Saturday, July 2, 2011

An Oklahoma Fourth

We’re at the dock, waiting for the fireworks.

We’re on the venerable Cherokee Queen II, a slightly shabby passenger cruise boat. It’s little more than four decks and a pilot house set on a barge-like hull amidst phony smokestacks and in front of a fake paddle wheel (that keeps turning even when Cherokee Queen is stopped). There’s a dance floor and a few bars and the intense drumming of diesel engines when one is in the restrooms. There are perhaps 150 souls on board.

It’s late afternoon and boats are everywhere as we look across the channel and at the up and downstream portions of the inlet we are on. There are high-powered boats, sailboats, yachts. Nearly all of them are new except a little old 1950s or 60s cabin cruiser piloted by a guy holding a trumpet. We remember him from last year — he paced alongside our Cherokee Queen playing tunes in the dark while our passengers applauded. “Just throw money,” he cried.

He’s here this year, cruising through the marina area, lifting his trumpet to his lips and letting out some notes. Our passengers applaud.

There is a sailboat whose deck is in the form of an old sailing ship, complete with two masts. It’s lashed together with another half-dozen or so sailboats of all sizes anchored in the marina.

Meanwhile, young, trim men and women cruise through the marina amidst the sharp muffled burble of hundreds of horsepower beneath the decks of their sleek crafts. They’re making a statement -- it’s a display of youth, power, and beauty — of the boats and of the kids on board.

We had boarded Cherokee Queen about 5 p.m., leaving around 6. It’s a perfect end-of-the-day — perhaps 80 degrees — and the only weather distraction is an intense sun but we’ve got straw hats and an umbrella to shade us. We’re on the third deck right on the bow and we enjoy the late afternoon cruise across the lake. Eventually we enter the inlet and, given our size, are provided escort by a police boat as a parade develops of hundreds of boats going toward the fireworks area.

Oklahoma is a poor state, but Grand Lake of the Cherokees where we are is a magnet of wealth. Beautiful homes are along the inlet. Someone has decorated a gazebo in red-white-and-blue bunting. It’s very 19th century and it looks great. Yachts into six and seven figures cruise the lake. Looking at one of those beauties a fellow passenger comments: “It must take $500 to fuel that thing.” I think he’s wrong — by multiples of two, three, maybe four.

We arrive at our dock at 7 p.m. While going across the lake we had supper — a buffet of hot dogs and cold hamburgers. Nothing fancy on the Cherokee Queen II, but we didn’t come for eating. There was dancing on the third deck. The patter of the boat’s disc jockey tells us what’s happening on the dance floor and we see an escaped conga line winding its way past us to go up the stairs to Deck Four.

It’s nearly a three hour wait at the dock before it’s dark enough for fireworks. But it’s fun. Boat- and people-watching are a high art here and there’s always something going on. Suddenly, a roar develops and four World War II fighters fly by in formation about a hundred feet overhead. They’re followed by two World War II bombers, a twin engine B-25, I think, and a four-engine plane which I believe is a B-24. They are loud.

Item: I watch the fighter planes drop in over the water and the boats and I think how Japanese bombers and torpedo planes swooped into Pearl Harbor just like this on December 7, 1941, and what people on the ground and the men on the ships were thinking. Like them we were taken by surprise.

Item: I always wondered in watching old movies about World War II how the machine guns of planes coming at high speed could accurately strafe people on the ground and on ships. Couldn’t you just run out of the way faster than the pilot could maneuver the plane to follow you with his shots? But as I observe a fighter plane coming in low aimed almost directly at the Cherokee Queen I see how easily he can yaw the plane just so and take out someone. No wonder the old movies show sailors diving into the water while being strafed.

After buzzing the boats for awhile, the old planes leave. The smell of steak comes from a nearby on-board barbecue. People are jumping and diving off some boats, swimming in the lake. Children on a nearby yacht are dancing to tunes off the Cherokee Queen. The sun is an irritant as it slowly, slowly makes its way down.

Finally, the sun is down and the lights of hundreds of boats play across the lake. Running lights — white on stern, red on port, green to starboard — glide through water as boats seek positions or just pass through. Police boats are visible with continuously flashing red, blue and purple lights.

It’s 9:15 p.m. and dark, except for a bit of twilight glow. Our on-board disc jockey signs off and we anxiously await the fireworks. After all, we’ve been on Cherokee Queen for nearly four hours, the planes are gone, the people-watching is getting old, and we’re ready for what we came for.

It’s not until nearly 10 o’clock before the show begins. And what a show it is. These are not your father’s fireworks. Computers now control the rocketry and there are new pyrotechnics this year as compared to last. Accompanying the fireworks is patriotic music broadcast by the local radio station and piped through Cherokee Queen’s speakers. With the bombs bursting in air, it’s hard sometimes to hear the music, but strains of “Born in the USA” come through. And John Phillip Sousa marches. Ray Charles sings “America,” there’s a good version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” With each firework burst, people yell. Including the Cutest Community Organizer to Whom I am Married when she’s not singing with the radio. She’s into it. Having been raised where her grandmother sold fireworks every Fourth of July, she has gunpowder and solid rocket fuel in her genes. “Whoa!” she exclaims, as color fills the sky. “My grandmother would have loved to have seen something like this!”

People are cheering. A yell of “U-S-A!” comes from a young man on a boat nearby, although sometimes the same boat produces shouts of “NASCAR!!!”

The first celebration of the Fourth of July — in 1777— was observed by church bells and fireworks. The signing of the Declaration of Independence the previous year had been marked by ringing bells on July 8. Now as Grand Lake explodes in lights I’m thinking that this is going on all across the country: in Boston (where I believe at one time -- maybe still -- fireworks would be accompanied by live concerts by the Boston Pops Orchestra), Los Angeles, San Francisco. Everywhere.

Writer Paul Greenberg has asked how a nation can be so presumptuous as to set aside a day of Thanksgiving if not for its faith in God. I think about a country that celebrates — really celebrates — the concept of freedom. Surely God has blessed this land.

At times the darkened boats seem briefly to be in daylight when fireworks burst open everywhere. The lake glows red with reflections from the sky. Rockets continuously launch above yellow flames on the barges. In the distance, silhouetted before the light from the barge and the fireworks, a young man stands waving for all he’s worth an enormous flag. One moment he’s just a shadow, the next he’s visible with the Stars and Stripes back and forth against the exploded sky.

Everyone is really into this now.

Of course, there’s the grand finale. The barges give it their all. The sky is aglow with flares, flower patterns, explosions. If the music’s still playing, no one can tell.

And it’s over.


The crowd cheers.

Oklahoma may be O-K.

But their firework shows are the best.

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