We celebrated the Fourth of July not with fireworks but with bonfires

Tracey Folly

*This is a work of nonfiction based on actual events I experienced firsthand; used with permission.

The Fourth of July was always exciting when I was growing up. Someone in the neighborhood always had fireworks or started a bonfire.

If I was lucky, someone older handed me a sparkler. I'd hold it carefully, reverently, as it burned down nearly to my fingertips. Then I'd ask for another one.

My sparkler and I were in the minority. While I stood safe with my family behind the barrier of our white picket fence, most of the other kids in the neighborhood roamed the street shooting off bottle rockets or building bonfires.

We didn't think about how the firefighters felt having to respond to little fires in the neighborhood all night long. They must have dreaded that holiday.

Neighborhood teens would often start their bonfire shenanigans a few days before the fourth, and they'd extend their celebration for a few days afterward. They'd start by collecting anything flammable: especially wood, mattresses, and tires.

The tires were the worst. They smelled bad and sent thick black smoke wafting through the neighborhood. You could see the smoke for miles.

They'd light the fires with bundles of the scavenged flammable material, using a little wood and some paper to start. Once the fire really got going, it would be time to add a mattress or a few tires for flavor.

When the firetrucks arrived on one corner, the kids would light a fire on another across town. They coordinated this without the benefit of cell phones, following the thick black smoke in the air and the sound of fire engine sirens as their cues to scatter or light a match.

The bonfires grew larger as the night wore on, and the teens kept the fires burning until the wee hours of the morning, not giving up until they ran out of things to burn. It amazed us that no one ever got hurt, not to our knowledge, at least.

We moved out of the city years ago. Our new neighborhood is much quieter even on the Fourth of July. If we look above the trees, we can barely see the evidence of fireworks displays lighting up the sky beyond the highest branches, and there are no more bonfires.

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Writing about relationships online since 2009.

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