The smell of grilled onions and brats, cinnamon mini donuts and greasy French fries hang in the humid night air. The sailor’s delight sunset has lazily disappeared into the horizon and the county fair puts on its night clothes. The atmosphere transcends from family innocence to mysterious enchantment as the blinking lights glare from concession stands and the midway rides. Toothless men covered in tattoos call out, “hey buddy, just one game, everyone’s a winner,” from their booths overflowing with cheap stuffed animals hanging from the ceiling. Loud music with monotonous rhythm shakes the ground near the ominous Sky Flyer as laughing teenagers wait in line for a 3 minute ride. Young couples head for the dark corners hand in hand to steal a kiss or smoke a joint, its distinct smell floating along with whiffs of popcorn and sugary roasted pecans. Dogs on leashes mingle among the sea of knees, tugging away to grab the unfortunate ice cream cone and empty wrappers that litter the grass. Children ride round and round in tiny circles on the kiddie rides, their laughter and cries mixing with squeaks of the rusty tracks and smell of the oily generator. In a tent not far off someone yells “Bingo!” followed by jealous applause while next door the beer garden hands out overflowing Red Solo cups to loud cheers while a local band plays “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” for an empty dance floor.
Shouldering through the mass of people and strollers, I find my familiar spot near the lake where I have sat to watch the fireworks since I was a kid. Within minutes I am totally surrounded by townspeople who lay out their blankets for their restless children high on sugar and their crying babies up past their bedtime. Their dogs sniff among the strangers trailing their leashes. Blanket neighbors talk loudly about the heat while yelling for their kids to sit down and stop crying with idle threats of leaving if they don’t. The mosquitos seem to arrive on cue upon the large mass of uncovered flesh. The smell of bug spray circulates the crowd, the acrid mist stinging my eyes. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air while everyone waits in anticipation.
Then, BOOM! The first fireworks of the season! It shakes the ground, vibrating into the deepest part of my bones and echoes back out again. It makes unsuspecting dogs bark, babies cry and little girls squeal. The sky erupts into cascading spiders of blue, green and yellow, each one fading into the water while another one takes its place. We ooh and aah with each new colorful display seeming to all agree each one is more magnificent than the last. For these 30 minutes, nothing but the sky seems important. The heat and the mosquitos are forgotten. Instinctively the crowd seems to know the finale is approaching as we rise to our feet. Mothers pull their children close, fathers hold their babies to their chest. Men and boys remove their hats. The colors in the sky turn to stars of red, white and blue falling faster and faster. Someone in the crowd starts to sing “Oh beautiful for spacious skies…” By the time the song gets to “America, America…” the small town community is united in song, with lumps in our throats and tears in our eyes. Yes, from sea to shining sea, may God Bless America until we meet again.