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Thursday, July 7, 2005 - 10:57 p.m.

The fireworks are hailin' over Little Eden tonight

Minor-league baseball teams have fireworks displays after games so frequently, I think they've lost some luster. (The fireworks, not the ballgames.) At least to me they have. How special is it when you can see them two Fridays a month at the ballpark half an hour away? When I find myself at such games, I usually use the pyrotechnic display as a distraction -- while everyone else remains in their seats to watch the show, I slide out of the parking lot without any traffic hassles.

But as Casey and I sat down with Jaime and Dan and their friends at I was in Maryland, and for four years after that, I worked at the newspaper and often found myself in the office on the third of July. Since leaving the paper, I've spent the holiday in Pennsylvania or New York, not getting to the banks of the Navesink River to watch the Grucci Bros. pre-Macy's dress rehearsal.

Dan's friends were very welcoming and invited us to sit in the extra chairs they had set up around their blankets on the lawn. When we had arrived at Elise's house for her barbecue, people were already walking down to the park to await the fireworks show -- five hours early. Families make it an outing, friends meet up for the occassion, food vendors and a live band make it a festival. We used to do it in high school, planning to meet friends at designated spots at certain times in the days before everyone and their 8-year-old sisters had their own cell phones. Walking from Elise's within an hour of the start of the show, we found ourselves walking through the maze of blankets and chairs taking up every inch of grass. After we'd settled into the chairs near the water -- a prime spot that indicated Dan's friends had been here for hours -- the walkway behind us soon began to fill up. By the time the first rockets shot up over the river, there was no designation between pedestrian thoroughfares and viewing spots. Everyone got as close to the water as they could, and looked up.

That one's taken with the cell phone camera, so it's not sharp. In fact, it looks better in a smaller size ...

And makes a perfect wallpaper for the phone itself in an even smaller orientation ...

What amazed me about the display after several years away was just how prolific it was. It was a true fireworks show. Just as minor-league baseball is a smaller, in some ways a stripped-down version of what the major leagues offer, so too are the fireworks in the bush leagues. Nothing I've seen in Lakewood has matched what goes up over the Navesink every July. From our vantage point -- and this is what makes the cell phone photo worth displaying -- it appeared that some of the light trails were reaching over us. We found ourselves looking up at the embers burning not just out over the water, but nearly above us. It was the difference between sitting five rows from the stage for a concert or a Broadway show and sitting in the upper balcony, where you have a detached view not unlike watching a live feed a room away from the action.

On the Fourth itself, we public transpo-ed it over to Queens for a rooftop barbecue within site of the elevated 7 train tracks and the back of the Silvercup Studios. The plan there was to hop the chest-high wall onto another part of the roof around 9 p.m. to get a better view of the Macy's fireworks set off along the East River. But after a tiring weekend in the sun and eating and drinking in celebration of our American freedom, Casey and I were keen on getting back beneath the two rivers to the Jersey side. By 6:30, we were already weary, so we said goodbye and were back in Weehawken, where we'd left the car, by 7:30.

We drove into Hoboken to Jaime and Dan's place, taking them up on their invitation to see what kind of view we had from the western side of the Hudson for the big show. As it got dark, we walked east along 6th St. to the campus of Stevens Institute of Technology. The Mahattan skyline twinkled in the dusk below us as we descended a staircase down the hillside and crossed Frank Sinatra Boulevard. Next to an Astroturf soccer field, we leaned on the railing at the edge of the river and waited for the darkness. Far off to the south, we soon saw small flashes of light on the horizon, displays of patriotism set off from Staten Island or possibly New Jersey's bayshore.

Then, almost due east from our vantage point somewhere across the Hudson from about 20th or 14th Street, the fireworks began simultaneously from three points: directly across from us on the East River, somewhere around the 20s or 30s; southeast behind the tall buildings of Lower Manhattan; and further south on our side of the river in Jersey City. The same types and colors shot up in synchronized bursts, the pops and explosions carrying across the water to our ears.

I rested my digital camera on the railing to steady it in the darkness and alternated between bending down to frame the shot and just going on instinct so that I might enjoy the show. Of the 50-something shots I took, I kept maybe 30, but felt this one offered the best combination of clarity and good timing with the bursts of color. Had my laziness not meant that I left the tripod in the car, I'd be posting a slide show for you to sit through rather than a long narrative accented with a few select images -- three of which were just smaller versions of the same thing.

Having the tripod with me, however, would have only meant more views of this same shot. I would've taken different displays bursting over the skyline with the Empire State Building to the left. Our vantage point meant that smaller fireworks, those meant to explode at a lower altitude, were blocked by the buildings before us. And the display from Lower Manhattan was soon blocked out by all the smoke from the explosions so that all we saw were flashes in the clouds -- and soon nothing but a gray haze blocking out even the lights of the buildings. So in the end, I didn't miss too much, photographically. And even though I didn't actually take a similar shot, I know I could've gotten the same one a New York Times snapper did a few miles north of us in Weehawken.

As we walked back up the steps to the Hoboken up on the cliff, Dan and I discussed how that elevated vantage point might have meant that the lower fireworks would've been seen better, but figured it would have been a minor improvement. Our vantage point on the riverwalk seemed to be a unique privilege to us Jersey folk, the icons of the New York skyline serving as an accent to the main attraction, nothing but the shimmering waters of the river separating us.

But next year, I'm bringing the tripod.

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