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Delight and danger, the two sides of fireworks

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Watching the Fort Pierre Fire Department's fireworks display from a boat on the Missouri River is a marvelous way to end a Fourth of July.

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The light show more than offsets the tricky and sometimes dangerous business of getting back to the dock in the dark. This year the trip back was more intense than usual.

First, I must say that the consensus in our boat -- adults, teens and kids -- was that the fireworks display was the best in all the years we've anchored off-shore near the rodeo grounds and watched starbursts light the sky almost directly over our heads. They promised a big show, and they more than delivered.

The trip back up the river is always a test for a boat driver, especially this one. It's way dark out on the water, for one thing. The familiar channel of the day is a bit of a mystery at night. The usual landmarks sometimes seem way out of place, and the distances seem much greater in the shadowy midnight.

There is light, to be sure. It comes in bursts and blasts from the Fort Pierre shore and skyline, where the level of fireworks activity rivals in intensity if not elevation that of the formal show just finished around the bend. I have no numbers to support this, but I'm guessing Fort Pierre explodes as many fireworks per capita as any other place on the planet on Fourth of July. It's like watching Scud missiles flashing back and forth. The effect of the intermittent bursts of light is to add to the eeriness of a night-time journey up the Missouri.

And you don't travel that stream alone. Not anywhere close. Dozens of speedboats, pontoons, deck boats and runabouts are heading the same direction -- at varying speeds and with varying degrees of safety lighting showing. The swell they -- we -- create as we head for the docks and homes is impressive, and it lifts and drops each craft by turn. The swells this year for some reason were particularly forceful. I tried mightily, but I couldn't completely keep the waves from breaking over the bow and onto the trio of teen-aged girls. I had thought I was successful until I heard the squeals from the bow.

Most of the boats on the river run red and green lights on the bow and a white anchor light high above the stern. I followed the other two boats in our party largely by their anchor lights. It's easy to become disoriented by the white light floating above the water, so I had to shift my vision from the light to the shadow of the boats ahead and back to the light.

Some skippers must have had much better eyesight than I do. Two or three times a boat going a bit faster than most of the makeshift flotilla cut between two other boats. I'm assuming the cutter knew exactly where he was and how much clearance he had. I'd hate to think anything else. To think the boat pilot was less than fully aware of the surroundings is, well, unsettling.

Finally, as we neared the Missouri River bridge, where the lights are brighter and the individual members of the convoy become more distinct, I began to relax. Smooth sailing from here to the entrance to the canals, I thought to myself.

At that moment, a rocket of some sort burst from the shore and headed straight for our craft. It was one of those things a person could track from the trail of fire but it moved so quickly there was nothing to be done. It burst with a loud report and bright light barely ahead of the bow of the boat and just a foot or so from the face of one of the Brookings girls visiting us with our granddaughter. It could have been a terrible thing, a tragedy to end a night of celebration.

I suppose the rocket could have veered way off course, although I wouldn't bet it wasn't aimed in the direction of the passing boats. No harm done — this time. I will think twice before setting sail next July 4.

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