Did you know that Americans spend nearly a billion dollars a year on fireworks? I didn’t. That’s a ton of money and, I have to admit, my family contributes to the total. Last week there were at least five fireworks stands within walking distance of my house, all offering deals: buy 1/get 1, 2, 3 free or 50% off or buy 10/get 10. It was a buyer’s market.
In a random conversation with one of my neighbors, I learned that he already had about $3,000 in fireworks stored in his garage. Pretty impressive, right? When he told me that was the wholesale price – since he now had his pyrotechnician’s license – I felt like we were moving into the borderline insanity range.
I was also beginning to think that my husband’s idea about getting outside of town and watching everything from a mountainside wasn’t so silly after all. But our kids and their friends mutinied at the idea so we joined the purchasing frenzy (at a very modest level), invited friends and neighbors and continued our traditional celebration.
Trying to grasp the magnitude of this holiday as it is celebrated in the small town where I live requires reaching beyond anything you’ve ever experienced – trust me! Many visitors who believe their town is the champion when it comes to fireworks displays are rendered speechless by the breadth and duration of our spectacle.
Picture a town that’s about a mile from end to end with nine main E/W streets and about a dozen cross streets. Our population is around 2200 and there are a few adjacent subdivisions that add several hundred more people. In the days leading up to the Fourth you’ll hear and see random fireworks, maybe even displays lasting 10 or 15 minutes, but once the Fourth dawns – an amazing transformation occurs.
Boats, cars and campers are parked off the street and out of driveways, trampolines and umbrellas are dismantled or covered with tarps. Grills, tables and chairs are hauled to the front yard, coolers are filled, volleyball nets are erected and horseshoe pits are cleaned. It’s been rainy this year, but when it’s dry, roofs and lawns get an extra watering and additional hoses are readied.
The first consistent explosions begin around 6:30 pm and continue, non-stop, until well after midnight. Yes, there’s an outstanding community display as the highlight once it gets dark (about 10:30) but that’s only the centerpiece. Set up a chair on any street, backyard, hillside, roof or even atop one of the surrounding mountains and you’ll be enthralled.
In every direction you’ll see a constant, multi-hour extravaganza. The individual displays rival those of most communities and there are dozens occurring simultaneously. Thousands of people line the highway and side streets, jockeying for the best view. The parks are overflowing with lawn chairs and blankets and parking lots are jammed. Sounds like it would be an economic windfall for our community, doesn’t it?
The reality: there is no financial benefit for the town. None, zero. The VFW display is funded by donations – members, local businesses, and canisters at the small grocery store. Residents pick up the tab for the extra police hours and cleanup consists of everyone grabbing brooms and garbage bags – even the little kids. Though sales at the individual stands were brisk, they brought in no tax revenue – the state has no sales tax. There are no hotels and only a few restaurants (that were closed). Sales of ice, drinks and snacks were steady at the grocery store and gas stations, but otherwise,the primary beneficiary of the festivities are the companies that manufactured the fireworks.
Sure, it would be nice if this community, where the average household income is about $40,000 and the primary employer closed several years ago, would benefit financially from the spectacular evening it provides for thousands of people. But unlike other places, it isn’t about the money. It’s about having fun and celebrating old-fashioned values – friendship, family, community. In the process, an experience has evolved that people will travel miles to see. Beyond the VFW display, no one planned it. There were no groups or committees organizing the fireworks for each block. No one issued a challenge for us to become home to the biggest, best, grandest or any other superlative. No one advertised (unless you count the fundraising canisters at the grocery store). No one identified a theme. There wasn’t even a proclamation by the mayor or city council.
It just happened. In our over-organized, uber-scheduled, meetings-to-plan-our-next-meeting society – it all comes together, every year, without anyone in charge. How cool is that?