The trick is to get as far away from them as possible.
Every Fourth of July, a barge loaded with fireworks–the most expensive, technologically advanced pyrotechnic display that money can buy–weighs anchor in the Charles River, the small snake of water that separates Boston and Cambridge before it bleeds into the Atlantic. It waits between the Longfellow Bridge, the one curving over the Charles like a brick-laid set of salt and pepper shakers lined up all in a row, and the Harvard Bridge, the longer of the two that hoists Mass Ave.–the thoroughfare connecting the two cities–above passing rowers and sailboats.
The barge putters in from Boston Harbor days before the festivities begin, and it’s gradually joined by other boats on the water that make a point to glide in early so as to get as close to the action as possible. From here, on the glassy surface of water that doesn’t seem so dirty, the view of the fireworks is unobstructed. There is little between the streaks of sulphur and flame and your eager, ageless eyes save for a couple thousand feet of air or so between the chopping current and the engulfed night sky.
A few hundred feet from the barge sits the Esplanade, and on it, the MDC Hatch Shell, a big, parquet stage that hosts the Boston Pops–the orchestra that once boasted John Williams as its conductor with a penchant for cultural favorites far from the classical realm–on Independence Day. That day, the grounds of the Esplanade open at sunrise, when thousands rush the stage, frantically laying out blankets on the green and staking claim with coolers and chairs so that they can get as close to the conductor’s stand as possible.
The boats may cut the waters of the Charles early in order to secure the best view of the fireworks, but the crowds that beat the sun to the dewy grass of the Esplanade don’t just want a view of conductor Keith Lockhart’s gleaming tux jacket (and pearly whites)–they want to listen, too. And like the boats on the Charles, there’s a tradeoff: While those on the green get to hear the Pops and watch as bows toil furiously in the string section to weave together the compositions of the program–a din faint to the sailors–they don’t get to see the fireworks, nor do they get to fully enjoy when the traditional peak of the “1812 Overture,” the jewel of the Pops’ set and the masterpiece that’s accompanied by the firing of cannons and scores of pealing church bells across the city. Both experiences make for a great Fourth of July, by land or by sea, but they’re incomplete in that they sacrifice shades of one in favor of the over-the-top spectacle of the other.
My family has always preferred our Fourth of Julys ashore, back from the banks of the river and up on rooftops and secret stretches of pavement that yield an unexpected vantage point. This is where you can truly take in the music and, sentimental schmaltziness aside, the magic of it. My parents–who met in Boston’s Back Bay steps from the Esplanade, and threw their wedding reception a few blocks away from the Hatch Shell in 1984–spent their first couple of Fourths together with the Pops, albeit scores of people from the stage. When I went to see the Pops in person for the first time as a teenager, my dad was the one who recommended we get there early, as he, my mom, his brother and his sister-in-law found themselves a football field’s length away from the stage when they had arrived with their picnic gear around noon 22 years prior.
Before that first Esplanade effort, I heard the “1812 Overture” ring out over the radio, mostly. My mom brought one to the roof of her brother’s new house in Arlington, a suburb offering panoramic city views from its hilltops, in 1993, where my little brother and I held tight to railings of the steep porch and watched the bouquets of light bloom on the skyline. The year after that, my dad had the volume cranked up as high as it would go in his car when he drove us into the city only to pull over and park on the Lower Deck of I-93 before the big show got going.
“The Big Dig” was a giant nightmare of a construction project that mangled traffic in downtown Boston far longer than it was scheduled to, but an unexpected, ingenuous perk was the opportunity it provided for my dad to buckle the seat belts of his kids, fly down 93 and show them something special fifteen minutes later, even if it was probably totally illegal (not to mention dangerous) in hindsight. The element of rebellion was unintentionally apropos on this day of revolutionary observance, and my dad pointed in the direction of Beacon Hill as the church bells of that cobblestone-flecked neighborhood started ringing, a tradition that started in 1976, when the country celebrated its bicentennial and the bells of the Old North Church joined those in Beacon Hill to mark the occasion.
As kids, we learned that the church bells come just before the fireworks do, though that’s since changed with the national broadcast of the concert and the commercial pressure to soundtrack the spectacle with current pop hits. But before Adele’s “Hello” and a slew of singles backed the explosions, my dad’s excitement for that “1812 Overture” crescendo–the build before the first pops in the sky match the brassy blasts of the Pops below–was as inherited a trait as our curly hair or my blue eyes.
Growing up in Massachusetts, you piece together a rudimentary understanding of early American history from field trips to Plimoth Plantation and the Battlefields of Lexington and Concord and other dusty locales employing actors in tri-corner hats. You take for granted the fact that your personal history borrows from that, in that your earliest memories take root in the same literal real estate two hundred-plus years after the fact. You don’t realize that when your dad pulls over on a run-down highway just around the corner from the Museum of Science that he’s pointing towards church bells that have been ringing for centuries, and that he’s just as giddy as you are to hear them. He’s just as happy for the music and the fireworks to explode, too, because that joy is just as timeless as the tradition itself.