Marilyn Gardner Woods
It's Star-spangled time...
Updated: Jul 3, 2022
I look forward to the Fourth of July celebration in my neighborhood at Fern’s impressive sweeping perch where all three of the major San Diego fireworks demonstrations can be viewed and appropriate o-o-oohs and a-a-aaahs issued by all partygoers.
Her invitations, hand delivered to each mailbox on Albatross and Palms Streets, reads “Please come to eat hamburgers, hotdogs, vegetarian baked beans and other Fourth of July fixings and drinks to watch the fireworks.”
A walking hamburger with binocular-like eyes accompanies the verbiage.
This will be the first gathering in several years.
Holidays become odder and odder as Covid continues to snake in and out of our lives. For a lobster fest party this week, I received a polite request to test before attending. Dinner dates with close friends were cancelled the past two weekends due to Covid exposure. Thankfully, at least in my part of the world, this is the “most wonderful time of the year” for being in the great outdoors.
Like Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye, “I’m quite illiterate but I read a lot…” I love a good book.
Often, I turn to Encyclopedia of the Exquisite, An Anecdotal History of Elegant Delights by Jessica Jenkins. Most recently in my paella-making phase, I learned from her book that saffron is so expensive because it takes more than seventy thousand flowers to amass one pound of the precious spice; the threads are gathered by hand while the flower blooms.
Hmm-m-m, I wondered if Jenkins had anything to say about fireworks.
She acquainted me with Rome’s ground-shaking displays, put on at the Castel Sant’Angelo, not on the Fourth of July, but every Easter from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries. The author quoted the Italian metallurgist Vannoccio Biringuccio who wrote about the display magnificently, “It seems as if the sky has opened, and that all the stars are falling to Earth.”
In the end of his essay, he surmised, “Fireworks had no other purpose than amusement, and endured no longer than the kiss of a lover for his lady, if as long.”
The Italian wrote about artillery design and casting metal bells, but reserved his zeal for gunpowder’s stunning effects saying, “From these fires composed of forceful and horrible materials bringing harm and terror to men, a happy and pleasing effect is also produced.” He continued to marvel adding, “and instead of fleeing from it, the people willingly go to see it.”
As I am inclined to do when I begin to write, I ramble—and amble—here and there. On a potty break, I walked past a Chinese work of art near my bedroom door which I purchased some years ago at a satellite location in Escondido of the Mingei Museum.
When the North County location was to be closed, an auction sale was held which I attended with my art patron daughter-in-law. We both came away with treasures. (The Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park re-opened last year after a brilliant restoration during Covid. It is a real crowd-pleaser and big draw to the park.)
I inquired about my selection and the curator informed me that my purchase is a gilded Chinese firecracker wrapper. Most likely for Chinese New Year’s celebration.
In 2004, not long after, The San Diego Museum of Art staged an extraordinary exhibition titled Past in Reverse: Contemporary Art of East Asia featuring Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. From my studies then, I learned that “exploding bamboo” or Baozhu in Chinese was the predecessor of firecrackers.
In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), gunpowder was discovered by chance, which led to the invention of firecrackers in China. People found that a loud blast could be produced by inserting gunpowder into the hollow of a bamboo stick and then throwing it into a fire which led to the custom that continues in so many different tradition and incarnations today.
My sweetest and bittersweet-est Fourth of July memory – my brother and I at eight and nine were allowed by my sort-of-strict father to light our own snakes (a variety of firecracker deposit on a surface which emits smoke and spews out ash resembling a snake via an intumescent reaction) on the driveway with punk he had lit for us with stern warning about the dangers of fireworks.
Somehow—I have no idea where my little brother got it or how he set it off—but he threw a lighted firecracker out of his second-floor bedroom window early evening. I’m thinking he was certain the big neighborhood parent happy hour party—whiskey sours, long neck beers, hot dogs on the grill, Mom’s highly-sought-after baked beans, and Willie Nelson music—was well under way, and he could get away with it.
Unfortunately, his aim misfired, and the firecracker exploded on the large awning covering the terrace which set the canvas on fire and brought the celebration to a stunned conclusion.
We were both grounded the rest of the summer.
I had nothing to do with it.
Guilty by association.
With or without scratchy throat or runny nose or home tests or whatever might threaten your holiday weekend, I hope your celebration is joyous, safe, and as Biringuccio, the Italian writer, concluded “the exhilaration fleeting—and eternal.”