Blues in the night

I know that the 4th of July (or Jew-LIE as they say around these parts) is a patriotic celebration but what with the odd Croakerfest schedule delaying the fireworks display until the 7th I had time to get nostalgic.

In college I shared a house for a while with a banjo player named Lee Lenker, who was blond and beautiful and fun to be around. She played in a local bluegrass band, the Buffalo Chipkickers, and toured occasionally along the east coast. She came home one time after a road trip to the south with a pile of bottle rockets, illegal in Pennsylvania, and set off across the street one night at dusk with a load of empty bottles and the rockets. Our house faced a drive-in movie theatre so she had plenty of room to line them up and tie the fuses together for a private show. We dragged chairs out onto the porch, opened a beer and put our feet up, and when it got suitably dark Lee ran across the street, lit the first fuse and ran back to the porch for the brief but loud and colorful display. We whooped and hollered and laughed and felt very mischievous.

I lost track of Lee after I left school and a few years ago I learned she died of cancer at the age of 52. Her obituary said she became a teacher and an innovator of technology in the classroom, and she continued to play the banjo. Our paths crossed for a very brief time, but there are so many things I learned from her and I think of her often.

Many years later, and after 14 years as a single parent, I met Jack. I’d had long-term serious relationships since getting divorced, but I knew in an instant that it was different with Jack. We met in February, and by May we knew we were meant to be together. Jack had a 20-foot Bayliner named Mischievous and when summer came he put the boat in the water and took me out for the first time on the Allegheny River on a Pirates fireworks night. In Pittsburgh the fireworks are launched from a barge in the middle of the Ohio River. We anchored along with hundreds of boats of all types and picnicked until dark. When the time came we sat on the bow and I experienced fireworks like I never had before. The rockets went up in the air and exploded high above us, but they were also reflected in the water around us so that our entire peripheral vision was filled with sparkling lights. The sound echoed off the riverbanks and was so loud I had to hold my ears. Afterward we putted upstream and waited our turn at the lock with dozens of other boats, bobbing quietly. I was hooked.

For the next couple of years we rarely missed a fireworks display on the river. Then we sold Mischievous to buy Spellbound, a big sailboat that sat in the boatyard while we rebuilt her, and we no longer got to lock through to the downtown pool on our own boat for fireworks. We were always at the marina, though, and when a young guy moved in on a houseboat we soon became friends. Matt helped Jack design the electrical system of Spellbound, and hung out with us at the local yacht club and at our house. During one frigid winter he occasionally slept in our guest room when his water hose froze.

One summer my family came to visit from New Jersey and I wanted to plan something special. I asked Matt, “Do you think…?” and he said, “Of course!” I cooked all day Saturday and refused to tell my family where we were going, only that we’d have an evening picnic. When the time came we drove to the marina and I pointed to Matt’s houseboat. “We’re going there,” I said, and they were all excited that we would have dinner on a boat. We had also invited Jack’s family and when everyone was aboard Matt surprised them all by untying the docklines and heading toward downtown. It was a perfect party, and a rare time when both families were together. My folks had never been through a lock before and they had fun holding the lines and watching the mechanics. We got to the Ohio River and anchored for dinner, then moved a little upstream for the fireworks. I loved that everyone had the same reaction I did the first time seeing fireworks on the water. In fact, my mom was terrified and we had to move her inside the boat because she was convinced one of the rockets would land on her head. When the fireworks were over we putted up the river and waited our turn at the lock, and I was so happy that I’d been able to share something special from my life with the people I love, and grateful to Matt for taking us on his boat.

Matt left the river and moved to Slovenia. We’ve kept in touch but we’ve only seen him once since then. Just yesterday we got an email that he and his longtime girlfriend got married and are expecting twins. We’re so happy for them, and we hope that some day Escape Velocity will get us to Slovenia to see them again.

Without Matt on the river, Jack and I had no other friends with boats that we could commandeer for the fireworks, so we took to watching from land. Pittsburgh is a sizable city, and they take their fireworks very seriously, so finding a good viewing location that wasn’t overly crowded was a challenge. We eventually discovered a small parking lot on the banks of the Ohio just opposite where the fireworks barge anchors. The parking lot filled up early so we packed dinner and a bottle of wine, along with chairs and books to read, paid our $15 and claimed a spot about 6pm. That’s a long wait but we never minded. We read, ate dinner, had a little wine, and then enjoyed our front row seats to some of the best fireworks displays ever. We didn’t even mind the traffic jam getting home, even if it sometimes took over an hour to get the seven miles upriver to our house.

Now we’re on our new home Escape Velocity. We had hoped to be in New England by this time, but here we are in Oriental, NC, with fireworks on Saturday night to mark the end of Croakerfest. Most of the marina residents planned to go only as far as the front porch of the marina office to watch but for Jack and me that is totally unacceptable. Our mission is always to get as close to the firing site as possible and preferably within sight of the rocketeers. And so we biked the four miles into town, stopped at The Bean for ice cream, then walked onto the bridge where the locals told us we’d get the best view. Small boats were gathering in the lee of the bridge, just like in Pittsburgh.

Boats that couldn’t fit under the bridge anchored outside the harbor. But there was nobody on the bridge.

We realized we still had the city mindset that we had to stake out a spot early, whereas here in Oriental, even if the entire 814 residents decided to walk onto the bridge there’d be plenty of room for everyone.

About ten minutes before the fireworks started, sure enough, they came. It was mostly rowdy teenagers; the grown-ups apparently watch from the comfort of lawn chairs on their front yards. But when the fireworks started, Jack and I walked to the edge of the bridge and watched in amazement as this tiny little town put on a thoroughly respectable show. It lasted about a half hour and we clapped and cheered at the finale.


With the fireworks over we faced a four-mile bike ride over unlighted country roads back to the marina. We were flashing like a police cruiser in pursuit of a scofflaw with our bike strobes on full but we needn’t have worried. We didn’t see one car the whole way, and Jack got impatient with me as I pedaled slower and slower, distracted by the sky full of stars, and the serenade of the night creatures in the forest. We locked up our bikes at the marina office and walked back down the dock to our own personal light show, flashing green number five out in the channel off our starboard quarter.


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4 Responses to Blues in the night

  1. Love the story you tell, Marce. I’ve never been a big fan of fireworks (as an adult, anyway,) but you really make me feel like I’ve been missing out.

  2. Anita

    Maybe we’ll have fireworks on the water when you are nearby… Would be nice.

    I’m reading Eat, Pray, Love – and hope that someday I’ll read “EV – the tales of a seafaring couple”.

  3. Jim

    L.A. NOW
    Southern California — this just in

    « Previous Post | L.A. NOW Home | Next Post »

    San Diego fireworks show exploded in 15 seconds, ruining show [Video]
    July 5, 2012 | 4:30 am

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    Did you see this in the news??? Imagine if you had planned all day to the fireworks, and ……….

    One of the largest Fourth of July fireworks shows in the nation was ruined in San Diego Wednesday after a glitch caused all the pyrotechnics to ignite all at once.

    About five minutes before the Port of San Diego’s Big Bay Boom was to begin at 9 p.m., spectators saw a brilliant display of fireworks that shot up in only 15 seconds – an incredible disappointment to hundreds of thousands of spectators who had waited for hours for the 18-minute show

  4. Renie

    Really enjoyed reading both the reminiscences as well as the contemporary tale.

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