John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and second President of the United States, penned a letter to his wife Abigail on July 3, 1776 offering a summary of how he felt the Declaration of Independence should and would be remembered each year. In part his letter reads, “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews [Shows], Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
Although they may never have read his letter, one particular town certainly did as Adams suggested. Theirs was a long-running 4th of July celebrations tied to a carnival sponsored by their volunteer fire company. It was as all American as apple pie, hot dogs, and baseball. There was something for everyone, and as a result, pretty much everyone showed up. Their carnival had all the rides, amusements, games, and foods typical of carnivals from that era. If you couldn’t find something to ride, watch, play, or eat, you were way too picky, or you were just lazy.
On this particular evening, the sunset was even more impressive than usual. The town sat at the base of a mountain chain running north and south about ten miles west to the town. The rounded and rolling mountains added a dramatic perspective of both color and form to sunsets. The orange, ginger, and auburn hues of most sunsets back lit the mountains in a way that gave an impressive visual reality and meaning to the phrase, “For purple mountain majesties,” from an 1893 poem by Katharine Lee Bates. That poem is the basis of the lyrics for the song America the Beautiful, a song considered by many to be the nation’s unofficial or second national anthem.
At 9:30, a single shell was launched to notify the crowd that the fireworks would begin in thirty minutes. Folks on the carnival grounds began making their way to the open fields beyond the bright carnival lights. There they joined families who had set out blankets, where they sat patiently waiting for the fireworks to light up the sky.
At 9:55 another single shot was launched. That shot was the signal to make your way quickly, because the carnival lights would be dimmed in five minutes in preparation for the show to begin. At 10:00 the show began. The pyrotechnicians opened with a cluster fire, which was shorter but otherwise very similar to the finale, at least for most shows. It offered a great opening salvo, previewed the show that had started, and set a level of anticipation for the grand finale, or so they thought.
The night air was cool and comfortable. Rain was a possibility for the next day, but the evening was rain free. Storm clouds west of the mountains had stalled in position around sunset, offering opportunities for bright streams of light to break through the cloud patterns.
As the last shots were being fired, and folks usually began making their way to their cars, a second show was about to begin. It was not announced or anticipated, but there was no doubt it was coming. Almost as if Mother Nature was aware of Adam’s predictions, she was going to provide her contribution to, “. . . Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other. . .” You could all but hear Mother Nature say, “If you liked that first show, wait until you see this one!”
Her show began with cloud-to-cloud lightning, followed by thunder that shook the ground. The distance of the lightning generated no urgency to seek cover. An immediate sense of awe over the magnitude of the natural spectacle seemed to freeze people in their spots. The lightning and thunder continued for fifteen minutes. It was an amazing show!
No one clapped when the second show ended, and no one offered car-horn salutes. This was way, way beyond such reactions, and everyone knew it. This show, this natural spectacle, was to be appreciated and internalized. Every person who witnessed it needed to remember it in her or his own way.
Was this just a coincidental occurrence, a chance happening where some people and their environment shared the same stage? Was it Mother Nature having a little fun and dabbling in a bit of one-upmanship? Or was it the hand of Providence reminding one small town that freedom, independence, and opportunity were hard won, that they require ongoing commitment and devotion, and that they should never be taken for granted?