Kage Baker loved the Fourth of July.
Well, she revered it. She thought that the celebration of our country was better served on a small, daily basis than with one big mindless spasm a year. Consequently, she paid her taxes, always answered jury summonses, obeyed the laws – except the ones she thought were illegal or immoral; those she protested in an orderly fashion. She was instrumental in preventing a criminally careless developer from turning a portion of the Santa Monica Mountains into mini-mansions: it is now part of the State Park there. And while we did most of it with letters, there were a few incidents involving trespass with a movie camera, and chaining one’s self to oak trees …
She recycled, with a fervour more usually seen in religious institutions. I have never entirely grasped what all the numbered classes of recyclable materials mean – I just put them in the bins as directed by Kage, who did.
Kage said that patriotism was better served by an informed electorate than a loud one. She said that it was more important to listen and learn and make moral personal decisions, than to leap up and down and scream with rage. Chimpanzees, she observed, conduct politics like that.
No, what Kage loved – indeed, worshipped – was fireworks.
When we were teenagers, we’d spend the night of the 4th leaping round on the roof of the house, like mountain goats. From the various levels of Momma’s house on a peak of the Hollywood Hills, you could see fireworks displays all over the San Fernando Valley: they bloomed like enormous eldritch chrysanthemums below us in the middle air. The higher rockets and blazons from the Hollywood Bowl could be glimpsed, too, over the hills to the West. And she loved the sound! I think those distinctive booms and bangs and frenetic crackles made Kage as happily insane as any burst of incendiary colour.
The years we lived in Pismo Beach were the pinnacle of her fireworks devotions. We never lived more than two blocks from the beach, from the Pismo Pier where the municipal fireworks were set off; most years we camped out on the beach in mid-afternoon, surrounded by family and friends, close enough to be sitting in the drifts of black powder smoke that rolled across the beach. Kage was in an ecstasy every year.
We missed the annual display once when we were in Las Vegas for a convention. However, our hotel room balcony gave us a perfect view of the city, whose inhabitants proved even more frenzied than those of the San Fernando Valley: it was like being in a siege balloon, surrounded by tracer ammunition. Kage danced in glee on the balcony.
We had one Fourth where the summer fog never lifted – that year, we watched the fireworks as blurred lights in a vast zone of invisibility, the explosions reverberating in our bones as they were transmitted by the vapours that wrapped the town like cotton. It was weird, but it was marvelous.
Kage’s last year … we sat on our tiny front porch and watched the fireworks from there. She had just started chemotherapy, and the walk was too much for her. Besides, on our second story balcony, we were watching the fireworks eye to eye. Kage was delighted; it was like being in the display.
Now I’m in Los Angeles. Fireworks, of course, are totally illegal in Los Angeles. Apparently that applies only to feral fireworks that set themselves off; because people are setting them off everywhere. They started over the weekend, and will doubtless continue to the next weekend. Firecrackers, cherry bombs, Piccolo Petes – that ascending whistle always made Kage’s hair practically stand on end with delight – the liquid gush and hiss of all the various cones exploding. Distant soft roars and percussions, like artillery in the distance.
Why, half a dozen trashcans have already had their plastic lids blown off in my neighborhood. And that’s not easy to do, they’re sturdy City-issued bins; you need the really big M-2s from Mexico to manage that …
Because she really was law-abiding, Kage herself never set off anything larger than a sparkler or a Snake, except down on the Pismo sands. But she did love hearing the evidence that somewhere, some loony was lighting mortars.
I remember, one Fourth of July in Pismo … our house and backyard were full of friends and family, a small tent city sprung up under the walnut tree that roofed half the yard. We went down to the beach, some of us, to set off the three precious Chinese rockets Wayne had smuggled down from the docks of San Francisco. We took Mikey, then perhaps 6 or 7, and delighted to be scurrying through the dark with giggling grownups. Kage stood sentry on a taller dune while Wayne set them off – and I think Kage’s soul went with them, arcing over the dark, green-lit waves … and then she yelled Cave, cave! The police cruiser three blocks away at the Pier had seen us and was starting down the ramp to the sand!
And we all ran off, laughing hysterically, and hid in a dark open garage as the cruiser roared past us; and Wayne explained carefully to Mikey that what we were doing was civil disobedience and not only our right but our duty, on the 4th of July … thus are the young taught all sides our of our improvised democracy.
Happy Independence Day, Dear Readers. Burn brightly, all of you.