Friday, July 1, 2011

4th of July

Petersburg Alaska From a Firework's Perspective

I've had some pretty memorable 4th of July moments. There was the meaningful Bicentennial Celebration of 1976. I was nine, and people were handing out two dollar bills all over the place. Then there was the coolest 4th of July....the time I watched the Redding fireworks in typical 110 degree heat from a lounge chair in my friend's pool. And I'll never forget the time I spent my holiday falling in love while floating down the Rogue River. My lover kissed me and everything stopped, except for the fireworks exploding in my own head. I can still taste the Blueberry Twist Trident gum he had in his mouth. That was the most personal. But here's another 4th of July memory that's close to my heart to share with you, and a playlist to go along with it.

It was during the 13 years I spent living on an island in Southeast Alaska, in the little fishing village of Petersburg. It was settled by Norwegians in the late 1800's who had left their country in search of a better life. While the descendants of those original settlers still celebrate their Scandinavian heritage more fervently than they do back in the old country (there's even books written about it - in Norwegian), they are also proudly American. They love this country. It gave them an opportunity to have a quality life if they were willing to work hard for it. So when the 4th of July rolls around, Petersburg is ready for a serious party. You have never met a more patriotic bunch than these Norsk immigrants and their descendants, living in the newest state in the union. It'll make you proud to be an American just to see how proud these folks are just for the privilege of being American.

Perhaps you've heard that up there in Alaska there's 6 months of sun and 6 months of darkness. That's not entirely accurate. At least not  down in Southeast. But in the summertime, the crack of dawn occurs at around 3am, and the long, slow sunset starts at about 9 and finally disappears at about 11. On the 4th of July, that's when the party really starts.  During the day there's a great parade. It's so short that it usually loops around and makes a second run through town just so people feel they got their money's worth. Harald Medalen, who fought in the Norwegian Resistance in WWII, marched in every 4th of July parade, and always got the respect he deserved for his efforts. After the parade, fun continues with the annual Egg Toss (video here), and the Fish Tote Races. Seriously, this is what we did!

A float in the Petersburg 4th of July Parade

When twilight finally arrives, all 3000 people in the village begin making their way to the north shore of Mitkof Island to spread blankets out on neighbor's front lawns to watch the community fireworks display. They don't have anything like the McConnell Foundation to help fund a spectacular display. The cash is raised at the grocery store, with jars to toss your spare change after buying groceries. It doesn't raise much, but it's enough for Petersburg.

One year when I was a reporter at the local public radio station, instead of watching the fireworks from Mitkof, I was allowed to join the fellas who made it all happen. A few hours before sunset my friend Dave Berg, local travel agent, volunteer firefighter and the only licensed pyrotechnician in town, led a group of people across to nearby Sasby Island in skiffs (the islands are so close you can shout across the water to the people on the other side). Everyone sludged down to the beach in Extra-Tuffs, swatting away thick clouds of mosquitos and noseeums (in Alaska, you can see 'em). Even if you didn't smoke, you lit up. It was the only way to keep away the bugs. Until Dave set off the first firework. Then all the bugs were gone for good.

Then I set up my equipment, the tools of my trade. A set of headphones, a microphone and MARTI, the portable transmitter with a battery pack that allowed me to broadcast back to the station. Every year KFSK would provide a patriotic musical backdrop to the fireworks. Some unfortunate volunteer DJ would have to stay behind in the station while the island's other 2,999 residents were enjoying the show. That year, we did something a little different, with a live broadcast from Ground Zero. We still played the patriotic music, but along with it, we broadcast the sounds of Dave and his crew setting off the fireworks, calling to each other as they set off each one, the WHOOSH of each bomb firing out of the mortar heard loud and clear on everyone's radio.

The way I recall it, the guys dug holes in the sand, installing mortars and then they organized the fireworks - several thousand dollars worth of paper wrapped color bombs with long fuses - by size. Then when they were ready, I told the DJ back at the radio station to cue the music,   and the men began to set them off. They were a very well coordinated group, working in little teams. One would light the fuse with a road flare, then wait for the bomb to shoot out of the mortar, and then would call for another firework by size, and the sky would light up with color over and over again.

Over on the other island, the townspeople erupted with delight every time another color exploded over the water. We could hear them shouting "Oooh!" and "Aaaaah!" in response to the efforts of the crew on Sasby Island.  I could even hear the patriotic music turned up loudly on some of the boats floating around in the mouth of the Wrangell Narrows. There were plenty of them, positioned so they could lie on the deck, directly underneath the explosions.

Every time I think about that night I can't help but grin from ear to ear, thinking about the immense joy a small group of volunteers brought to the whole village, and how special it felt to be there, experiencing a 4th of July you just can't imagine anywhere else.

There are a few radio stations in the area that are coordinating some patriotic music on their airwaves during fireworks displays over the weekend. Q97 will coordinate with Anderson Explodes Sunday evening at the Shasta County Fairgrounds, and KFPR has similar plans for Monday's Freedom Festival Fireworks from the Convention Center in Redding. And of course, I'm offering up my own playlist for you to stream or download, and feel free to make your own suggestions or offer up stories of your favorite 4th of July.

Download this 4th of July iMix on iTunes!
Stream it instead on Grooveshark. No money required!

4th of July Playlist

  1. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - This Land Is Your Land
  2. Ray Charles - America The Beautiful
  3. James Brown - Living In America
  4. Neil Diamond - America
  5. Bruce Springsteen - Born In The USA
  6. Lenny Kravitz - American Woman
  7. John Mellencamp - R.O.C.K. In The USA
  8. Chuck Berry - Back In The USA
  9. Grand Funk Railroad - We're An American Band
  10. Neil Young - Rockin' In The Free World
  11. Carlos Bertonatti - Reach Out America
  12. Don McLean - American Pie
  13. Elton John - Philadelphia Freedom
  14. The Beatles - Revolution
  15. Miley Cyrus - Party in the USA
  16. Shooter Jennings - 4th Of July
  17. Toby Keith - Courtesy Of The Red White & Blue
  18. Randy Travis - America Will Always Stand
  19. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - An American Dream
  20. Steve Miller Band - Living In The USA
  21. Martin Sexton - Free World
  22. Keb' Mo' - America The Beautiful
  23. Glenn Miller - American Patrol
  24. The Impressions - This Is My Country
  25. Johnny Cash - Ragged Old Flag
  26. Jimi Hendrix - Star Spangled Banner

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