Kage Baker loved the fourth of July. She was fiercely patriotic. She was the daughter, niece, cousin and aunt of soldiers. She never missed an election, determinedly exercising her franchise no matter what weather, car problems or grief the world threw at her. She payed her taxes. She wore poppies on Veteran’s Day. She was American, and proud of it, and believe me – she was an historian, she knew all the nasty little secrets our country has accumulated over its brief life. She still thought the United States was the best bet presently available on the planet. (So do I.)
And she loved, loved, LOVED the 4th of July, especially during our years in Pismo Beach – they have a wonderful show there, fireworks shot off the Municipal Pier. We, living in walking distance of the beach, strolled down every year with our sand chairs and gloried in the 4th of July with several thousand of our neighbors. And as many of our friends and family as could make it to our house – we set up tent cities in the backyard, had kids sleeping on the kitchen floor.
It’s illegal to sell, buy or set off fireworks in Pismo Beach. That stopped absolutely no one: they just bopped over to the next nearest towns (the lovely Grover Beach and Arroyo Grande) and bought them there. All the towns surrounding Pismo boasted Fireworks Stands on every corner – Pismo had no stands, but it did have miles and miles of beach. On the 4th, everyone did their best to encourage intermural economy. Then they brought their fireworks to the Pismo … the official Fireworks Show was usually scheduled for 9 PM. Thanks to determined amateurs, by the time the show began, the beach had looked and sounded like D-day for a couple of hours.
The accepted practice is to dig a pit in the sand. You arrange the family chairs around it, and the younger and nimbler members jump in and out of the pit, setting off fireworks. Everyone has a small family show before the big one begins. By dark, the smoke is a waist-high drift along the whole 7 miles of the beach and the air smells of gunpowder. Kage would be in ecstasy.
Classically, only sparklers and snakes should be allowed out of the pit. However, though most of the black powder fans are well behaved, there are always a few idiots who run around with Roman Candles stuffed in their swimming trucks, or throw firecrackers and Ground Bloom Flowers, or launch sky rockets too low over the crowd. Those folks are promptly nabbed by the Pismo Beach Police Department – which numbers about 8, with 30 volunteers. Nonetheless, they do a grand job, mostly by focusing their efforts on actually dangerous stunts – unless you are actively on fire or lighting up someone else, they simply stroll along smiling and turn a blind eye to the Normandy Beach re-enactment on every side.
They never bother the inevitable ship’s signalling cannons that sound from the posher houses on the hills. Nor the mortar crew that sends up in the cypress woods by Pismo Creek ever year and launches stars and rockets out over the ocean. Those folks know what they’re doing.
It’s a weird system, but it works. There are usually no injuries, no fires, no disasters. The few malefactors are handcuffed to the cops’ bikes (crowd’s too thick for cars) and taken at a dog-trot to the downtown station. The most dangerous thing about it is the chance of a fist-fight between two territorial artillery captains. Or forgetting the lighter. We always brought down at least two, as our fireworks crew got pretty pre-emptory down in the pit …
By the time the official show began, Kage would be in a glittering-eyed frenzy. By the time it ended, she was limp, hoarse with cheering, and exhausted. We’d police the sand for bits and bobs, fill in the pit (aside from the illegal fireworks, we were a very law-abiding bunch) and walk slowly home with our lawn chairs.
This was the other dangerous part of the 4th at Pismo – getting out after the show. The town is only about a mile wide, all of which is squeezed between the sea and the hills. The population is 8,000 people. Highway 101 runs along the landward, but there are only 4 on-ramps. The streets are tiny and narrow. And by 10 PM on the 4th of July, an average of 75,000 sunburned, over-stimulated, drunk, exhausted people are all trying to leave at once.
We never lived more than 2 blocks from the beach – we snaked our way home through the crowds, and then sat about watching the exodus for another hour. Amazing scenes of desperation, courage, automotive disaster, Good Samaritanism and civil disobedience would take place. There was rather too much puking in the gutter, and we had to chase public urinators out of the yard on occasion (I remember Kimberly turning a flashlight beam on some poor sod pissing against my garage and demanding, like Justice Herself, “What do you think you’re doing?” I think the guy almost ruptured himself. He certainly peed on his feet and ran off trying not to get anything caught in his zipper …), but mostly it was just another kind of light show: red tail-lights filling the streets like rats’ eyes, the improbable volume of the crowd pouring out of the tiny town.
Kage’s last 4th of July, no one could get away to join us. And Kage did not have the strength to walk to and from the beach. Which was no problem – with no guests, we just moved our lawn chairs out on the balcony and watched from there. Not as noisy or smokey or crazy, but still a wonderful show. We had a great time.
Last year, I just listened to the booms and bangs and whistles, and tried to comfort the family zoo. It was fun, though. I’ll do the same thing tonight, watching carefully to make sure that the neighbors – who do have fireworks and are setting them off and don’t have the sense to do it in a non-flammable place – don’t set their house or ours on fire … Southern California is not such a great place for feral fireworks.
But Kage would have loved it. The banshee scream of a Piccolo Pete, the hiss of a fountain, the disturbingly soft organic boom of a cherry-bomb: ah, how her eyes would light up!
I’ll check Pismo Beach ‘s webcam around 9 o’clock tonight. See how it looks … in Kage’s memory.