By the time we were halfway to Matamoras, it was clear we were going to miss the fireworks.
From the backseat of Pollo's Honda Civic, I saw the bright flash of green, the explosion in mid-air.
"I thought you said they started at 10:30," Chuck said to Pollo, his body turning his body away from the steering wheel toward her. The clock said 10:20.
"I'm positive that's what I was told," she replied from her seat in the back next to me.
"Who told you?" Chuck's mother asked from the front passenger seat.
"One of the ladies at work."
Another explosion, gold, popping up from behind treetops. I ducked down in my seat so that I could see them more clearly through the windshield.
"I think they started at ten," Chuck said.
"No, I'm sure they started at 10:30," Pollo maintained.
"Obviously, they didn't," Chuck's mother countered.
They continued to argue about the time the fireworks were supposed to start, then moved on to where they looked like they were coming from. But I wasn't interested in their familial fireworks; I was interested in the ones stretching above Pennsylvania.
I willed the car to move faster, the traffic to clear so that we could get there - To stand in a crowd of people in the black night, our necks craned, staring into the sky. Just seeing them from the backseat of Pollo's car took me back to childhood.
Every year, Ft. Campbell had a Fourth of July Carnival, and every year my family went. In my memory, I can't be more than eight or nine. Chase is a toddler. Our family of four arrives in the gravel parking lot of the carnival, the Ferris Wheel reaching high above the bluegrass state's tall trees. From the parking lot, I can hear the tinny music coming from the rides, smell the smoky-sweet aroma of the concession stand. I push my way out of the back seat of our Mazda 626, eager to get to the fair.
My Keds tennis shoes hit the gravel of the parking lot, and it's all I can do to wait for the rest of my family to be ready to head in. My mom pries Chase from the backseat, and I grab my daddy's hand, hopping up and down, dying to get inside, excited to be close enough to hear it.
Chase is too young to be excited about the rides, but he's hypnotized by all the lights peeking through the trees that surround the fairgrounds. My father pops the trunk and unloads our picnic blanket, laughing at his two kids whose attention can't be turned from the just-out-of-our-reach fair.
We traipse through the parking lot, gravel and dried grass and twigs crunching beneath our feet. I don't shut up about wanting to be inside already. My dad laughs, his mustache curling upwards and revealing his crooked teeth. My mom chuckles, too, her eyes crinkling with laughter.
When the ticket booth comes into view, Chase and I want to lunge for it. "Stay here guys," my mom calls after us. "Michael," she says, addressing my father but watching our little bodies move away from her, "make sure they don't go too far."
"Hey guys," my dad calls, the smile in his voice evident. Chase and I turn our blue eyes to him. "Stay right there and wait for us." We couldn't have been more than two yards ahead of our parents, but to them, in that huge crowd, it must've seemed like a mile.
The four of us walk together to the yellowed booth to get our wrist bracelets from the big lady behind the glass. I wait for my dad to pay, my eyes taking in all the bright lights, the people, the noise. It's intoxicating. Dad pulls money from the pocket of his cutoff jean shorts, his deep voice requesting four wristbands in his thick southern drawl.
Once the plastic wristband is fastened onto my tiny wrist, I'm a madwoman. I want to ride every ride, I want hurl darts at balloons to win a stuffed animal. I want to get a ping-pong ball into a tiny goldfish bowl. I want to go down the huge slide.
Chase and I get cotton candy - I always get pink, he always gets blue. "Boy's color," he calls it. We hold the cardboard sticks topped with the fluffy tornado of sugar, our fingers instantly sticky as we pull wispy strands from the hunk of cotton to stuff in our mouths. Chase bares his teeth, revealing blue-tinited enamel. I stick out my tongue to show that it's turned hot pink.
The four of us walk through the narrow alleys between rides and vendors, taking in all of our surroundings. My mom has to hold tight to Chase - he was known to run off - but I walk along side of my parents, feeling like a big girl that no one has to hold my hand.
A stuffed animal, hot dogs for four and countless rides later, it's time to make our way to see the fireworks. Tons of military families make their way to a huge field to take their seats. Daddy lays out the picnic blanket so that we can all sit and not worry about the scratchy grass on our bare legs. We settle in, preparing to see the display. I rub my palms together excitedly and look at my mom. "When do they start?" I ask, eager to see them right now.
My mom smiles at me. She finds my giddy anticipation comic. "Just a minute, Doodlebug. Get ready." Chase crawls into her lap, and I sit cross-legged, staring at the sky, waiting.
The beginning of the show is marked by a cannon's explosion. I hadn't expected it, so I jump, startled. I laugh raucously. Chase, however, is terrified, and buries his face in my mom's chest.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, please stand for the National Anthem."
And so we do. My family and hundreds of others push themselves up from the ground and face the huge flag at the end of the field. We dutifully put our hands over our hearts as a trumpet cries The Star Spangled Banner. I know I'm supposed to be looking at the flag, but I look around instead. My dad has removed his 101st Airborne cap and is standing at Attention, instead of with his hand over his heart. I do the same. I look at him again, careful to note exactly how he's standing, wanting to be sure I do it right. I look back at the flag until the song is over.
We squat and sit back on our blanket, and I keep my young face lifted to the black Kentucky sky, and before I know it, I hear the hiss and pop of the first firecracker of the evening. Bright gold and red, exploding just above our heads. I feel the boom in my chest, through my body. It's frightening and delicious at the same time.
One after another, streamers of fire shoot into the air and fan out into giant waterfalls of light. It looks like someone has tossed handfuls of diamonds into the sky, and I'm riveted. The sparks cascade through the night, leaving white smoke behind - ghosts of the display they once were. I look for the smoke every time; that split second between the end of a firework and the beginning of a new one where the sky is just light enough to see them.
The crowd "oohs" and "aahs" all the way through, I giggle and clap my hands. I look at my dad to make sure he's watching, too. He smiles down at me. I look at my mom, collect a smile from her, too. Chase, however, isn't smiling, he's resumed the position he took at the cannon's first appearance: His face in my mom's chest, peeking out from time to time.
And then, the Grand Finale. Explosion after explosion after explosion. Red and White and Blue. Purple and gold, green and red, silver and blue. As soon as one bursts open, another follows suit, filling the whole sky with color and light. It looks like daytime. My senses are full: The bright light, the smell of smoke and gunpowder, the thick sound of the explosion, the way it reverberates in my chest. It feels so hearty. So real.
Chase screams, his tiny hands over his tiny ears. His wail is piercing. He's terrified. But I can hardly hear him over all of the explosions. I watch knowing that each one I see may be the last, so I keep my face up toward the sky at all times, bathing my features in the glow of the fireworks. I never want it to stop.
But before I know it, they have stopped. I take a deep breath and inhale the faint smoke in the air, while my mom calms my brother.
"Did you like that, Sweetie?" My dad puts his big hand on the top of my head and tousles my black hair.
"Yeah," I say, dreamily.
My mom smiles at me over Chase's head. "I'm glad," she says sweetly.
I hop off of the blanket and Daddy folds it up, tucks it under his arm, and we make our way back to the car. Suddenly, I'm exhausted, tired from all the excitement. And as soon as we're in the car, I fall asleep.
Tonight, I spent the Fourth with my family again, only we didn't go anywhere to take in fireworks. My little brother and I went out and picked up fireworks of our own. And like two little kids, we grew impatient when it was still light out. We set off smoke bombs and snakes to tide us over until darkness fell. And as soon as it was dark enough out, we brought out the big guns. But, unfortunately, in Pennsylvania, the "big guns" can't fly. So we watched as Killer Bees and Lava Cones shot sparks into the air. We waited for the whistles that came at the beginning and the huuussssshhhhhh that came when it fizzled out. As mom and dad looked on from their chairs on the porch, Chase lit each one then ran back to stand at my side. And we "ooohed" and "aaahed." I still giggled and clapped.
"Do you remember when you had to light the fireworks for them?" my mom said to my dad as Chase lit my sparkler. Her words were full of memories.
"Yeah. Yeah I do," he answered, the smile on his face suggesting that he might just miss it.
I do, too.
All grown up...