Fire in the Sky

Long before they produced my Apple devices, I was a big fan of the Chinese.

Because centuries prior to the smart phone and MacBook Air, they created, for all the world to enjoy … fireworks.

It is simply not possible to express in words how grateful I am to them for their fine work, because I really, really, really like fireworks.

I am smitten because they are daring, colorful, close yet distant, violent and noisy and beautiful and fun. And because they are dangerous.

My earliest fireworks memories come from sitting on a blanket at Vilas Park in the ’50s. The grounds were a sea of cotton throws and families. Even before the sun set, while clans were filing in and claiming their square of grass, the noise would commence. A battery of shots would fly into the air creating the world’s loudest drumroll. They would announce that the show that would begin when the sun was gone and the sky was deemed dark enough by the mysterious canoneers who worked their fire magic on the small island near the park shelter from whence the shells took flight.

And then the first glorious shot would hit the dark night and the world would glow impossibly green and red and blue. And we would “oooh” and “aaah” as one, as if reciting litanies in church.

Other patches of grass at Westmorland and Blackhawk would also offer shows. They came with the same sense of wonder, summer, satisfaction and community. There was even drama when a shell would fire short and make its way into the crowd. There would be concern, but then the show would go on.

As I got older, I began to dabble in fireworks shows myself. Nothing to match Terry Kelly’s fine work, more like a garage project. It began on our cul-de-sac when the kids were young. I spirited away to one of the roadside stands that pop up around the Fourth like mushrooms in the woods. Bought some small displays, mostly fountains, a few aerials and whistlers.

The second year of my little production, Neighbor Jon asked me to briefly delay the start. He left the yard, then returned five minutes later, silently directing everyone’s attention to his house, where he had placed lawn sprinklers on his shake cedar roof. He then nodded for me to begin the show.

Now most of our Fourth fireworks activity occurs north at the lake. Last year the bevy of our kids’ friends decided to put on a small display while sitting at the new fire pit they had just dug. Two shells fired first, both small and nondescript. But the third took off high into the sky in glorious fashion and exploded overhead. Then, as if guided by the Gods of Fire, a trailing shell ember plummeted to earth and landed directly in the fire pit, setting off a secondary yet harmless explosion. The gang sat stunned, and then erupted in applause at this amazing, true baptism by fire.

But my favorite fireworks memory came on a Fourth some ten years ago. By now there was serious production involved. I played the soundtrack from Ken Burns’s The Civil War from the speakers of my car. Created a launch pad with a deck table and a plank of plywood. Purchased large shells and fountains at the local bait shop, where I was confidentially informed by the guy behind the counter with a knowing nod that the fireworks were “from Arkansas.” Ever-responsible bride Diane cleared everyone away to a distance of thirty yards. She had the garden hose at the ready. I donned protective glasses.

I began the show with the simultaneous ignition of three large ground fountains. They were tame but fun as, like small volcanoes, they threw their many colors twenty feet into the air.

The faces of family and friends gathered on the summer night lawn were lit in brilliance. Then, suddenly, as if possessed, brother Bobby (always the most daring of the Roach boys) took off on a dead run and ran straight through the wall of sparks yelling at the top of his lungs, “God Bless America!!!”

Perhaps it was unwise. But for a brief moment, in a freeze frame, Bobby became part of the fireworks. He WAS a firework.

Bobby emerged unharmed and exhilarated, though chastened by his wife. When I asked him why he made his sparkling dash he just shrugged, “It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.”

So on this Fourth, be careful. Enjoy the beauty and wonder of fireworks. Honor our country.

And take a moment to thank the Chinese.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at

Find more of John Roach's columns here.

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