Friday, January 09, 2009

Iowa: The Great Fireworks Mishap of 1976

NOTE: Consult this post for an explanation of TRP's writing project. I won't follow his rules except trying to post one state-related memory every week. I haven't visited all 50 states, so there may be multiple memories per state. Some of the memories may contain sexual content. Nothing graphic, but very probably sensual. I'll give y'all a fair warning if you don't want to read those.

The Bicentennial Year featured my first summer trip to Iowa, the state of my Mom's birth. Clear Lake, Iowa, became forever stamped in my mind as the idyllic model for small-town American life. Friendly people, a cottage by the lake, a carnival (complete with a freak show!), a parade, and fireworks!

Fireworks are launched from a barge floating on the lake, so the entire community can have a great view of the spectacle.

After dinner, we all assembled on the dock to watch the show. My uncle gave me a pair of binoculars to watch the shells as they were launched from the barge. He crouched down beside me on the dock and scanned the far shoreline. "There it is, Tommy," he said. He handed me the binoculars and pointed me in the right direction. Sure enough, I could see the barge, a dark smudge against the far shoreline.

Minutes passed and the appointed moment arrived. The gathered began to look heavenward to see the first beautiful star bursts of the evening. I refocused my binoculars and concentrated on the barges, hoping to see the trails of the shells.

I only saw one flash -- and it went in a horizontal rather than a vertical direction. Then there was nothing. I told everyone what I saw and my uncle snatched the binoculars out of my hand. He scanned the shoreline and could see nothing.

In the morning, the paper told the awful truth: one of the shells misfired and punched a hole in the barge. The entire thing sank very quickly, and one of the pyrotechnicians came very close to injury as he lept from the stricken barge. We were all bummed by the lack of fireworks, but grateful that nobody was hurt.

That was one of the first times in my life that I remember putting the lives of others ahead of my own pleasure.

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