THE 4TH OF JULYF OR THE EPHEMERAL and the spectacular in art, not to mention the noisy,
The Chinese, we’re told, invented fireworks about 1,600 years ago — which means in some sense they should get credit for the spectacle over Southwest Florida every July 4, when just after dark, the skies traditionally burst into all- American displays of color.
Fireworks have been popping up in India for more than a millennium, too, and sporadically in Europe since the 13th century, when Marco Polo returned from the Far East.
The British have enjoyed an on-again, off-again love affair with fireworks, but they prefer burning the Guy on Nov. 5, Guy Fawkes Day. That celebrates the end of the unfortunate Mr. Fawkes, point man in a plot to blow up Parliament, in London. His pals talked him into hiding all night with a match and 36 barrels of gunpowder they’d hidden in the basement under the House of Lords.
Although Mr. Fawkes intended a mighty send-up come morning — blowing the King, the Prince of Wales and other bigwigs to kingdom come — somebody tipped off the guards. They found him and tortured him to death, which is why his effigy is thrown on top of burn piles in villages and towns all over Britain every year, while everybody celebrates yet another victory for the aristocracy.
But that doesn’t hold a candle to a good American fireworks show.
The French also like fireworks — often for use on Bastille Day, July 14, which first occurred in 1789, only 13 years after our own Independence Day on July 4, 1776.
Theirs, of course, was nothing like ours. On their freedom day a lot of prisoners were executed without trial — the innocent, the guilty (of royal blood, riches and a callous disregard for the starving mass of citizens), and anybody else who got in the way. What they did in the name of freedom makes tyranny look like a mild twin brother.
Which brings us to the sunny Southwest coast. Since people here come from all over, as we Americans like to say, the roots of our annual fireworks spectacles reach back to every community in the United States that funneled its snow-weary, its travel-crazed, its sun-yearning masses way down south into Lee County
And every one of us brings memories of fireworks here and in other places that seem to burst again above us each Independence Day, as part of this marvelous, magnificent American custom.
Should anyone question the value of spending tens of thousands of dollars on the ephemeral and magnificent merely in the name of freedom, John Adams will rise from his grave and speak to the matter.
A signer of the Declaration and a European ambassador, Mr. Adams was a politician so committed to the American cause that he once grabbed a rifle and climbed into the rigging of a ship transporting him and his son across the Atlantic, joining the Marines there and opening fire on a hostile British Navy vessel.
He was also our second president.
Mr. Adams will address the skeptics by ignoring the the constitution of fireworks: a variety of metals including strontium and lithium for reds, calcium (orange), sodium (yellow), barium (green), copper with halides (blue), cesium (indigo), potassium and rubidium (violet), along with some other stuff — charcoal, iron or lampback for gold, and a variety of powders for white.
He will ignore the nomenclature of design: the peony, a burst of colored stars with no tails; the chrysanthemum, the dahlia, the willow, the palm — that’s a burst at the top of a trunk of smoke or light, with several large fronds exploding off the main, and sometimes even little coconut explosions of color inside the palm effect; the ring, the spider, the Roman candle, the horsetail, the salute, and many more.
But Mr. Adams will not ignore the American need for a brash, bold, booming July 4.
Instead, he will use the words he once employed after our very first celebration, on July 4, 1777 — at a moment when our independence was far from certain.
He said this: “(July 4) ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”
And we say amen.