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Personal Essays

Dawn’s Early Fright

Every Fourth of July, numerous Americans celebrate independence by detonating explosives near their loved ones. From 2006, one family raises the white flag of surrender.

Credit: US CPSC

I know what happened to all those WMDs and munitions missing from Iraq: My neighbors here in Ohio have stockpiled them, and are ready to detonate them on the Fourth of July—known around these parts as Armageddon. In fact, as a taste of the doom to come, they’ve been test-firing samples over the past two weeks.

Since then I haven’t been able to walk around my block without inhaling the tangy zest of burnt gunpowder and having miniature bottle-launched rockets whiz through my hair. By sundown the air is so thick with smoke that I walk blindly into telephone poles, and at night I can’t look outside my window without seeing at least a dozen half-baked, third-world rockets blaze a pathway in the treetops for their more-incendiary cousins to follow. Unable to sleep, I go outside and wait until the flaming barrage stops, a garden hose in hand should my roof catch on fire. Now, just days before my neighbors drop “the big one,” the staccato of bombs detonating along my street is equivalent to a jackhammer in my living room, only it doesn’t end before 10 p.m. My dog Pacifist resides 24/7 under the stationary tub in my basement, and won’t come out even for food. I have to push it in under for her. The Vietnam and Gulf War vets moved out of my neighborhood years ago.

Because the sale of any firework deadlier than a toy pistol cap is outlawed in Ohio, my neighbors rush across the border into liberal Indiana and Kentucky to get what they need for a good saturation bombing. My theory is that black-marketers in Moscow, Pakistan, Iraq, Beijing, and even the good old U.S. of A. get together and export tons of ICBMs, nukes, sidewinders, and rusty Titans from the ’60s into areas around Covington and Lawrenceburg for my neighbors to buy. I suspect that Abdul Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear program and a spreader of nuclear technology, is the ringleader—and a personal friend to at least a couple of my neighbors. Probably he eats KFC with them on his frequent visits to Kentucky, and slips a few free bunker-busters to anyone who spends more than $500. And believe me, they all do.

My neighbor is producing his own fireworks in what he calls a “miniature Manhattan Project.”

My neighbor to the north, Vic, has again this year proudly informed me of his vast purchases in Indiana, and has promised to continue the scorched-earth policy he initiated so successfully last year, which reduced his shed and half my vegetable garden to a fine ash. Fortunately, my lettuce and tomatoes were the sole loss of life. My southern neighbor, Todd, tragically lost his cat to friendly fire at a display at a nearby park last year, and now no longer celebrates the holiday except for a few sad sprinklers and stinky smoke bombs that don’t even frighten the sparrows on his lawn.

My eastern neighbor, Vijay, a teaching assistant in physics at the local university, has told me he’s producing his own fireworks in what he calls a “miniature Manhattan Project.” He says he has something “really colorful with MIRVs” for the whole neighborhood to enjoy. I believe him—I’ve seen him toting books by Oppenheimer and Teller. And Chuck, my neighbor to the west, who has returned from several trips to Indiana with his pickup loaded down with ordnance, will undoubtedly wind up in the ER again this year after carpet bombing his own house, during which he will lose yet another finger or his remaining eye.

I used to go to a fireworks display put on by the local town hall and fire department, but it has grown too long and violent. It began years ago as a modest 30-minute light show but over time has grown to a feature-length Technicolor bombardment, beginning at sundown and lasting until almost midnight. One year it was choreographed to resemble an actual Revolutionary War battle, opening with strings of firecrackers in imitation of musket volleys and climaxing with cannon salvos.

More recently the display reenacted the history of modern weaponry, including a realistic H-bomb test on Bikini Island and a peek at Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars. At the conclusion many spectators, including me, were transported straight from the grounds to the hospital, suffering shellshock and eye-cinders. The line of us filing off the field appeared to be, if not actual battlefield casualties, at least parishioners leaving church on Ash Wednesday, so besmirched were we with gray powder on our exposed flesh.

This year I’m taking no chances. After my family and I watch Armageddon for a few minutes from our backyard and root for freedom and America, I’m planting a white flag of surrender on the lawn and then we’re hiding in my concrete bunker until dawn. Near the flag I’m posting a notarized document giving the terms of my complete and unconditional surrender to any conquering force in my yard. I’m also leaving a map to my refrigerator and beer cache, since looters must have their spoils. Finally, I’m adding a note to encourage the marauders to go to Iraq and help out our troops. The heat of the pair of 500-pound blockbusters that melted Zarqawi will be a mere warm-up compared to what my fully armed neighbors can pack.

Come morning, my family and I will see that once again we have survived the patriotic cataclysm and now in the aftermath must labor to put our shattered lives back together. The damage, of course, will be considerable.

Near the flag I’m posting a notarized document giving the terms of my complete and unconditional surrender to any conquering force in my yard.

I will find spent cardboard rockets sprayed all over my yard like tubular confetti, many at the bottom of my already polluted aboveground pool. The street by the house will lie hidden beneath a layer of discharged canisters, and the curbs will still be charred from fiery megatons. The air, to the discerning, will still carry a whiff of powder. Worst of all, the battle will rage on—in a diminished way, but still on—for the next three days as hardliners who can’t stand to see the holiday end will set off their final ear-torturing devices, just to be the one who has the last boom.

And once it’s all over, I won’t be a bit surprised when I see the head of the Statue of Liberty poking up from my lawn, the remains of my bird feeder littered around her torch.

God bless us explosive Americans.

Michael Fowler’s new funny novel about death, A Happy Death, is available here. More by Michael Fowler