Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Zero Hour

I thought we'd never get here.

Today is the Fourth of July, the official kick-off of summer.

It seems like just last week we were all freezing our butts off in what seemed like an endless winter. Now the cold weather is a distant memory.

Today Nathan's will hold its annual hotdog eating contest on Coney Island and they have an electronic sign counting down the days to the big event.

Back in November my father was being treated at a nursing home just off the boardwalk and I'd always go by Nathan's on my way to the train station.

It was dark then--literally and otherwise. I felt so depressed, so unhappy, I thought the warm days of summer would never come.

But the time passed and here we are. My father didn't make it, though. He died in January and didn't get to enjoy one last Independence Day.

I remember the Fourth being a very big deal when we were kids, almost as big as Christmas. Our block would turn into a war zone as people set off all kinds of fireworks.

I can remember that smell of gun powder that filled the air and the ringing in my ears from a night of endless explosions.

My neighbors apparently had connections with the Defense Department because they would unleash the most incredible types of explosives in the middle of the street.

There were these tube things that sprayed showers of multi-colored sparks. They had sky rockets, ashcans, chasers, which screamed as they streak through the air, just inches off the ground. (The bad kids called them "nigger chasers" but we never did.)

Then there was the M-80, which supposedly how the explosive force of one-quarter stick of dynamite. I have no idea if this is true or not, but I can definitely say the M-80 was no sparkler.

There was no bright colors or beautiful patterns when this thing went off. There was only a tremendous boom and you were best advised to run like hell as soon as you lit the fuse.

One year our family stopped at a fireworks factory in Pennsylvania, which looked like a munitions plant. I remember one of the owners standing in front of my father as we entered the place with a pained look on his face.

"You don't smoke, do you?" he asked, anticipating the apocalypse.

As the youngest in the family, I could only play with sparklers, cracker balls, and something called snakes, which burned and curled up like a cobra. Even as a child I thought they sucked. No explosion, no sparks, just smoke and debris. What was the point of this thing?

I did manage to hurt myself one year when I rather stupidly reached down to pick up a discarded sparkler. I learned quickly that it was still very hot and I began bawling.

My grandmother put butter on my burned fingers, which was one of those old school remedies that has been proven to be dead wrong. Butter retains the heat in the tissues, which can make the burn worse, so save the butter for your toast.

Need A Light?

One year my brother was hit in the stomach by debris--or was it shrapnel?--after someone put a lit ashcan under a large soda cup. He grabbed his gut as if he had been shot and when he lifted his shirt, he had a cut on his stomach.

I remember one time my father thought I was playing too close to some local kids that he didn't like. His solution to the problem was to grab me by the ear and pull me back to our stoop.

I was pretty upset, but then he threatened to send me upstairs to bed, so I shut up. Now I'm not sure, but this may have been the year I put a lit firecracker in my father's back pocket, where he was storing the family's supply of fireworks.

He started running back and forth, swatting at the sizzling fuse in a desperate attempt to keep his ass in one piece. The firecracker fell out at the last second and exploded harmlessly.

I don't know how I survived that little stunt without a brutal beating, but here I am, behind the keyboard.

As we got a little older we wanted to get our own supplies. One time my brother and I bought a mat of fireworks from the son of our tenant, a local juvenile delinquent who years later died of a drug overdose.

On the morning after, we'd go out and find the streets covered with shreds of paper, the remains of exploded fireworks. Some kids would sift through this refuse in hopes of finding unexploded fireworks.

That next morning also featured horror stories about some kid somewhere who had his fingers blown off when an M-80 went off too soon.

As we got older, we became less enchanted with the Fourth. It was starting to feel like we were in the middle of an artillery attack, so we made a point of getting out of town, if only for the day.

Our two dogs, Schnapps and then Casey, were also deathly afraid of the noise. They'd try and hide in one of the closets and sometimes urinate all over the floor.

Things are different now. That gang of neighborhood kids are no longer kids and the city has cracked down severely on fireworks. In fact, I haven't heard one explosion yet this morning, something that would have been impossible when I was a kid.

As a reporter, of course, holidays have very little meaning. One year in Stroudsburg, I worked on the July Fourth weekend, and there was absolutely no one around.

I ate dinner by myself at a Chinese restaurant on Main Street and as I walked back to my car, I had this feeling of such intense loneliness. It was as if I didn't matter to anyone in this world.

A few years ago I was working at a part-time job in Manhattan where I had to come in on weekends and holidays. I was there on the Fourth, while it seemed the rest of the world was out enjoying the fireworks.

I heard the explosions and I could see the reflection of the fireworks erupting in the glass windows of the buildings across the street. So, in a way, I did see the fireworks that year.

And now the hotdog contest is history, Joey Chestnut beat out six-time champ Takeru Kobayashi in what the Assoicated Press called a "rousing yet repulsive triumph."

So the year-long timer will be set for next summer and the count down will begin all over again.

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