My kids are in a swim club. Which means I'm in a club of sorts, too. I never knew this, but being in swim club as a child means that in addition to practice and the swim fees and swim meets there's this thing called "Volunteer Hours." You have to volunteer a certain amount or you get fined. It's something like 800 hours, or you can buy your way out for forty bucks an hour. Needless to say, Krista and I have chosen a life of indentured servitude to the Swim Team in exchange for which my children will grow up to have excellent back strokes and will often think, I imagine, while swimming in the Olympics, Thanks be to my parents for their hard work and dedication in doing all those volunteer hours. Without them I could have never become the best swimmer in the entire world.
This month's volunteer hours involved working at a Fireworks Stand in preparation for the 4th of July. Now, you have to understand that we live in Washington, where fireworks are legal, and people come from several states away to buy them. We had customers from as far away as California. You could recognize them because of their deep tans shining out among the pasty white Oregonians and Washingtonians, and the way they would whisper, "Hey man, you got any, you know, fireworks?"
I grew up in California, so I know what it's like to live in a land where fire is illegal. It's true. Boy scouts in California have to learn to rub two sticks together until water comes out of them. And fireworks are an unheard of and monstrously evil substance that can only be used in the most carefully constructed circumstance, and even the professionals are encouraged only to launch fireworks over bays of water.
In a strange piece of Washingtonian legislature, bottle rockets are illegal in Washington. Every third customer asked me for bottle rockets, and I would tell them, "Those are illegal." One customer asked why. I told him that they were too dangerous (this seemed like a safe answer). He picked up a 500 gram mortar shell which had the dire warning SHOOTS FLAMING BALLS LIGHT ON GROUND AND STEP AWAY DO NOT HOLD IN HAND NO SPECTATORS WITHIN 100 FEET and asked, "Is this one dangerous?" I assured him it was perfectly safe if one followed the directions and correctly built the bomb shelter in the way laid out in the instructions.
Another interesting moment was when a customer asked me if our fireworks were made in America. Which of course, no, they aren't. Because the Chinese firework factories still have not taught us their secrets. That is to say, we haven't figured out how to pay someone less than minimum wage to pour gunpowder into tiny packets with one's bare hands while an assembly line grumbles and sparks nearby. This creates for interesting ironies when I pick up a firework named AMERICA RISING! to celebrate the U.S. of A and realize that it is made in China.
Perhaps the most frightening moment came when a man walked into our tent full of TNT, his hair and eyes equally wild, looked around, held up his unlit cigarette and asked, "Hey, man, you got a light?" My eyes immediately darted to the two tiny fire extinguishers by the tent flap door which, I imagined, would not be particularly useful if a table full of fireworks caught on fire. I did not particularly want my obituary to read, "HE TRIED TO PUT OUT A FLAMING TENT FULL OF FIREWORKS WITH AN EXTINGUISHER." On the other hand, I thought that a fire extinguisher probably could be used to knock out a crazy person. I cleared my throat and explained to the crazy gentleman that we were, in fact, standing in a tent full of fireworks and that even if we had a light (and we didn't) that we wouldn't give it to him and that although we had an inexplicably small sign saying NO SMOKING we meant it very, very sincerely, as if our lives depended on it (which they did). He nodded and then walked around the tent looking at fireworks. One of my co-volunteers gave me a look which said something like, I want to live to volunteer at next month's swim meet, please don't let him kill us with his smoking. So I followed the crazy man around until he left.
On the 4th I realized that risking my life to provide our neighborhood and many others with the firepower necessary to celebrate the birth of our nation was worth every moment. It wasn't just when my brother-in-law and I lit screaming space eye-balls that flew into the crowd of spectators, or the way that parachute laden firecrackers landed on our neighbor's roof. It was the whole smoke-clouded spectacle of watching our Tongan neighbors light twenty-seven professional grade fireworks at once, aimed right over our roof, and the jolly comraderie as we all packed our folding chairs into the street to watch a show bigger and brighter and more fun than all the professional shows I've ever been to. And meanwhile, good friends and family eating too much good food and all of us enjoying not just America, where State rights allow Washington to celebrate individual freedoms like buying our own fireworks, and waving around insanely long sparklers and then later entire packs of sparklers in each hand, just trying to use them up, and my brother-in-law and I are getting careless and lighting fireworks in our hands and tossing them nonchalantly before they pop and the neighbors are starting to tie all the fuses of their fireworks together because we're running out of time to celebrate, because midnight is on the way and then it will be the 5th of July and we'll all crawl into our beds and listen to the last few delayed and muffled celebratory explosions in the distance, and then a satiated and jolly neighborhood slips into contented sleep and in the morning we all wake up and say, next year it will be even better, why would we ever go to another big fireworks show again when we could visit those white tents and create something beautiful right here on our own street and above our own home?
You are all invited to next year's festivities. And if you happen to pass a Reservation, pick up some bottle rockets on your way.