Friday, July 3, 2009

The 4th of July of the Century

Anyone who never outgrew fireworks (and that may be everyone) has a favorite 4th of July. Mine is 1986 in New York Harbor.

The pyrotechnic display nonpareil occurred the Friday evening of Liberty Weekend—a four-day binge America went on to commemorate the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. New York City hosted President Ronald Reagan and French President Fran├žois Mitterrand, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren Burger and CEO supreme Lee Iacocca, a gaggle of politicians and a galaxy of celebrities, all devoted to saluting the perennial-reigning real and undefeated First Lady of the United States, Miss Liberty.

Like circus elephants entering a town, the eagerly anticipated Tall Ships, battleships and sailing vessels of earlier eras, followed one another majestically down the Hudson River for most of that day. The night belonged to the fireworks.

My wife Jean and I wanted our two young daughters to be part of the history happening before their eyes on such an historic date. As we ventured downtown to the southern tip of Manhattan for the celebration, I don’t think we considered the crowds we would be swept up in to be swept along with.

A father had to act, quickly. I dug down into my pocket for my heavy weapon—my press card.

Herding my three ladies out and away from the dense sea of bodies, I headed for where no one wanted to go. Open space. And kept walking with them, further and further away from “the action,” until we were practically nowhere. That’s when I saw the police barriers blocking a city street and the two policemen on duty in front of them.

According to a Time Magazine article at the time, “Security is a high priority. Airspace for several miles around Liberty Island has been declared off limits for five days. Helicopters will sweep the skies, while police divers will guard the water. Some 75 Coast Guard boats will patrol the bay, along with 200 civilian vessels recruited to help out. … Onshore, 15,000 of New York's Finest will be working overtime for the celebration, costing the city's taxpayers an estimated $4.26 million.”

The fireworks had started. Suggesting Jean and the girls wait several feet behind me, I approached the two officers, showed them my press card, and asked if I might enter the “No Entry” area as if there was no question about it. As soon as one of them nodded, I gestured toward my family as if to say “with them of course.” They actually moved the barriers aside to make space for us. Then, even better, they moved them back. We had the entire street to ourselves.

Not having to worry and watch the girls, Jean and I were able to let them drift steps or several feet away, which, their heads tilted toward the sky in their excitement, arms flung open and bodies spinning to see it all, they freely did. The sky was filled with blazing light and color, the air with steady blasts of propulsion and explosion. The dazzling array of fireworks was multiplied by its reflection mirrored in the predominantly glass exteriors of the windowed buildings surrounding us. Every moment breathtaking.

Three fireworks companies reportedly fired 20 tons of fireworks from 42 barges high into the lower Manhattan sky for over 30 minutes that night.

The exploding lights were supposed to be synchronized with music, but we never heard the music. What rang in my ears then and will stick in my memory forever is the sound of my daughter Haley, twelve at the time, howling with astonishment and overwhelming glee.

Hope you have a day to remember.


  1. That was a fantastic story.
    I remember my favorite fireworks. It was 1999, I was 10 and still living on the Chesapeake Bay, specifically the Magothy River. My family and I took out our largest boat, a 40 ft. Roamer Chris Craft to the Annapolis Harbor to see the fireworks like we did every year. My mother packed dinner which we ate on the way up, careful not to drip canteloup juice or spill any Coke- my mother had scrubbed the boat sparkling white that morning and she was extremely uptight about cleanliness.
    When we got to the Harbor, it was already packed with boats, but there was a fairly large space in the middle front which was completely unmarked. My mother dropped anchor there. The sun set and the fireworks began, and a minute into it my little sister complained of something hitting her eye. As my mom went to help, my father got hit with a large piece of black something. Within seconds, my parent's beautful white boat -and my family and I- were SMOTHERED in black ashes from the fireworks. We were so close to the launching shells that we were below the explosions. Thankfully my mother had a sense of humor as large as her intolerance of mess which made the experience all the more enjoyable. And as for us kids- it was the greatest, messiest, dirtiest 4th of July we possibly could have ever dreamed of.

  2. Thanks for the reminiscence and the kind wishes, Ray. I hope you and Jean enjoyed a very special 4th of July.