It’s a curious thing: I have lived in the Washington D.C. region since 1978 and had never been downtown to see the Independence Day fireworks. Why? For years it was because I could not afford to get home sometime after midnight and then struggle to work before dawn the next morning. As I got older I found other excuses. For example, there is Washington’s legendary July combination of toxic heat, ozone and humidity. For most people, spending Independence Day in Washington D.C. means crowds, profuse sweating, scorching heat, oppressive humidity, long lines to use disgusting Porto-potties, little chance of hearing the NSO perform from less than a half mile away, eighteen minutes of amazing fireworks usually more than a mile away, then hour-plus long waits to get onto jammed subway cars for a long commute home. So much easier to stay at home, turn on the air conditioning, watch the fireworks on TV and listen to the NSO in stereo on your receiver.
There is a good chance I would have never made it to see the fireworks had not I got an invitation to see them from the terrace on the roof of the Interior Department building. The invitation was open to a guest and me as a benefit from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar for thirty years of federal service. The Interior building is at 18th and C Streets N.W. It’s virtually impossible to get closer to the reflecting pool, where the fireworks are launched, than from our building. In fact, there is probably no better viewing spot anywhere for the national fireworks, and that includes the Rose Garden. It is not eight stories up, and it is farther away.
Yet amazingly, there I was on the roof with my wife in ninety-five degree heat and oppressive humidity. It is not really July in Washington unless you have both of those factors, and Washington delivered an impressive scorcher yesterday. An occasional light breeze and a setting sun made it tolerable, along with free ice cream and hot dogs provided for attendees. Also provided: a free parking space in the basement. It was a strange experience to present a pass and drive down a blocked off street, and then take a ramp generally used by higher graded people than me to a free parking space.
Up on the terrace, Washington was splayed out in front of and below us. Nervous looking National Park Service helicopters kept circling the Mall for signs of trouble. The heat and humidity smothered you like a hot blanket, but it offered a convenient excuse to get more ice cream. The crowds around the Washington Monument were nearly shoulder-to-shoulder at 7 p.m. More were streaming in from local Metro stations. Constitution Avenue, right below us, was blocked off. It turned out this was for public safety. Trust me, we were about as close as you should ever get to the fireworks.
My “buddy” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who gave me my thirty-year certificate personally the day before, was on the roof with the rest of us sweltering partiers. He gave a short speech, told everyone we were the best department in the government, patiently shook the hands of everyone who came close and posed for innumerable pictures. Also there were a few of my friends from the U.S. Geological Survey. Our director was rumored to be wandering around, but I never saw her. Mostly we ate, sat in large plastic chairs facing south and kept hydrated by drinking many bottles of free bottled water. A security detail kept a sharp eye the neighboring streets and us. In the distance you could not quite see planes arriving at Reagan National airport, but you could see their headlights. The humidity was quite thick, but somehow the Jefferson Memorial look splendid bathed in lights in the twilight across the mall. The city buzzed and pulsated.
I knew there would be a good show, but I thought I knew what to expect. I am no stranger to fireworks shows, and have been to places like Disney World that never disappoint. I can’t compare the experience to fireworks shows in other major cities like New York and Boston. I have to think they should be comparable. But I doubt they are quite as majestic. The nation’s capital has over two hundred years of practice, and it is down to a science. Certainly it would be hard to get as close to a fine a show as we were, a mere five hundred yards from the Reflecting Pool where the fireworks were launched.
The experience, which began promptly at 9:10 p.m., was truly once in a lifetime. The video I took with my relatively inexpensive camera (above) can give you some appreciation for it, but no video, not even one in BluRay with surround stereo sound can truly capture the experience. It is overwhelming! Even if you were blind, it would have been impressive because the percussion from the fireworks smashes you in the chest and shakes your body. Then there is the quality of the fireworks, made more impressive by being so close. There were so many colors, beautifully orchestrated and intermingled, arrayed against a temporal majestic backdrop. Up close you could see pulsating clouds of smoke shot through with new streaming rockets ascending into the sky. Frankly, the experience was quite stupefying. Eighteen minutes passed quickly. For a while it was hard to tell the grand finale from all that had come before it, because it was all so amazing. And then suddenly it was over. Puffs of smoke hung over the Mall, gently rising and heading east. And once we gathered our wits and belongings, we made our way back to our car in the basement. We were escorted through the barricade onto E Street, quickly got on the ramp, and found ourselves home at the surreal hour of only 10:30 p.m.
If you feel some jealousy, please realize that this was the first and only sizeable benefit I have gotten for thirty years in the civil service. No lavish employer provided holiday parties for us. We get one event, and it’s always a potluck. While we are unlikely to get laid off, we never get a holiday bonus either. Occasionally we will be let go an hour or so early the day before a national holiday. This is generally as beneficent as management ever gets.
Yet I don’t feel cheated in the least. This short but memorable experience more than made up for thirty years of being treated decently but never lavishly. In fact, I feel like I owe someone quite a lot of change.