There have been a lot of strange nights around the Fourth of July at our place. This year might turn out to be one of the strangest.
Growing up in the house nearest the Smith Meal fish factory at Promised Land at the edge of Gardiner’s Bay could be rough at times. Until about 1968, when the wind came from the east, the smell of bunker being rendered into oil and fish-meal fertilizer was, uh, unique. Some say Promised Land got its name as a kind of joke, that is, as the rank opposite of the Land of Milk and Honey. But the big payoff for the stink and mosquitoes was that every year the Devon Yacht Club would have a fireworks show, and for a night, our home felt like the center of the universe. Devon’s display, like so many across America, will not happen this year.
Normally, a Fourth of July falling on a Saturday, like this one, would add a special something to the festivities. Early in the afternoon people around the perimeter of the bay would claim their spots. Boats would arrive toward dusk to anchor close by and set up around the fireworks barge. Picnic-carrying friends, and sometimes strangers, would make their way down the stairs from our house over the dune and spread their feasts on blankets. Kids would run back and forth at the water’s edge with sparklers. Down the beach, someone with contraband fireworks would put on a little preshow. Then, with a single shot, it would all begin.
Over the years, fireworks technology improved. There was more color, patterns, and novelty, faces and stars that more often than not looked the way they were supposed to. But the ritual on the beach remained unchanged even as we got older and began having kids of our own. Everyone would be quiet, sometimes throw an arm around a nearby shoulder, and just watch.
It was after the last flurry from the barge that all hell would break loose on our beach. Someone would light our massive bonfire as the more sedate guests headed for their cars. More than once, sparks landed in the dunes, setting small fires that we had to run to put our with our feet and bare hands. Amateur fireworks would shoot this way and that, one striking a theater critic for Vogue square on the front zipper of his slacks.
In the morning, there was carnage left by seagulls that had torn apart the garbage bags for half-eaten hot dogs and stale tortilla chips before we could clean up. Assorted fireworks parts and paper scraps made a line on the sand like unnatural seaweed. Not this year.