Why you won't see more veterans at the fireworks showby Ken Kalish
Park Rapids, Minn. — There was a time I used to love fireworks in the park. For me there's no piece of holiday music that compares to the 1812 Overture accompanied by artillery. It's the best ... so long as I'm watching it (and the fireworks) on TV.
Here's the problem. Somewhere between my adolescence and the birth of my first child, fireworks displays began to rely more and more heavily on an effect called "The Salute." "Salutes" are those shells that emit little in the way of light when they explode. Instead they produce an ear-splitting boom accompanied by a concussive wave that feels as though it could damage your organs.
Some people probably find it exhilarating. But not me ... because something else happened to me between adolescence and parenthood. In 1967, I went off to war. My first year in Vietnam was spent in almost daily combat -- 114 firefights in my first 116 patrols. I learned that B-40 rockets, hand grenades, mortar rounds, artillery and mines all make distinctive sounds. Anyone who's been in combat knows that almost every time we heard those sounds ... it was either because they were trying to kill us or because we were trying to kill them.
Those of us who've been in combat don't like to make a big deal out of it, but next time you're in the park watching fireworks, take a look around. A lot of veterans -- as patriotic as they come -- won't be there.
All of the pretty designs and crackling showers are fine. Most combat veterans can appreciate the beauty of a parachute flare dancing in the battlefield's night air, or the distant tracers spraying brilliant fountains of orange and green during a nighttime firefight. Those so-called "Salutes," though -- they're too much like the real thing.
I don't need to relive the terror of incoming shells, the hot blast of mines, the squeeze-the-breath-out-of-you concussion of a near miss. Those are sensations that used to come with a buddy's violent loss of life or limbs. I can do without the vivid reminders, thank you.
Please. If you're in charge of planning a fireworks display this 4th of July, please, please, please. Bring on the rockets' red glare. But give the combat veterans in your audience a real salute, and leave out bombs bursting in air.
Ken Kalish, who served as a gunner on river patrol in Vietnam and as an announcer with American Forces Viet Nam Network, operates a llama rescue service in Park Rapids.
- Morning Edition, 07/02/2010, 6:50 a.m.