The most dramatic fireworks display I've ever seen took place in the little town of Greenwood, which is somewhere near my parents' camp but otherwise pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It was on a hot summer evening more than thirty years ago.
The occasion was the Firemen's Field Days. The fire department of the small town hosted some games for kids, a parade for one and all, and incredible quantities of cheap beer. We arrived at about dusk, our station wagon parking next to all the other cars in the hard-packed field. I was about ten at the time, still young enough to want toss a ping pong ball into a goldfish bowl to win a prize, but old enough to be aware that maybe there was something wrong with the teenager running the game, who was swaying back and forth, dropping pingpong balls everywhere, and repeatedly taking swigs from his plastic cup of beer.
Everyone in the town was drunk. Everyone. The drinking age at the time was eighteen, but pretty much every person over the age of twelve was sloshed. Music blared from speakers. Bright lights blinked over lines of prizes. Weaving their way between the ringtoss and fishing pond, men and women knocked into each other, talking, swearing, and clutching plastic cups of beer. The hardpacked dirt ground was covered with crushed cups and splotches of spilled beer.
The fireman in charge of the fireworks had some kind of torch, which he swung around uncertainly, until other men from the fire department joined him. The crowd cheered as big pinwheels of color lit up the sky. Then the screaming began as the drunk men started hurling fireworks at the crowd, at the games, and into the woods. The air filled with smoke and colour, the sounds of exploding everywhere. My mother screamed and grabbed my little sister, who was just a toddler, and as a family we ran, following my father down into a drainage ditch. My brother and I huddled together just below the haze of smoke.
The woods caught on fire. "Call the fire department!" One woman was screaming. Even as a child, I could see the irony in her words. Eventually some drunk men jumped onto a pumper, which had been part of the parade, and streams of water shot across the scene. Throughout this, the man with the torch was still gleefully lighting up fireworks, so bursts of color continued to careen across the sky, illuminating the faces of the crowd: children screaming, a woman in a black halter top running with a baby clutched to her hip, a young man cheering, a fistfight breaking out near the edge of the field, a bunch of people attempting to haul games out of harm's way, and others just standing around with bewildered smiles on their faces.
Every fireworks display since has seemed tame.