I love to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July from as close to the source of the show as possible. The smoke, noise, shaking ground and explosions are for me a great cheer for our country and for the wonderful blessing of life on Earth. Francis Scott Key was right. Amazingly, after all the rockets’ red glare over Fort McHenry, in the smoke of the morning, the flag was still there.
I’m sorry to say that this up-close experience is not going to happen in the Hamptons this year. Of our dozen regularly scheduled fireworks show, all but one has been cancelled because of COVID-19. The one still to enjoy will take place on Sunday, July 5 at 9:15 p.m. to benefit the Fresh Air Home in Southampton, but there will be no getting close to it. It will be set off in the middle of Shinnecock Bay, to be seen from hundreds of viewing points along the shore.
But I can remember up-close fireworks, anyway. I’ve in the past enjoyed that experience at Long Wharf and Havens Beach in Sag Harbor, at Windmill Beach in Montauk, Devon in Amagansett, at Crescent Beach on Shelter Island, at the inland show at Mattituck and at Main Beach in East Hampton.
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I first got the passion for up-close fireworks when, as a teenager, my parents took me to the fireworks on the Fourth of July at Main Beach in East Hampton in front of the pavilion.
Hundreds of people, summer people and locals, were on that broad stretch of ocean beach an hour before sunset, sitting on beach blankets and enjoying picnic dinners and (ahem) beverages near to where the fire department would set things off. Socializing with friends and family went on for that hour and then it would get dark, and Blam! Blam! Boom! Everybody would cheer the thump and light display that followed for a half-hour high overhead and almost directly above us. That fireworks show had been held annually since the 19th century.
But then, in 2005—and this was a sad thing to me—the Village stopped this tradition because it was discovered there were some endangered tweety birds nesting nearby to the pavilion who might be disturbed when all the noise went off. So there was the fabulous celebration before 2005, and there was the quiet after 2005. There are still tweety birds there.
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Another East Ender who enjoyed fireworks up close and personal in his time was George Plimpton, the tall and lanky writer and raconteur. Plimpton orchestrated so many fireworks entertainments in the city that the Mayor of New York appointed him Fireworks Commissioner, a title he treasured for the rest of his life. He had never grown up.
Plimpton played the triangle in a performance by the New York Philharmonic, he learned and performed on the trapeze at a circus, he threw pitches to a Major League Baseball All-Star lineup (during an exhibition), he went to training camp as a Detroit Lion, and then he wrote best-sellers about these and other experiences. He also was the founder and, for decades, the editor of The Paris Review.
He also was a prankster. He tried (and failed) to set a new Guinness Book of World Records mark for the biggest firework ever by setting off a specially made explosive from inside a pit at the Quogue dump at dawn one day. It blew up on the launch pad.
He orchestrated the hour-long fireworks bombardments at the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge on their birthdays, and for many years he held an annual Bastille Day fireworks for friends and family at his oceanfront estate in Wainscott. He did this until one of his celebrations turned out so awful that he was unable to continue having that party there.
I’d met Plimpton a few times and hoped he’d invite me one of these, but he never did. So, for the one in 1978, my girlfriend and I decided to crash the party and, as it turned out, because we crashed it and because of what ensued, I believe we were partly responsible for this being the last fireworks party at his house.
Getting in was easy. We just waved press passes at people stationed at the check-in desk. From there, we made our way to the vast five-acre lawn between the mansion and the ocean dunes, where approximately 200 people sat on blankets, enjoying the evening. The entertainment consisted of strolling jugglers, mimes, dancers, clowns and magicians who performed while walking around the beach blankets. The guests included politicians, literary lights, Broadway show people, playwrights, royals, painters, TV and movie stars, and there they sat, drinking and carrying on, waiting for the show to begin.
We found a spot and spread out a blanket. Maybe Plimpton wouldn’t notice. Indeed, he didn’t.
Soon after settling down, I got up to get hot food at the long row of buffet tables. In front of me, carrying a plate and waiting her turn, was Jackie Kennedy Onassis. I had never seen her before. But perhaps I could say a word to her. When she got to the front and placed her order, I came up alongside to speak to her when someone called my name. It was Jean Lindgren, the girl serving Jackie, who I knew well.
“Hey, there’s Dan Rattiner,” she said, pointing to me. “Hi, Dan.” Jackie turned and looked. She said nothing. I said nothing. She walked away.
I returned to our blanket, very full of myself.
“I’m more famous than Jackie Kennedy,” I told my girlfriend. “I got noticed before her.”
“Did she say anything to you?”
“You are famous for about 40 miles,” my girlfriend said.
As dusk turned to darkness, we looked out at the dunes and saw the men from the Bridgehampton Fire Department turn on their truck headlights to illuminate the fireworks arrangement in the sand. George was out there. Quite suddenly though, a fog began to roll in from the ocean, accompanied by a brisk wind.
Boom! The first rocket—a burning fireball— went up and everyone cheered. Another five rockets quickly followed, all heading off and disappearing into the low-hanging fog, where, apparently, they did not explode because of the dampness and, instead, pushed by the wind, soon re-emerged from under the fog as streaking fireballs hurling down into the crowd. Ash, from the spent fireworks, some of it hot, filtered down as well. It was quite frightening.
From back at the house at the far end of the lawn, a loud voice was heard over a bull horn. It was George’s wife, Freddy. “George! Stop the fireworks! George!
Boom! Crash! He couldn’t possibly hear her. But she went on and on. Soon a hot firework landed on a man’s shoulder, causing him to leap up to brush it off.
“George, stop the fireworks!”
And finally, after some further ash and fireballs, he did.
That pretty much ended the party.
The next day, I thought to write about the party and asked my girlfriend what she thought. We were party crashers, after all.
“Well, it happened,” she said. “It’s your paper. So write it.” And so I wrote it.
Six months later, it turned out, this gentleman who had brushed hot ash off his shoulder sued George. And my Dan’s Papers article was produced in court as evidence. George took it hard that I, an uninvited guest, had written this. It took a number of years for him to even talk to me again. But then he did, and life went on from there. Among other things, he wrote the introduction to one of my books.
The following year, George set up his Bastille Day fireworks on a huge barge in the very center of Three Mile Harbor, not far from my house. The show would benefit the Boy’s Harbor camp run on the harbor’s far shore by the Tony Duke family.
For the next 20 years, honoring my passion for up close and personal, I’d pile my wife and kids into the small motorboat I docked in front of our house and putter slowly out through an armada of nearly 400 anchored sailboats and party boats to the very front, nearest to the barge. I’d drop anchor up-so-close. And there, amidst the flashes of light and roaring thunder, we’d stare and cheer as this astounding display over our heads played out. Whooooo.
And who would be out there on the barge, supervising the firemen? Why George, of course. Who else?
The Bastille Day fireworks have continued on, but now, along with the others, are cancelled.
Well, they will come back. They will all come back!