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Freedom, Fireworks & Little Kids

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Early 4th of July postcard A reader e-mailed me recently asking when the Portsmouth Fourth of July parade would be held. I called City Hall to find out, but the mayor was out and nobody seemed to know. The receptionist instructed me to call the Chamber of Commerce, which I did. They told me to call the City Hall. Eventually we confirmed that the fireworks over Leary Field by South Mill Pond were scheduled as usual - but no parade. Have to have those fireworks. American citizens have literally turned into mobs when not allowed to explode their bottle rockets and roman candles on the Fourth of July. It's a tradition as old as the Declaration of Independence.

But what about the parade - the marching bands, the floats and the flags? A fast check around the Seacoast showed Independence weekend fireworks displays in Kennebunkport and Ogunquit. Hampton Beach blows them off 15 weeks in a row during the summer tourist season. I found Fourth of July road races, tag sales, outdoor concerts and open houses, but only one parade by the stout-hearted fireman of York, Maine. Strawbery Banke offers a patriotic sing along. Exeter saves up all its Revolutionary gusto for a giant militia encampment and festival later in the month.

Fourth of July, our oldest and most intensely American holiday is changing. It's easy to read too much into the passing of the parade. Maybe Portsmouth volunteers are just too pooped to party after their Market Square Day bash. Maybe everyone's out of town, abandoning the Seacoast to the growing tourist hoard.

Early 4th of July Postcard Ironically Portsmouth ranks high in the history of this holiday. Three New Hampshire men signed the Declaration of Independence, two from the Seacoast. Yet Matthew Thornton is better remembered as the name of a healthcare company. Josiah Bartlett a Kingston doctor was also an early New Hampshire "president" or governor. William Whipple of Portsmouth, whose grave in the North Cemetery is often littered with beer cans, has lately been eclipsed by the new fame of his slave Prince Whipple who may have been with George Washington at Valley Forge.

One of the first public readings of the Declaration, still unsigned at the time, was from the balcony of the Old State House in Market Square on July 18, 1776, just two weeks after its adoption. A year later on July 4, 1777 Captain Thomas Thomson whose house still stands on Pleasant Street, invited guests to celebrate with dinner aboard a Continental frigate. Ten days afterwards the first Stars and Stripes American flag was adopted on July 14, in the same Congressional decree that sent John Paul Jones to Portsmouth to captain the Ranger. Back in Portsmouth in 1782, Jones threw a July 4 party for the city at his own expense with toasts, salutes and dancing aboard the USS America being built at Kittery. There were plenty of fireworks, of course.

A history of the Fourth shows attempts all across the country to ban those dangerous toys. Presidents have mistaken them for assassin's gunfire. Carriage horses have gone on a rampage. And who among us hasn't got a fireworks horror story from grade school to share? I remember a kid in fourth grade who swore he could hold a lit 2 inch "lady finger" while it exploded, which he did with an open palm. Then one day he closed his fist at the critical moment one of his own fingers found itself at some distance from his body. I wasn't there for the explosion, but when he came to school after the holiday, his finger stayed behind.

Early 4th of July postcard Kids have lost their hearing. Kids have lost their eyes. My cousin used to shimmy up a tree that hung over the road in front of his house and drop firecrackers into the backs of passing trucks. When they stopped to check on what sounded like a blown out tire, he'd almost fall from the tree stifling his laughter. Then he moved on to frogs. I was there when he popped a lit cherry bomb down the gullet of a poor old toad. For decorum's sake, I'll leave you to imagine the finale.

Thomas Bailey Aldrich tells us that when he was a bad little boy in Portsmouth before the Civil War, kids were fixated on them. Aldrich writes:

There was very little hard study done in the Temple Grammar School the week preceding the Fourth of July. For my part, my heart and brain were so full of fire-crackers, Roman candles, rockets, pin-wheels, squibs, and gunpowder in various seductive forms, that I wonder I didn't explode under Mr. Grimshaw's very nose. I couldn't do a sum to save me; I couldn't tell, for love or money, whether Tallahassee was the capital of Tennessee or of Florida; the present and the pluperfect tenses were inextricably mixed in my memory, and I didn't know a verb from an adjective when I met one. This was not alone my condition, but that of every boy in the school.

Tom Bailey's teacher, however, had a devilishly clever solution: Mr. Grimshaw considerately made allowances for our temporary distraction, and sought to fix our interest on the lessons by connecting them directly or indirectly with the coming Event. The class in arithmetic, for instance, was requested to state how many boxes of fire-crackers, each box measuring sixteen inches square, could be stored in a room of such and such dimensions. He gave us the Declaration of Independence for a parsing exercise, and in geography confined his questions almost exclusively to localities rendered famous in the Revolutionary War.

You'll recall that in that same story the Portsmouth town fathers banned the use of fireworks that very Fourth of July in 1847. In protest, Tom Bailey and his gang of friends set an old stagecoach ablaze in the middle of Market Square. Boys will be boys. Another poor child rowing in from the Isles of Shoals was killed during a later Portsmouth fireworks display. Across the country Fourth of July annals are replete with amateur pyrotechnics experts who have died by the dozens. One 19th century patriot blew his left arm off while tamping down a canon for a ceremonial volley. The festivities went on as planned.

Early 4th of July postcard Bad boys, like history, repeat themselves in endlessly predictable cycles. A 1908 cover story in the Portsmouth Daily Herald rambles on about the danger of fireworks capable of blowing a man to pieces. These items, the writer notes, should probably not be sold in the stores. But the paper is more concerned with new fangled noisemakers that, in the hands of marauding Portsmouth boys, have been keeping decent citizens awake. The kids, it seems, were tying large brass cowbells to strings and sticks to create a hellish Fourth of July racket. Worse, according to the newspaper, was the introduction of blank cartridges for guns of all sizes. The loud repeated explosions were enough to wake the Revolutionary war dead.

Early newspaper ad But read a little further into the paper and what do we find? Look right below the notices of the parades, the United States Naval Band, just across from the article on the Fourth of July sailing regatta and the special holiday races at Rockingham Park. There you see it in large bold display ads: "BLANK CARTRIDGES, REVOLVERS and COW BELLS for the 4th of July at AP Wendell & Co., 2 Market Street." Hmmm. I wonder where those mischievous kids got their noisome supplies. Turn of the century color postcards made the most of the link between little children and fireworks. This must have been especially true in Portsmouth where the largest dynamite explosion know to man kind had taken place at Henderson's Point in 1905. Ka-boom!

Then suddenly it's another Fourth of July. Here comes the nervous holiday darkness and the crowds gather by the tangy shore of old Mill Pond. The place is an annual battlefield of sweaty bodies. Teen and elderly couples jockey for a view without leaving their cars. Less brazen citizens camp in nearby back yards and on roofs. We gaze up at the sophisticated exploding geometry and exhale expressively. We may even feel a twinge of pride, or God forbid, a bit of awe at the spectacle.

At the first Fourth of July crowds in Virginia and Philadelphia let out "loud huzzahs and the utmost demonstration of joy." Canons were fired, bells rang, great dinners were held with lots of toasts and drinking. Militias paraded through the streets. Houses and ships were hung with giant banners in the colors of the flag.

We've lost our parade, for now it seems, but America is still the land of the free and the loud and the bright light spectacle. And it will stay that way until you pry my cold dead fingers from around a fistful of cherry bombs.



By J. Dennis Robinson

Read a Related article

Sources: Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (various editions) with background info from "Fourth of July Celebrations Database" by James R. Heintze.

Copyright © 2000 SeacoastNH.com

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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