-American celebration: a smoky church-sponsored barbecue and bouncy-house fest in the central park. The local bluegrass band’s music was punctuated occasionally by the whistle of a bottle rocket of unknown origin. But none of it — not the benign-seeming but red-flag-illegal bottle rockets, not the hamburger-devouring public, not the maniacally laughing boys dripping kid sweat in the pirate bouncy house — was any kind of warning for what happened at dusk. Because at dusk, and not a second later than the earliest moment a person could construe it to be so, the second that sun faded behind the pine mountains, our neighbors transformed into something else. Something darker.
The lone occasional bottle rocket whistle became two, then four, then too many to count. They hit the side of our house. They crashed into the bushes. We could see them plunging like lawn darts into the next-door neighbors’ grass. As night settled in, out came the bigger stuff, mostly on the next block — serious pyrotechnics, professional-grade fireworks not unlike what you’d expect at a small city-sponsored celebration. From inside our house, exploded charcoal and chunks of cardboard raining on the roof of our approved-taupe tract house sounded like waves of a hailstorm. The baby’s room looked like a strobe light had been turned on, one flash after another. The baby, who on any other night would wake screaming at the sound of our footsteps as we sneaked up the carpeted stairs, miraculously slept through the explosions, the lights, and cheering and laughter from the people lining our sidewalk.
At some point, and being new we didn’t know whether they were just curious onlookers who happened by, a stream of cars started slowly filing down the street, as if they were on a Christmas-light tour. We were standing outside by this time, half in hopes of getting a jump on things if the house ignited and half in an attempt to embrace the situation. We were walking toward the epicenter of the display, with embers dying in the air and ashes dusting us, when we saw something that made us rush home.
What is the difference between dynamite and, say, a few Roman candles duct-taped together and lighted simultaneously? I’d say little, especially when that grouping of Roman candles falls on its side immediately after it’s ignited and shoots like a rocket into the street, zooms with sparks flying underneath a passing car, and goes off like a happy little bomb in the police officer’s azaleas?
The next morning we were fishing detritus out of the gutters when a neighbor from the next block walked by. I recognized his face from a brief flash of a Roman candle he was lighting at the center of the previous night’s action. He was picking casings up off the sidewalks. I asked him how much he had spent on fireworks.
“Ten thousand,” he said, laughing, while filling up his garbage bag. It was his thing. He saved up for it. It was his gift to the community.
There has been debate between my husband and me over what he really said. Is it even possible for one person to spend that much on fireworks? We never did ask. The next year, we were (not coincidentally) out of town, and a couple of years after that we moved to Boston.
We love the Fourth, but we don’t necessarily miss it bombarding the roof.
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