I held my son’s hand as we walked up from the parking lot with the crowds and entered the college stadium. My husband walked ahead of us and paid the Rotary member collecting the entrance fees. My son wasn’t quite four and I hoped the splash and booms of fireworks wouldn’t frighten him. Along with hundreds of others—the whole town it felt like—we slowly ambled along, looking for the best place to sit and watch the show.
From somewhere on a grassy slope someone hollered, “Hey! How you guys doing?” I looked up. It was a coworker smiling and waving a gloved hand.
I waved back and smiled, “Wow—it’s chilly tonight!” Small-talk, but for July, the air really did have a nip to it. I wasn't used to this. The coworker smiled and laughed and the people in between us smiled and gave each other a knowing look, a secret they shared. We kept walking, finally finding church friends who patted the grassy slope next to them, inviting us to join them and their kids.
A few of the experienced folks—people who had been a part of this even for years—brought pieces of cardboard the kids so they could slide down the hillside. No one seemed to really mind the little feet trampling over the blankets, and all the parents kept an eye out as the kids slid and tumbled down the hill. My husband and I sat down on the blanket, pulling hats and gloves on. People milled by, offering a hello, asking after families, smiling wryly at the night sky and commenting with a chuckle on the chill.
It was 1994 and our first Fourth of July in the small mountain town we had moved to for my job at the local college. Already we had been baptized into the waters and spirit of the community. It was an immersion I was still trying to decide if I fully embraced.
Soon the stadium lights lowered. The night sky was finally dark enough. Little ones playing and squealing nearby found their way back to parents and snuggled in with excitement and trepidation as the first loud crack burst forth and the announcer welcomed people to the annual Rotary Fireworks Show. A barely understandable narrator talked about the history of the mountain valley over a muffled loud speaker as various hand built, framed shapes lit up and sizzled on the field. People around us chattered and laughed good-naturedly waiting for a “real” fireworks to rain down.
They were not disappointed. With a loud boom, a fizzy rocket shot in the air exploding in a rainbow of sparkles and whistles. Obliging “ooos and ahhs” emanated from the folks around us. A gloved hand reached from behind me holding a cup. “Want some hot chocolate?” I gripped it gratefully, blowing on it a bit before I offered my son, huddled in my lap, a sip. Hot chocolate. These folks were prepared.
Soon another ground display lit up with yellow sparkles. My son anxiously asked, “What is it? What is it?”
“Is that a duck?” I leaned over and asked my husband.
“Sure looks like it.”
The duck burned bright to the cheering and laughter of those around us. Newcomers and tourists stood out in the crowd. We were the ones asking in befuddled tones, “Are those ducks? Why are there ducks?”
A couple locals around us chuckled, offering varying explanations. I didn't get it, but a couple fireworks later, when a row of ducks lit up, I cheered and clapped as loudly as anyone.
As we sat on the blanket, swapping stories with friends, watching each other’s kids, something else started falling from the sky. Not fireworks. No. I looked up. Unbelievable. It was snowing.Yes, white flakes, softly falling. In July. On the fourth. The locals looked up, shook their heads and gave each other knowing smiles. Like the brightly burning ducks, it was an insider’s joke only they really got.
That was almost twenty years ago. I've lived here long enough to be part of the inside jokes and not be surprised by the occasional middle-of-summer light snowfall that never really accumulates. The venue for the fireworks display has changed to a city park, but lawn chairs and blankets are still set up an hour before show time. Now we are among the locals who walk around, chatting and greeting folks, commenting on how big the kids are getting and answering questions about our son who is getting ready to graduate from college and a few inquiries about the daughter who is off wandering with her high school friends… somewhere.
We’re not worried about her though. While we sadly realize no place is immune from the risks of the world, this place is pretty, darn close. We know there will be plenty of familiar parental eyes keeping a look out on her and the other kids, a fact that both keeps her safe and is not always welcome, at least by the teenagers. Like Santa, we’ll know if either of our kids have been naughty or nice—the word will get back to us.
In spite of the rare summer weather anomalies and the 7700 foot altitude, our small town isn't really all that different from other small towns across America. Sure it has its quirks and characters, but it also has its love and friendship. We've been baptized in community, after all. A sense of camaraderie and yes, inside jokes, remind our family that we are indeed in fine company.