Thursday, June 25, 2015

Fireworks: Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold

Photo by Noel Valero

The Lone Bellow: Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold

Most of the time, I’ve been posting at least twice to each theme, in part because I enjoy writing these things, and in part because the blog needs content. After my first post on the Reunion theme, I decided to wait until after I attended the Clearwater Festival to see whether something would spark a second post on that theme (like when Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell played together a couple of years ago). Unfortunately, I miscalculated, the theme ended between the two days of the festival, and here we are in the Fireworks theme. Which is kind of too bad, because, as it turns out, I actually found a few Reunion ideas over the weekend, starting with the fact that I spent Saturday listening to music with my wife, my sister and a cousin, sort of a reunion in and of itself, and Sunday, I got to hear old friends Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell, who recently had a bit of a reunion themselves with their recent cover album as The Pine Hill Project. And after a crazy rain squall interrupted their set, on a stage hard by the Hudson River, they returned to play some of their solo work, including Kaplansky’s great, personal song entitled, yes, “Reunion.”

But I blew it, and now I have to write about Fireworks. I like fireworks. But they have to be serious fireworks—not the small town, shoot off a few blasts before ending with a nice finale type that they had for many years where I live (although they have been improving lately). No, I’m talking about the kind of fireworks that fill the sky with colored lights and make your stomach hurt from the booms.

I have a few fireworks memories, and at the risk of leaving myself without a second post subject, here are some of them, in rough chronological order.

After my junior year in college, my roommates Neal and Jon and I went to Europe. We were in Paris one evening, in Montmartre, when a crowd started to gather in front of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. We had no idea what was going on, and since none of us spoke French, if there were any posted signs, we were clueless. Eventually, someone told us that there would be fireworks that evening, for a midsummer celebration. They were pretty great fireworks, especially because they were set off directly over the crowd. The consequences of that decision were apparently not considered, because flaming paper and debris began to fall over us, which was kind of scary. I don’t think they do it that way anymore.

I remember going to Shea Stadium in the 1980s, when the Mets were, as usual, bad, and Fireworks Night meant a rare full house. (Now, they do more than one, which just seems excessive). I remember sitting way up in the upper deck a few times for the excellent pyrotechnics. There was this guy who sat up there, a heavy guy with a thick beard known as “Fuzzy,” who insisted that the airplanes that flew over Shea were “taking a big risk” flying over the stadium as the fireworks were exploding. Fuzzy was, clearly, an idiot. However, to this day, I insist on repeating “They’re taking a big risk” every time I see a plane fly overhead during a fireworks display.

Also Mets related is my third story--I was going to watch the Fourth of July fireworks on the East River from the roof of my friend Joe’s apartment building in 1985. I remember it being quite a wild party, but even more memorable than the fine display in the sky were the fireworks at the Mets/Braves game that night in Atlanta, which we followed during the night and into the early morning. Often considered one of the craziest games ever, it went 19 innings and ended at 4 a.m. The Mets were winning 7-4 going into the 8th inning. The Braves went up 8-7 in the bottom of the 8th, and due to two long rain delays, it was near midnight when the 9th inning started. It was Fireworks Night in Atlanta, but most of the fans left, assuming that they would be cancelled due to the length of the game. The Mets tied the game up in the 9th, and it went to extra innings. The Mets scored 2 in the 13th, and the Braves tied it up again. It dragged on the 18th, and the Mets took the lead. The Braves were down to their last player, Rick Camp, a relief pitcher who was an awful hitter. Of course, he hit the only home run of his career to tie it. But in the top of the 19th, the Mets plated 5. The Braves answered back with 2 more, and the tying run at the plate was Camp. He struck out to end the game, and at 4 a.m., the Braves shot off their fireworks, scaring their neighbors.

The following year, 1986, was the centennial celebration of the Statue of Liberty, and New York threw an enormous party. There were speeches, concerts, Tall Ships, and what was, until that time, the largest fireworks display ever in the world. I remember that it was hot, crowded, and that the fireworks were spectacular. I also remember that somehow, no one seemed to realize that the subway would be mobbed immediately after the fireworks ended, and we all moved slowly, trying to stay together, as we were herded toward the few open entrances. I remember that the train thankfully was air conditioned, and that it was so crowded on the trains that strangers sat on people’s laps to squeeze more bodies onto the cars.

My son was born in April, 1990, and I think that it was in 1991 that my wife and I thought that it would be a good idea to take him to the Fourth of July fireworks. We started by going to a barbecue restaurant on the Upper West Side, then took the subway, with Adam in his stroller, downtown, then walked over to the East River to watch. Almost immediately after they started, the kid understandably got scared and started to cry. We decided to leave and take a cab home. Of course, the traffic was crazy, and we were stopping and starting all the way home. As we got sort of close to our apartment, Adam threw up in the cab, which did not make us popular with the driver. We finally got home, threw the kid in the bath to clean of the vomit, then cleaned ourselves off. My wife still, nearly a quarter of a century later, wrongly believes that this incident demonstrated bad parenting. I think it was just a well-intentioned mistake that had no lasting negative effect on the boy, who seems to like fireworks just fine.

Finally, starting in 1996, to celebrate the university’s 250th anniversary, Princeton began to have a fireworks show during Reunions (yep, I came back to that theme anyway). The following year, at my 15th Reunion, we saw the display, which was pretty incredible. In a flashback to my Montmartre experience, flaming debris landed in some dry grass and a brush fire started, which was quickly extinguished. The Reunions fireworks continue to impress (we saw it again at the 20th, 25th and 30th). The picture above, though, is by my friend and classmate Noel Valero, from this year’s show, and it won the reader photography competition sponsored by the Princeton Alumni Weekly. (One of my wife’s pictures from Reunions, of a little baby, was chosen as an editor’s favorite.)

And while we are bringing things full circle, back to Clearwater. On Sunday, I arrived late after coaching a youth soccer game (my boys scored three at the end to win 3-2, a heck of a way to end a season), and was confronted with a choice. Toshi Reagon, who in some ways embodies the festival as much as anyone—the daughter of Freedom Singers and civil rights activists Bernice Johnson Reagon and Cordell Hull Reagon, the goddaughter of festival founder Pete Seeger and named after Pete’s wife, she is also a political and lesbian activist and a kick-ass performer. Or The Lone Bellow, one of my favorite new Americana bands. My wife chose Toshi, and I went for the Lone Bellow, on the theory that Toshi is likely to be there next year, but I wasn’t sure that The Lone Bellow would. They really put on a great set, although it was distractingly hot. And they sang this song, which mentions New York Fourth of July fireworks, and the subway. If it only mentioned Reunions, Paris and the Mets, it really would have tied everything together, but you can’t have everything.

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