Independence Day & Fireworks From Above

By Scott Spangler on July 8th, 2010

fireworks-1 One joy of small town living is our ability to watch the annual Independence Day fireworks from our deck when we don’t feel like joining the crowd counted in the thousands. Staged at a riverside park just a bit more than a quarter-mile away, as the Canada geese fly, most of the show  blossoms above the trees in multicolored galaxies of color and sound.

Between our ohhs and ahhs, my wife and I somehow started reminiscing about memorable birthday displays on previous July 4ths.  The mental movie of July 4, 1974 instantly started playing in my Cranial Cineplex. What made the show—shows, actually—is that I watched them from above.

A photographer on flying status at NAS Alameda, I remember the day was warm and boring. Seeking relief from both, I called air ops and learned that a reserve antisubmarine helicopter squadron had scheduled a night training mission. Another phone call got me on the yellow sheet.

SH-3 Strapped into the sling seat in the back of the SH-3 Sea King, we took off just after dusk, two pilots, the crew chief, and I. The horizon reminded me of light seeping from under a closed door, and just as it went dark the pilots started calling out the fireworks below as we circled San Francisco Bay.

Contorting my body to see out the small window in the H-3s starboard-side sliding barn door, I finally asked the pilot if I could open it. With a view not much better than mine from his station at the sonar console, the crew chief joined me. A camera hung from my neck, ignored in the darkness.

Restrained by our gunner’s belts, we sat cross-legged in the open door. It was clear and cool and the earth looked like a starry sky. Everywhere we turned pyrotechnics climbed toward us on fiery tails and exploded below in slow-motion super novas of color and light. The only sound was the helicopter’s hum and the pilot’s occasional calls to ATC.

As it did that night, reliving that flight filled me with an ineffable sense of peaceful appreciation for the privilege of being witness to such a sight. And for the first time it struck me that six months after that flight, give or take, I was sitting in the open door of another helicopter, a UH-1N, keeping an anxious eye out for another form of pyrotechnics, red and green tracers, and the snaking molten red dot of a heat seeking missile.

Reporting to the command ship, the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19), the pilots, crew chief, and I were collecting photos in preparation for the evacuation of Saigon. My part of the mission complete, the camera hung from my neck ignored, as I anxiously searched for telling bits of light rising from the mostly green ground below. Fortunately, on this flight, it never materialized in sharp contrast to the dusky light.

The sudden connection of these two flights moved me, and I struggled to define why as I watched the fireworks burst to life over the trees. That I didn’t make the connection at the time wasn’t the issue: the significance of any event never registers when living the moment. Perspective and relevance comes with time and contemplation. Perhaps this is doubly true when considering the celebration and responsibility of independence. – Scott Spangler

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