The 4th Of July Celebration

All the shenanigans around the July 4th Celebration down at the lake last night actually started a week ago.

On Thursday of last week the Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BOMA) passed an emergency ordinance banning the use of fireworks, out-door grilling, and any other form of outside fun untill further notice, even though the Fourth of July was a week away. Watervalley had only received a quarter inch of rain during the month of June and the potential for fire was off the charts. Within the air-conditioned and low-lit confines of the majestic old city hall conference room, the BOMA boys thought they were being wise and prudent.

There’s something about the weightiness of that room, about all that mahogany and heavy molding that makes normal citizens take on a mantle of stoic dignity and quiet Summer Picnic Food importance. It somehow creates a collective mind that God in heaven above had put them there to make the hard decisions for the betterment of all the ordinary people.

The public outcry was immediate.

It probably didn’t help that the following morning the headlines of the twice-weekly Watervalley paper, The Village Voice, read “BOMA Lands BOMAshell on July Fourth Celebrations.” The editor, Luther Whitmore, a curmudgeon and likely heavy drinker, knew that controversy always boosted circulation. So for good measure he threw in a nasty editorial including references to “Big Brother, Patriotism, the Founding Fathers, and Remembering the Alamo.” It was all the talk of street and store.

At first Mayor Walt Hickman -likable portly fellow that he is – held his ground, defending the decision. But he caved pretty quickly, especially after getting phone calls from several of the local ministers who railed on the idea.  Their congregations had planned big July Fourth celebrations. For the Presbyterians and Episcopalians, this included beer, invoking emotions to really run high. The fact that it’s an election year was probably lurking in the back of Walt’s mind as well.

An emergency meeting of the BOMA was called Saturday morning to do damage control. With lowered chins and darting sideways glances, this time the group looked more like a bunch of truants who had been called to the principal’s office rather than the proud proctors of the public good who had floated in the euphoria of their own wisdom less than forty-eight hours earlier.

But Walt rose to the moment, proposing a compromise in which bar-be-queuing and fireworks would be allowed down at Watervalley Lake, where the town always conducted it’s annual display at nine PM on July Fourth anyway. The volunteer fire department would be on hand with the pump truck to address any problems. Wanting the heated phone calls from friends and family to cease, the Aldermen passed the motion unanimously, with less than a minute discussion. It was victory for patriotism, fireworks salesmen, and Presbyterians everywhere who like to drink beer on major holidays.

The city’s fireworks display is always set up on two old stripped down pontoon boats that are tethered together and floated out in the middle of Watervalley Lake. Ed Caswell, the fire chief, was in charge and in keeping with his meticulous nature, had aligned things to happen in a methodic orderly way. He had taken a special on-line course on sequenced fireworks ignition, a certificate that still hangs proudly in his office.

On the Fourth the temperature pushed past a hundred for the eleventh time this year, which, in and of itself was a record for Watervalley. All the festivities down at the lake were to be held at the far shallow end, away from the bandstand that was still under renovation. The shallow end came to an almost symmetrical point that if seen from above looked much like an arrowhead. It also afforded the best possibility for shade, with a row of trees sitting some fifty yards back, providing a curtain on both sides.

The Presbyterians were the first to show up for the Independence Day celebration, arriving shortly after four o’clock. This was done partly to take advantage of the closest parking places but also due to their general affinity for partying. For them, there was not a duplicity of social rules between church gatherings and private gatherings; thus, they approached such events with much less timidity. Having attained the victory of prized parking, a general feeling of patriotism and fairness pervaded the group and it was decided that they would take the long hike around the point of the lake and set up the farthest away. This would allow successive groups the opportunity to fill in around the lakefront in an orderly manner. Having trudged the distance, they raised their flag, the Presbyterian standard, so that balance of their group could easily spot the rally point.

The Episcopalians arrived next. Having noted the largess of the Presbyterians on not setting up shop at the closest point to the parking lot, they followed in like form and hiked around the point of the lake, toting tables, chairs, and coolers of all shapes and sizes, and cordially set up adjacent to their distant ecclesiastical cousins.

By now the early scouts of all the various denominations were starting to arrive and a somewhat orderly land grab took place with the Lutherans and Catholics ironically almost intermingling on the remaining space of the far side approaching the point. The larger sects, the Baptist and Methodists, filled up considerable portions of the near side. Each had brought their denominational flag, providing for a simple identification to randomly arriving flock.

The only group to break the natural order of things was the Church of Christ who obliviously hop-scotched everyone, taking claim to the area at the point end of the lake. This act didn’t pass unnoticed, especially by the Presbyterians, and invoked joking comments about how “they think they are the only ones here anyway”, a veiled reference to a rather odd point in their salvation theology.

Even the Primitive Baptists showed up with their long cotton dresses, dark trousers, and stern faces. They retreated to a place near the edge of the woods, taking advantage of what little shade was available. Their spread of food was no less fabulous then the rest, but they did seem more engaged in observing rather than talking among themselves. The Primitive women took particular interest in the many women in sundresses and halter-tops. Although more subtle, the Primitive men seemed to take an interest in the same.

Soon enough the lake was a cacophony of laughter and fellowship with bright and colorful displays of red, white, and blue and children running, tumbling, giggling, and throwing sticks into the lake. The warm summer evening air became permeated with the good, thick smell of charcoal and smoke. The sense of celebration was electric, contagious, and all seemed to be having a grand time, especially the Presbyterians and Episcopalians. This likely had something to do with the presence of so many red Solo cups and frequent visits to the coolers hidden respectfully toward the back of their serving areas.

Small groups and individuals who were not aligned with the denominational celebrations also arrived. This swelled the general gathering by an additional hundred or so.  These folks filled in gaps and pockets in and around the larger groups, throwing their blankets down at a respectful distance.

About half past eight, Ed Caswell came puttering down the length of the lake, slowly towing the fireworks laden pontoon boots with his small flat-bottom fishing boat and trolling motor. Once in place, and mustering as much ceremony and dignity as he could, he threw off a couple of concrete blocks tied to ropes to anchor the pontoons. Then, with quiet authority, he announced over a bull horn that if anyone wanted to shoot off their own fireworks, now would be the time, with the general fireworks display starting promptly at nine. He also asked that this be done at the edge of the lake, a request that seemed reasonable to all present.

Although it all started innocently, that’s when the trouble began.

Most of the celebrators started with simple firecrackers and sparklers much to the delight of the children. But soon, the bigger stuff came out, starting with the bottle rockets. Ironically, it was the Baptists that started it. Using PVC pipe as launch tubes, they inclined their rockets toward the lake, thinking they would explode and fall harmlessly into the water. But several of the first volleys arched quickly and went headlong into the mix of the Presbyterians across the lake. This invoked an immediate equal but measured response from the Presbyterians, angling their rockets intentionally toward the opposite bank in retaliation. Unfortunately, precision bombing with bottle rockets is an elusive science and several strayed over into the Methodist camp, causing unintended collateral damage.

The Methodists immediately sent a foray of rockets in retaliation that naturally didn’t come close to the Presbyterians but instead shellacked the Lutherans and Episcopalians. All out war escalated. Spontaneous, unspoken pacts were made, left shore versus right shore. Some independents joined in. Fireworks Over Water The entire crowd became engaged in a consuming frenzy of uproarious laughter, cheering, and bravado. The bottle rocket battle entertained on so many levels. The sheer fun of competition was only matched by the ridiculous accuracy of attempts. Few rockets actually honed in on their intended targets and some even went straight up only to come sizzling back to their originators.

And no one was laughing harder than the Church of Christ camp, who, being positioned on the point of the lake found themselves as the Switzerland of the conflict. But this neutrality didn’t go unnoticed for long. In the fury of the moment, some of the Presbyterians threw a few salvos into their base that sent a couple of the gawkers hot footing away. Instantly it seemed that everyone turned their guns in that direction, all the other denominations having found a common enemy. In good humor, one of the CoC raised a white tablecloth on a flagpole that brought a round of applause and laughter from the attackers.

But during the chaos and hilarity, apparently a few of the bottle rockets had haphazardly landed on the pontoon boats carrying the city fireworks display. It started with one single boom, with everyone thinking that the official fireworks had begun. It quickly escalated from there. Rockets and explosions spewed out in all directions, sending onlookers to the safety of the nearby trees. Ed Caswell made a vain attempt to get to the pontoon boats with his flat bottom but a hail of rocket fire made him think better of it.

Instead of a controlled display with a grand finale that was supposed to take forty minutes, the whole business was over in about ten. Even yet, it was marvelously impressive. And as the last rocket exploded high above, of all groups, the Primitive Baptists began singing the Star Spangled Banner. By the time they had gotten to  “what so proudly we hail” pretty much the entire crowd had joined in, even those who probably shouldn’t have. It all ended with a loud cheer and applause and the festive sprit of the crowd would likely have continued except for one complication. Five minutes later, it came a downpour.

In reflection, some thought it was the best Independence Day celebration ever in the valley.  Some thought otherwise. All were thankful for the rain.

In the end, the celebration proved something of a smorgasbord for would be church-goers to sample the assortment of congregations and decide which flavor seemed to fit them best. For many, it was an eye opener to realize that God and fun could be in the same sentence, previous experience having proven otherwise. Collectively, many commented that maybe it was time to pay the church pews a long overdue visit.

When it rains, it pours.

I’m J. High, and for now in Watervalley, that’s pretty much the highpoint.




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