In honor of Independence Day, we who play with matches at Co.Design turned to independent thinker—and the ultimate fan of fireworks—Peter Schjeldahl, whose essay on the same from 1988, a far more analog era, is one of our all-time favorites. Here, the annual host of one of the most spectacular firework gatherings in America, at his home in upstate New York, writes on why the bottle rocket "may be the world’s single most satisfactory manufactured object" and how important it is to pretend you’re setting things on fire for the entertainment of children. Happy July 4th! —The Editors
It is the Fourth of July weekend as I write, art is elsewhere, and what I really love now is to set off fireworks. I’m talking backyard pyrotechnics with the traditional, bottom-of-the-line ordnance—cheap little gunpowder devices that blow up, zoom skyward, and/or emit colored fire—that is an everlasting miracle of human invention.
Thank you, ancient China, for the firecracker, upon which no improvements are anticipated or desired. Thank you especially for what we call in our vernacular the “bottle rocket,” maybe the world’s single most satisfactory manufactured object.
A contemporary bottle rocket (“Air Travel” brand, made in Kwang-tung) is a 2-inch-long cylinder of paper-wrapped propellant and explosive attached to a splinter-thin, nearly foot-long, red-dyed stick. Stand it upright, ideally in a beer bottle, and ignite. Fsss. Swish, trailing sparks and smoke. A hundred or so feet up, a flash followed by a crisp bang. Then, if it’s daylight (who can wait for sunset?), you see the bare red stick drifting down.
I know fireworks can hurt people, but so can a lot of other benignly intended things in an accident-prone world. I know they are illegal in New York State, but I assume law enforcers must be embarrassed to deny us simple, time-honored pleasures. Out of respect for the enforcers’ feelings, I ignore this law.
Acquiring firecrackers may be dicey, entailing a Third World-ish sojourn. It has led me at length, two years in a row, to smiling Chinese women in doorways—smiling, perhaps, because I am no kind of haggler. Even at sucker rates, however, bottle rockets should come to little above a nickel a pop.
You can get more potent items, too, and I do: rockets that scream, rockets that make semiprofessional-type fire flowers in the air, all manner of blazing gizmos that jump and spin, fireball-spitting (thup, thup, thup) Roman candles. The trouble with the more rare and expensive things is that you get too precious about expending them, making sure everyone is looking and so on. The optimum spirit of banging away is lost.
I leave out entirely the giant firecrackers like M-80s (“silver tubes” when I was a kid and their waterproof fuses made for low-effort, high-yield fishing in the town creek), whose specifications approach the military’s. Fireworks should be dangerous enough only to encourage alertness.
Light a firecracker and, quick, toss it. Bang. A feathery burst of shredded paper. Repeat until sated. You will like to explode a few whole packs. Bbbbangbbang, bang. But that’s too profligate—unless you could go all the way with it as they do on Bayard Street in Chinatown at the Chinese New Year, dozens or hundreds of people throwing masses of red crackers as fast as they can light them to produce a continuous roar.
After a day like that, it looks as if a red snowstorm has passed. In this city, Bayard Street filled with drifts of fluffy red paper is an annual sight as beautiful as Christmas lights on Park Avenue. It is a lovely, evanescent monument to hands-on, communal enjoyment, guaranteeing good luck.
Some will say that I would feel different if I had to live on Bayard Street. Some will be right. I do my exploding at an isolated rural place upstate in cahoots with my daughter and nephew. (To avoid feeling like an idiot, by the way, it is important to pretend that your fireworks are for the entertainment of children; if you lack kids, borrow one.) To the citybound who suffer the seasonal din, I can only extend a sympathy that they may well find unallaying.
Some, who are never wrong, will say further that my joy in fireworks is regressive. You bet it is—and none too soon after long months of approsimating grown-upness. With fireworks, I discover old, inchoate excitements probably pertaining to a boy’s dim anticipations of sex—an idea supported by Alfred Hitchcock, eternal sniggering little boy, when he mocked the coupling of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief with cutaways to airbursts over Monte Carlo.
Do-it-yourself fireworks satisfy a limited appetite for the pyromaniacal. (Once a year is plenty for it.) The appetite is merely exacerbated, I find, by the remote, academic splendors of professional fireworks displays, which deliver the vicarious arousal and intrinsic bleakness of watching somebody else’s fun. Watching professional displays, I know there are people out there having major kicks shooting the stuff off. I want to be one of them.
The alienating beauty of the professional spectacle impresses without moving. It can make you feel dead inside. Emotion is added, in dollops of gloppy sentimentality, by references to the ceremonial occasion. One may sometimes fall for this, as when, a few years ago, a centennial celebration of the Brooklyn Bridge was capped by having that totally adorable structure spew fire into the East River night. It’s a matter of what symbols your heart will buy into.
No such thematic necessity burdens Fourth of July bottle-rocketing, which is bang-for-bang’s-sake. Patriotism? Well, sure. It’s a likable country that maintains such a tradition, when you come to think of it—but you’re not obliged to. The point is not to congratulate America but to just go ahead and be an American in the classic mold: free, somewhat obnoxious, and up for a good time.
"Fireworks" originally appeared in The 7 Days Art Columns 1988–1990 by Peter Schjeldahl, copyright 1990. Republished by permission of the author.
[Photo credit: David Rainbird]