It took me more than 50 years, but I’ve finally kicked my fireworks habit. I’ve gone from a full-fledged July Fourth pyromaniac to a frustrated, middle-aged man who can’t stand the noise, pollution, fire danger and safety hazards that go hand in hand with most private fireworks displays in South Sound.
Life in East Olympia at Horsefeathers Farm is good, except for the one day of the year when it turns into a war zone with exploding bombs and rockets, also known as fireworks, purchased at tribal fireworks stands, then discharged illegally with no threat of penalty or arrest unless you do something really stupid, such as start a fire or injure someone.
There we sat last Saturday night in the house, windows open to combat the sweltering heat, counting the hours and minutes before the explosions would subside. We watched a film on pay-for-view TV but had a hard time hearing the dialogue because of all the fireworks noise.
Outside, my daughter baby-sat her horse, a skittish Arabian who can’t stand the sound of screeching bottle rockets. Last year on July 4, he broke out of his stall and raced crazily around the pasture until the fireworks displays subsided well after midnight. This year, we knew better than to try to confine him, but his fear was palpable as he spent part of the night trembling in the far corner of the wooded pasture, waiting for the battle to end.
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My dog didn’t run away like so many do on July 4. But he clearly was upset and kept looking at me with fear in his eyes, wondering why I couldn’t restore peace and quiet to the night.
Did I tell you I’m no longer a fan of July 4 fireworks? I used to be. In fact, I have a long history of reckless, potentially dangerous, behavior associated with fireworks.
As a young boy living in Shelton, I loved blowing things up with firecrackers. I’d spend July 5 roaming the yard, looking for fireworks to ignite that had fizzled out without exploding the day before. Their short fuses added to the danger and excitement.
Somehow, I never injured myself.
Then there was the July 4 Dodge family reunion and picnic in the early 1960s at Mullen Resort at Pattison Lake. My cousins and I started a small grass fire while playing with sparklers on the resort baseball field. Later that night, we slipped into the men’s restroom and blew a hole in the bottom of a toilet with powerful firecrackers. We got caught, but our punishment didn’t really fit the crime. We were sent back to the resort July 5 to clean restrooms and pick up July 4 fireworks debris and garbage that littered the resort. The resort owner, Ford Mullen, put us to work for about two hours, then fed us ice cream bars and let us swim the rest of the day.
A couple of years later, a July 4 picnic with family and friends at our home on Long Lake led to a nighttime fireworks display over my mother’s protestations. Another grass fire ensued.
A decade later, renting a cabin on Pattison Lake, my recreation league softball team gathered for a beer bash and picnic that climaxed with a costly display of illegal fireworks from a neighborhood dock. The dock caught on fire and smoldered through the night before it was detected and extinguished in the early-morning hours by a bleary-eyed teammate.
I never used to, but now I think about all the fireworks debris that ends up in South Sound lakes and the inlets of southern Puget Sound. It’s all garbage and pollution that belittles efforts to protect and clean up Puget Sound.
At least seven homes and possibly more were damaged by fireworks across Western Washington this year, causing more than $2 million in damage. Outside the Red Wind Casino near Yelm, a malfunctioning firework landed in a car trunk loaded with pyrotechnics. Families scattered, and fortunately, no one was hurt.
I talked to East Olympia Fire Chief Mel Low, who shares my belief that the Fourth of July is out of control. He has a ranch with cattle and horses on the Deschutes River and can’t keep rivergoers from blasting away, sending fiery rockets into his fields.
What good is it to have laws against illegal use of fireworks if they aren’t enforced? We both ask that question. I posed the question to Thurston County Sheriff Dan Kimball, who said his deputies are instructed to only respond to calls in which there is a danger to people or property.
“It’s our busiest day of the year,” the sheriff said. “We hope for voluntary compliance, but there’s just so damn many fireworks. Even the safe and sane fireworks can be hazardous.”
Incidentally, the sheriff told me he headed for the Olympic Peninsula on July 4, partly to see his mother and partly to escape the South Sound barrage of fireworks.
I talked to a Squaxin Island tribal member Jim Peters shortly after July 4. He told me how Indian families that operate fireworks stands can make several thousand dollars each year. “Some set the money aside to help pay for the kids’ college education,” he said.
I can’t argue with that. But I can say “no” to fireworks and urge others to do the same. If you consider colorful explosions in the sky an expression of patriotism, go to a public fireworks display instead.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444