Friday, July 04, 2008

The Lights in the Sky and the Carillion

When I was very little, the fireworks for the city of Boston were shot off from a barge off Carson Beach. All the aunties and cousins would converge on my house and we'd pack up thermoses of lemonade, blankets and citronella candles. Uncles Bob and Tom were always good for producing sparklers (illegal in Massachusetts), which we would wave in the dark to make circles of light. The big boys from the corner would lob cherry bombs and get yelled at by the moms. We'd chase each other about the sand until the show began, then we'd sit on our towels and "Ooooh!" in unison.
Later, the show was moved to the Charles River, and as a teen, I'd head over with groups of friends to the Hatch Shell to hear the Boston Pops concert and watch the synchronized firework show. First would be a few opening acts. Then when darkness fell, conductor Arther Fiedler would put together a grand show of Broadway tunes, popular songs and classical works by Copland and Sousa. The climax came when he would start "The 1812 Overture" by Tchaikovsky- we'd be on our feet the minute we heard the first strains. The final movement was when the fireworks started and we'd roar so loud you could hear us on the Pike. Then he would lead us in medley, one patriotic song after another. Thousands of us singing and dancing to "You're a Grand Old Flag", "God Bless America", "This Land is Your Land" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy", all to the accompaniment of spectacular fireworks.
The best year ever was the Bicentennial- 1976. We determined to be there for this monumental occasion, and we were at the Hatch Shell by 8am staking out our space with blankets and beach towels. Rich and Johnny were five years old, and we dragged them along. We played games and threw frisbees and sang all day in the hot sun. More and more people arrived to begin staking out their spaces so close to us we could barely move. At nearly sunset, we made one last run to the Port-a-Potties and the lines were tremendous. Someone took pity on us because of the kids and let us go ahead. As we stepped out of the potty area and headed back to the footpath, a row of security blocked out way and a limo pulled up. Out stepped Arthur Fiedler right before us and he waved at us as he went by.
We slowly made our way through a tremendous crush of people, heading back to our blankets where the menfolk held out places. Soon there were so many people we could not avoid stepping on blankets and excusing ourselves as we passed. The throng became so thick that about 100 feet before we got back, we couldn't walk any further. We called and waved to our friends, but we couldn't get through the crush. This big burly guy saw our dilemma, lifted Rich up and passed him along to the next guy; Johnny, Jan and I followed suit. Perhaps it was a primitive kind of crowd-surfing, but it was pretty surreal and yet really reassuring to be passed gently, safely and with great good humour back into the waiting arms of our boyfriends.
Settled back on our now-dwindled personal space, we were just in time for the music to begin.
We sang along and enjoyed the music with about 800,000 of our fellow humans.
And then the piece de resistance- the first strains of the 1812 Overture. The springtime motif, the Russian anthemn, the Marsellaise rose and clashed and fell and soared. The final motif, the martial battle theme rose, and the National Guard shot off the cannons over the water as the fireworks exploded, and every church bell near the Charles pealed in unison. There is no memory that recalls the Fourth of July so quickly to mind as the acrid smell of the cannons, the matching reverberating boom of your heart in your chest, and the sound of church bells echoing the orchestra's tempo. Boston owns this one unlikely theme to struggle and hope, because the Maestro put together all the elements that make it so gloriously unique; church bellringer groups, soldiers, firework companies... eat yer heart out, NYC!

I may have gone to the Charles on the Fourth a time or two after that, but nothing could ever equal the magic of that night. I always tried to get my kids to go with me when they were younger, but they had no interest in facing the huge crowds and having to stake a seat so early in the day. The fireworks in Worcester were basically a yawn after what I was used to. We went a few times in Arlington, which weren't too bad for a small town, and the locals were pretty entertaining. The last time, I went in 2000 with cousins from England, who really enjoyed seeing how Americans celebrate. The town I am in now does fireworks I watch from the end of my driveway- two years ago a young black man, an honor student, was beaten to death by two local thugs at the fireworks display. Doesn't make me eager to participate.

So the last few years I have worked, but I do get home in time to watch the show on TV. As the years have passed since Fiedler died, Keith Lockhart has risen to the occasion with gusto. My one complaint is that the fireworks are synched to canned music now instead of the live performance. The musical choices are a bit weird at times. This year's lineup was a bit better, but Pavarotti? It's also gotten a bit heavy on the country- not the usual type of music you hear in urbane Beantown. Apparently, since it's aired nationally, they want to please a wider American musical taste. The best fireworks this year were synched to "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" by the Dropkick Murphys (ok maybe I'm prejudiced about their awesome music, but they WERE the coolest firework FX during that song).

Don't believe me? Check it out for yourself. Go here:


Anonymous said...

Hey you forgot to mention the person (mois) who mannned the blankets while you and Janice trudged the 5 year olds to the frog pond to cool them off! I hope Richie takes his kids some day, If I'm around I will go again. I remember one year on route 2 with Nora and Shelah sitting on the car roof watching the fireworks with the radio blaring. Now they would arrest us for that!

JuliaKoponick said...

I haven't gotten to see this yet, but since I am married to a man who grew up on the East Coast now, it makes it slightly more realistic to think that I might get to some day.

You write about the experience in a way that makes it come alive. I was right there with you!!

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