Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Our Quiet Birthday

J. Paul Zoccali

          When I was a kid growing up in Niles, the anxious quiet of fading spring was broken every year by the crack of a relatively small amount of gunpowder. For an early teen with an uncontrollable and ever-rising need for his mischief to be tinged with danger, Memorial Day just didn’t seem to signal the arrival of freedom season here in the steel valley with quite the same urgency as the first perfectly startling bang of an M-80.
          There was an unspoken code of fireworks etiquette agreed upon by the neighborhood amateur explosive experts. It dictated that the firing of the season’s inaugural pre-Independence Day class C noisemaker was sacred. The window for graduation parties was closing fast. Summer jobs were a week old. We waited for it.
          Anyone living between Taft and Main possessing the chutzpah to take it upon himself to kick off 3 weeks of glorious, explosive fun in the name of independence (I’m proud to say that on more than one occasion it was I.) could be counted on to be enough of a devotee to select the appropriate noisemaker in accordance with the code. A bottle rocket was as good as an M-80. A firecracker was acceptable, though a bit perfunctory. It would have to be a pack of firecrackers. A screaming bottle rocket was gauche. Roman Candle with report is an excellent choice. And it had to be during the day. I always preferred the bottle rocket. If the launch site were near enough, the initial f-sshaaaa on blast-off and ensuing moments of silence provided just the right amount of added suspense before a crisp, satisfying pop finally, yet somehow still unexpectedly, echoed briefly in the sky.
         From that first anonymous mid-June call to rip open the Black Cats (Black Cat bottle rockets are loud, but lack greatly in range.), the aural barrage would continue on a daily basis, gradually building to the triumphant climax on the night of the 4th before slowing throughout the days to follow. Occasionally a call-and-answer situation would arise – a couple guys who probably didn’t even know each other trading loud ones in a mutual confirmation of mischievous camaraderie.
          We felt it was our duty. It was as much a part of small town American summer as a cool glass of lemonade – a chance to be patriotic and feel like we were getting away with something at the same time. What a rush. As long as it didn’t get out of hand and the neighbors didn’t complain, the authorities would generally look the other way. It seemed like everybody had them anyway. If the police were to go around busting people solely for shooting off fireworks, they’d all be working overtime and missing the fun themselves. So it went on – low-level anarchy overlooked in the name of democracy. How great is that?
          This year, those fading days of spring were relatively silent in this blue-collar town. A deafening hush pervaded the valley in late June, and the in the days leading up to the 4th of July, the sparseness of neighborhood explosions quietly confirmed that something was wrong. Finally, as the sun fell on Independence Day, relief came with a comfortable steady booming overhead.
          The disparity between freedom season 2008 and those of the past, at least from an aural spectator’s standpoint, was impossible to miss. But getting to work on $4.00-a-gallon gas – if you’re lucky enough to have a job here – and feeding the family on groceries whose prices have also gone the roof doesn’t leave much budget-room for fireworks. The Warren Tribune-Chronicle recently reported that one third of Trumbull County residents will receive some form of public assistance in 2008, a 25% increase over last year – a 50% increase since 2002. Combine that with 50-dollar fill-ups and it’s no wonder so many of us couldn’t even spring for a pack of ladyfingers.
          It’s still not clear exactly who is to blame for the fuel crisis – domestic big oil or the Middle East Producers. I’m inclined to think it’s 50/50. And, of course, it is the price of gas that is in turn making everything else we need to live more and more expensive. Yet still very few prominent voices are heard stating the fact that our addiction to foreign oil is the biggest, strongest buckle holding us in this straitjacket of a recession.
          T. Boone Pickens is the only person of influence yet to talk in real terms about a real plan – finally. Says Pickens, “We import 70 percent of our oil at a cost of $700 billion a year - four times the annual cost of the Iraq war.” The Texas oil magnate, who describes our current situation as an “emergency we can’t drill our way out of,” has taken the reins in the drive toward developing wind power as a long term solution that will offset our oil consumption greatly enough to really make a difference in the long run. With calm passion in his voice, Pickens outlines the myriad advantages of wind power – limitless source, no exhaust, ect. - and the major obstacle: distribution. It’s not a matter of whether or not it can be distributed efficiently, though. It’s a matter of finance, commitment, and time. Whether or not you agree on the long term potential of wind power, there’s little room to argue with Pickens’ refreshingly frank language regarding the reality of the critical role oil consumption plays in our current economic dilemma.
          The muted Independence Day season of small-town America quietly underscores the way the price of gas has changed the way we live. To be sure, high school kids getting to blow stuff up for nearly a month is a luxury, but the seasons past I refer to include the early and mid 80s. We knew we were in a recession then. A Dollar-fifty seemed like a lot to pay for a gallon of gas then, but it wasn’t nearly as far ahead of the inflation curve as it is now. Coping with the new frontier of 4-dollar-a-gallon gas has pervaded every aspect of our lives, and like it or not, put a damper on the way we celebrate the birth of our nation.


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