A Coastal 4th of July

16 06 2011

The 4th of July has always been my favorite holiday.  Not that I’m any more patriotic than the next guy, but because my birthday is the day after.  It’s always been about parades, BBQs, presents, and real fireworks.  You know, bottle rockets, firecrackers, roman candles, etc.

The bummer of it is, I’ve lived most of my life in two states that frown upon real fireworks.  Nothing says, “lets celebrate our freedom” like being given a pack of snakes and smoke bombs.  While I’m sure the sparkler was cutting edge in the late 1800’s, today it’s a symbol of sucky fireworks.  Really, Oregon?  You’re one of the greenest and wettest states, but you’re hanging in there with the boring fireworks.  The new buzz phrase is “safe and sane” more like “safe and lame”.

Other crappy items you can add to that list of lame: pop-its, Crackling Fountains and my personal favorite of all time disappointments: The Piccolo Pete.  This thing lets out a high pitch whistle that sounds like it’s winding down to a nice big explosion.  Instead you get nothing but silence, like there was a misfire.  It’s the “USA Up All Night” of fireworks, just a huge tease that leaves you wanting.  That’s right, I’m talking to you Rhonda Shear.

Ironically, if you want to get the good stuff to celebrate independence, you have to seek out a historically oppressed people.  Back in the day in our neck of the woods it was a place called Tokeland.  I first heard about Tokeland Indian reservation in 1987.  We had just moved back to the Oregon Coast after being in exile in the greater Tri-City area, specifically Richland, for seven years.  My uncle Jack was visiting and asked if I wanted to see something cool.

Uncle Jack was the type of renegade anti-establishment guy who any young kid gravitates toward.  His primary interests were vinyl records and car audio systems.  He had a room at my grandpa’s place that was filled with boxes of vinyl records stacked to the ceiling.  In addition, he lived part-time in a sweet van that was similar to the A-team van.  Only it was a rust color that a decade later would actually be just rust, but that’s another story.

The “something cool” he wanted to show me was a pack of jumbo black cat bottle rockets.  These were still the days when you could find the glass Coke bottles without traveling to Mexico.  So he pulled out a pack and we lit them off, dropping each bottle rocket into the Coke bottle and listening to that whoosh and then a “pop.”

“Where did you get those?” I asked.  He responded, “Tokeland,”  which is located across the Columbia River in Washington.  Thinking back, things were so different 20 years ago.  There were no smart phones, there was no Internet, thus no mapquest or GPS.  Places like Tokeland were almost mythical in stature.  Usually it came down to some dude drawing a map on a napkin from the Dairy Maid.  Directions to places like this, we akin to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The first time I went there, I went with my parents and my other uncle, Vince, who had brought his family.  I remember looking at the selection in awe with my cousins.  They had everything, including two certain urban legends.  That’s right, the M-80 and the M-1000.  Just as the rumors had always stated, they were not out on display.  These were hidden under the counter for serious buyers only.  You had to ask the salesman a couple of times before he would break down, almost as if he wanted to make sure that you weren’t a cop.

Well thank god for my uncle Vince, because for entertainment purposes he was indeed a serious buyer.  In retrospect it almost went down like a drug deal, the heavy artillery was put in a small brown paper bag and slid nonchalantly across the counter.  There were other drug terms as well.  When you buy bottle rockets, it’s not by the pack, it’s by the brick.

Flash Forward to 2004:

The 4th of July is kind of a big deal in Warrenton, more specifically the 4th of July Parade.  People set up lawn chairs early to get a prime seat.  Getting pelted with rock candy from fire engines and clowns is life-changing.  When I took my wife home for the first time so she could see where I came from, it was over 4th of July weekend.  Did I have ulterior motives for picking this weekend?  Sure our anniversary is on the 4th, but I wanted to get her to the parade.  As we unfolded our lawn chairs, a single tear of pride rolled down my cheek.  Soon after the parade began, several tears rolled down Ally’s cheeks as she came to realize what she had married into.

Flash Back to 1993:

One of the high points in my life was getting “popped” with a “brick” in the back of my 1985 fire engine red Camaro.  Ah, Seaside Dairy Queen with Kelly Ray, I remember it like it was yesterday.  Dirty cop, looking in the back window with a flashlight, without probable cause.  One of those, “turn them over to me and I won’t give you a ticket” scenarios.

Had smugglers blues been playing on the radio, I would have done a huge burnout in the parking lot, leading to a high-speed chase.  The crowd would have cheered me on as Kelly opened a bottle rocket barrage from the T-top.   Instead, I think a more subdued Crazy by Seal was jamming, and I handed them over.  I’m sure Officer Friendly and his kids enjoyed them.

Flash a Little Further Back to 1987:

Sorry, I skipped ahead, we need to take the story back on track in the late ’80s.  On the day of the 4th we were going to have dinner and fireworks at our place on Smith Lake.  It was one of those awkward situations where it was the whole family including both my real dad and my step-dad.  Any who… I’ve noticed that when my real dad and uncle get together, they revert back to two 13-year-old kids, which was great for me because I was right around that age.  Now we could all act like kids together.  Allow me to explain:

Most of the fireworks purchased were of the rocket variety.  Because of this, my uncle had the great foresight to bring a large piece of PVC pipe to duct tape to the side of the back patio, at an angle.  What a great idea– you simply light and drop.  It was like a six-foot-long mortar cannon.  As the night progressed things started to get creative.  Uncle Vince realized that if you took the top off of the bigger rockets, and removed the two firecrackers, you could fit an M-80 inside.  So instead of two firecrackers going “pop-pop,” there was a pause and then a “KA-BOOM.”  I would classify it as something louder than a shotgun blast.  Let me put it this way, there was enough of a boom to rattle windows.

With the ante being raised yet again, my uncle took the PVC and hoisted it over his shoulder,  Then he yelled, “John Wayne!” and fired a rocket at my cousins and me who were out by the lake.  Don’t worry, there was no m-80 on board for that particular rocket.  That would have been irresponsible.

With the night winding down, there was one last rocket left.  Think of a bottle rocket only three feet long with a really thick red stick.  This was to be the grand finale.  However, the previous success with attaching m-80s to rockets had all the grown ups hard at work trying to figure out how to increase the payload.  Engineers at NASA don’t work this hard.  There was a buzz in the room, and a look of satisfaction adorned three grown men’s faces.  Here it comes, the big reveal:  Attached to the sides of this enormous rocket were two m-80s, but they didn’t stop there.  Strapped to the middle was the  pièce de résistance, an m-1000.

This was going to be awesome!  All the boys gathered on the back patio as my uncle lit this bastardized bottle rocket.  Looking like a futuristic space shuttle from hell, he dropped it into the tube.  Then there was a mighty “whoosh”!  We all looked up toward the black sky, ready to track the launch.

Warrenton… We have a problem.

It appeared the payload was too heavy, even for this massive rocket.  After the loud “whoosh” and nothing happening we all looked back to the tube, just in time to see six inches of the rocket peak its head out.  Then like a frightened turtle, or George Costanza in a cold pool, it receded back into the tube.  It was at this moment, that everyone did the most disorganized Chinese fire drill I’ve ever seen, looking for a place to hide and take cover.  Three seconds later, where there once was a six-foot PVC pipe there was only air, and the smell of gunpowder.

Obviously a major malfunction…

The explosion was so loud my ears were ringing, and I had managed to make it around the corner of the house.  My mother, who was inside cooking came out to find jagged pieces of the PVC shrapnel embedded in the side of the house.  As if she wasn’t pissed enough, everyone laughing and talking about, “how awesome that was” didn’t help matters.  But that’s what guys do.  We do something really stupid and ill-conceived and then laugh about how awesome it was that we didn’t die or lose an eye.

This year our two boys are getting old enough to appreciate fireworks, so I’m doing what any good father would do.  I’m driving 240 miles to the New Mexican border to buy illegal fireworks.  “It’s the smugglers blues”!

God bless The United States of America, and God bless Tokeland.

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