I’ve had some pretty memorable 4th of July moments. There was the meaningful Bicentennial Celebration of 1976. I was 9, and people were handing out two dollar bills all over the place. Then there was the coolest 4th of July … the time I watched the Redding fireworks in typical 110-degree heat from a lounge chair in my friend’s pool. And I’ll never forget the time I spent my holiday falling in love while floating down the Rogue River. My lover kissed me and everything stopped, except for the fireworks exploding in my own head. I can still taste the Blueberry Twist Trident gum he had in his mouth. That was the most personal. But here’s another 4th of July memory that’s close to my heart to share with you, and a playlist to go along with it.
It was during the 13 years I spent living on an island in Southeast Alaska, in the little fishing village of Petersburg. It was settled in the late 1800s by Norwegians who had left their country in search of a better life. While the descendants of those original settlers still celebrate their Scandinavian heritage more fervently than they do back in the old country (there’s even books written about it – in Norwegian), they are also proudly American. They love this country. It gave them an opportunity to have a quality life if they were willing to work hard for it. So when the 4th of July rolls around, Petersburg is ready for a serious party. You have never met a more patriotic bunch than these Norsk immigrants and their descendants, living in the newest state in the union. It’ll make you proud to be an American just to see how proud these folks are just for the privilege of being American.
Perhaps you’ve heard that up there in Alaska there’s six months of sun and six months of darkness. That’s not entirely accurate. At least not down in Southeast. But in the summertime, the crack of dawn occurs at around 3 a.m., and the long, slow sunset starts at about 9 and finally disappears about 11. On the 4th of July, that’s when the party really starts. During the day, there’s a great parade. It’s so short that it usually loops around and makes a second run through town just so people feel they got their money’s worth. Harald Medalen, who fought in the Norwegian Resistance in WWII, marched in every 4th of July parade, and always got the respect he deserved for his efforts. After the parade, fun continues with the annual Egg Toss (video here), and the Fish Tote Races. Seriously, this is what we did!
When twilight finally arrives, all 3000 people in the village begin making their way to the north shore of Mitkof Island to spread blankets out on neighbor’s front lawns to watch the community fireworks display. They don’t have anything like the McConnell Foundation to help fund a spectacular display. The cash is raised at the grocery store, with jars to toss your spare change after buying groceries. It doesn’t raise much, but it’s enough for Petersburg.
One year when I was a reporter at the local public radio station, instead of watching the fireworks from Mitkof, I was allowed to join the fellas who made it all happen. A few hours before sunset, my friend Dave Berg – local travel agent, volunteer firefighter and the only licensed pyrotechnician in town – led a group of people across to nearby Sasby Island in skiffs (the islands are so close you can shout across the water to the people on the other side). Everyone sludged down to the beach in Extra-Tuffs, swatting away thick clouds of mosquitos and no-see-ums (in Alaska, you can see ’em). Even if you didn’t smoke, you lit up. It was the only way to keep away the bugs. Until Dave set off the first firework. Then all the bugs were gone for good.
Then I set up my equipment, the tools of my trade. A set of headphones, a microphone and MARTI, the portable transmitter with a battery pack that allowed me to broadcast back to the station. Every year KFSK would provide a patriotic musical backdrop to the fireworks. Some unfortunate volunteer DJ would have to stay behind in the station while the island’s other 2,999 residents were enjoying the show. That year, we did something a little different, with a live broadcast from Ground Zero. We still played the patriotic music, but along with it, we broadcast the sounds of Dave and his crew setting off the fireworks, calling to each other as they set off each one, the WHOOSH of each bomb firing out of the mortar heard loud and clear on everyone’s radio.
The way I recall it, the guys dug holes in the sand, installing mortars and then they organized the fireworks – several thousand dollars worth of paper-wrapped color bombs with long fuses – by size. Then when they were ready, I told the DJ back at the radio station to cue the music, and the men began to set them off. They were a very well coordinated group, working in little teams. One would light the fuse with a road flare, then wait for the bomb to shoot out of the mortar, and then would call for another firework by size, and the sky would light up with color over and over again.
Over on the other island, the townspeople erupted with delight every time another color exploded over the water. We could hear them shouting “Oooh!” and “Aaaaah!” in response to the efforts of the crew on Sasby Island. I could even hear the patriotic music turned up loudly on some of the boats floating around in the mouth of the Wrangell Narrows. There were plenty of them, positioned so they could lie on the deck, directly underneath the explosions.
Every time I think about that night I can’t help but grin from ear to ear, thinking about the immense joy a small group of volunteers brought to the whole village, and how special it felt to be there, experiencing a 4th of July you just can’t imagine anywhere else.
This year in the North State, there are a few radio stations that are coordinating some patriotic music on their airwaves during fireworks displays. Q97 will coordinate with Anderson Explodes tonight at the Shasta County Fair grounds, and KFPR has similar plans for Thursday’s Freedom Festival Fireworks from the Convention Center in Redding, which start blasting at 10pm. And of course, I’m offering up my own playlist for you to stream or download, and feel free to make your own suggestions or offer up stories of your favorite 4th of July!
4th of July Playlist
- Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – “This Land Is Your Land”
- Ray Charles – “America The Beautiful”
- James Brown – “Living In America”
- Neil Diamond – “America”
- Bruce Springsteen – “Born In The USA”
- Lenny Kravitz – “American Woman”
- John Mellencamp – “R.O.C.K. In The USA”
- Chuck Berry – “Back In The USA”
- Grand Funk Railroad – “We’re An American Band”
- Neil Young – “Rockin’ In The Free World”
- Carlos Bertonatti – “Reach Out America”
- Don McLean – “American Pie”
- Elton John – “Philadelphia Freedom”
- The Beatles – “Revolution”
- Miley Cyrus – “Party in the USA”
- Shooter Jennings – “4th Of July”
- Toby Keith – “Courtesy Of The Red White & Blue”
- Randy Travis – “America Will Always Stand”
- Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – “An American Dream”
- Steve Miller Band – “Living In The USA”
- Martin Sexton – “Free World”
- Keb’ Mo’ – “America The Beautiful”
- Glenn Miller – “American Patrol”
- The Impressions – “This Is My Country”
- Johnny Cash – “Ragged Old Flag”
- Jimi Hendrix – “Star Spangled Banner”
Valerie Ing-Miller has been the Northern California Program Coordinator for Jefferson Public Radio in Redding for nine years and can often be found serving as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Cascade Theatre. For her, ultimate satisfaction comes from a perfect segue. She’s the mother of a teenage daughter and a 7-year-old West Highland Terrier, and can’t imagine life without them or music. Valerie wakes up with a song in her head, she sings in the shower and at the top of her lungs in the car.
A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.