As I made mental preparations for the Fourth of July, it struck me that my dad would have loved to have seen the Fort Pierre fireworks display with me from a boat on the Missouri River.
He enjoyed fireworks, and he loved water. He loved rain in the spring, fast-running streams high in the Black Hills, and the Missouri River, muddy and sluggish in his younger days, broad and clean after the dams closed. Combining the rockets and salutes of the fireworks display with the rocking of a boat anchored offshore would have filled him with contentment. Had he lived to experience the fireworks, he’d have wanted me to anchor close to shore, right under the action.
My dad seemed afraid of nothing. Once when I was very young, a temporary pontoon bridge spanned the river between Chamberlain and Oacoma. As I recall, we crossed that bridge returning to our farm from somewhere in the east. The evening was late and dark. Rain fell in buckets. The pontoons swayed and bucked, but my dad seemed unconcerned. When he went to the Co-op the next day, he learned that late in the night the temporary bridge had come undone. That news filled me with images of us in our Nash adrift on one of the pontoon sections. He didn’t seem to give that a thought. Yes, he’d have enjoyed Fourth of July on the water.
My mom? Yeah, well -- not so much. She wasn’t that keen on fireworks. She sure wasn’t interested in being around water. The Missouri was a dangerous river that could capture an unwary swimmer. Any Black Hills stream might have a hidden sinkhole just waiting for a wader not paying attention to the creek bottom. Combining fireworks and water would have filled her with dread and anxiety. She’d have been the one in the boat — well, wait. She never would have set foot in the boat, not even if it was still on the trailer and parked on the driveway by the garage.
My mom is the one who, when she came awake in McKennan Hospital after a heart attack and learned that she had been flown there from Chamberlain, became incensed. “Who said I gave permission to get in an airplane?’’ she fumed. “You know, all of you know, I don’t fly.’’ She didn’t, either. She didn’t like boats a bit more. She always wanted to visit Ireland, home country of her McManus clan, but she wouldn’t consider an airplane or a boat. If there’d been a way to drive from Chamberlain to Galway Bay, she’d have stuffed the trunk of her old Chevy with blankets and pillows and box fans and set off happily on the journey.
Had my mom lived to experience the Fort Pierre fireworks, she’d have watched from behind one of the huge cottonwood trees across the river on La Framboise Island. She’d have been fretting and stewing, peeking around the trunk and hissing at us to “move away from there. You’re too close. Those things are going to fall right into the boat and kill every one of you.’’
That’s pretty much how it went when we had our family fireworks display on the farm. My dad ran the show, modest as it was. He bought a handful of skyrockets and a few Roman candles and fired them off in the south yard, bending to light each fuse and moving a few slow paces away to watch the rocket fly. He seemed to have great fun.
My mom preferred to stay in the house, watching through the screen door and repeatedly telling her husband to move away faster, to get farther from the sparking fuse, to watch the trail of the rocket to make sure it didn’t start a prairie fire. She seemed to have no fun at all.
Don’t get me wrong. My mom loved Fourth of July. She loved serving potato salad and grilled steaks. She loved red, white and blue bunting and flags that snapped in the breeze. She loved the celebration of freedom. On the farm, she probably loved it most. We had only a few fireworks, and there was no running water for miles around.