Fourths Full of Fireworks, Family and Friends

This morning was quiet when I awoke.  The stillness wouldn’t be that unusual for a holiday morning except for the fact that this was the Fourth of July, the U.S. day to celebrate its independence. When I was a kid, that meant starting the day off with a bang, literally, as my brother and I hopped out of our bed, threw on some clothes and raced outdoors to light what would be the first of many firecrackers that day.

My son, Marshall, ready to celebrate with his string of Black Cats.

Times have changed as setting off individual fireworks have been banned in many communities, such as my own, leaving it to the pro pyrotechnicians to provide a choreographed aerial night display. For the most part, it’s a good thing although I do miss seeing kids faces light up as they swirl the glowing wands of sparklers. And I loved the ground fountains that burst up with sizzling flares of color.

But the silence of the morning made me think of all those wonderful Fourth of July holidays past here in Bellingham.

A fireworks show on the front yard of our house.

I smiled remembering nights when my own middle-school aged sons gathered up their collection of fireworks, call us all out to the street in front of our home and set them off to their own choreographed show, complete with patriotic music blasted from a boom box that had been turned up to full volume.

Then there was the family barbeques at our friends’ home who lived then on a local lake.

The kids line up for hot dogs right off the grill.

Food was plentiful, with everyone bringing baked beans, deviled eggs, hot dogs and hamburgers, salads, pies, cookies and ice cream, all pretty much considered to be ‘traditional’ American Independence Day favorites.  Moms and Dads would talk and drink beer while we watched the kids leap off the end of the dock into the still chilly lake water. A few others would hop into the kayak and paddle a short distance out from the shore where they would still be within sight of parental eyes.

The kids take a break from swimming and kayaking to eat a Fourth of July picnic.

And then, of course, as night began to fall (nearly 10 p.m. here in the Pacific Northwest), the homemade fireworks show would start with the explosions from Roman candles being directed out over the water.  When it was over, we bundled up the leftovers and our sleepy-eyed kids and headed home.

Firing off the Roman candles from the dock.

Later, when our friends moved to a home on the bay, we did the same thing sitting on the beach, watching the sun sink as he dug into the delicious apple and cherry pies that had been baked especially for the occasion. Of course, we always had a fire going so that we could make s’mores–those wonderfully gooey treat of melted chocolate and toasted marshmallow squeezed between two layers of graham crackers. And the fire also kept us warm because Fourth of Julys here can be chilly, if not rainy.

A festive pie for the Fourth of July.

I recalled the more recent holidays when our sons, now grown, were not home to celebrate or, if they were, preferred to head off with friends to watch fireworks than join the ‘old folks.’ One memorable Fourth was spent out on a boat in the bay enjoying the company of friends from the annual summer music festival and viewing that night’s light show from the water. Quite an experience. Still another found us sitting nearly directly beneath the big blast over the harbor as we sat with another couple on the terrace of a shore side restaurant, savoring the food served up for the special evening while overhead the ‘bombs’ were bursting in air.

The Fourth of July on the boat in the bay gave us a spectacular view of the fireworks show that night.

More recently, we’ve headed over to a friend’s home late in the day for a potluck on their deck.  After dessert, we settle into one of their patio chairs, usually with a blanket close at hand, and wait and watch for the big fireworks spectacle, sponsored here for years by one of our local markets. They have an excellent vantage point from which we can see it all, including the show also being staged in nearby Blaine, just up the coast and the individual efforts from the Lummi Nation across the bay.

Happy Fourth of July. Long may our Star Spangled banner wave.

While the colorful aerial pyrotechnics are fun to watch, it’s mostly the company of the friends and family we are with that really make the evenings fun and memorable. It’s that feeling of fellowship, of sharing a special day with people special to you, some who you may only see on this day once a year. And that’s what I remember most about this holiday. I hope your Fourth of July is equally as memorable and as full of family and friends as it is of fireworks.

A Festival of Flags

Today is Memorial Day here in the U.S.  It’s celebrated with family get togethers, barbeques, concerts, parades, races, car shows, about anything you can think of to bring people together. Originally, it was created to honor those who served in our nation’s military and that’s still the real reason for the holiday, which, over time, has come to mark the start of summer in most of the country. (Summer comes about a month and a half later to the Pacific Northwest.)

But in small towns across America, people still take time to salute those who served and they do it in ways that aren’t the big spectacles you find in places like Washington D.C. or our other large metropolises.  To me, those small town commemorative services seem more genuine and reflect the true heart and soul of this country. Just ordinary people paying tribute to fathers, sons, uncles, aunts, mothers, daughters, brothers, sisters and cousins who gave their lives in military service to this country.

More than 1700 flags line the paths of the cemetery on Memorial Day weekend.

Northwest Washington state, where I live now, is nestled in a corner of the U.S. considered to be progressive politically and not so prone to an overabundance of patriotic fervor even though the state has a fair number of military bases located here.  Yet we have one of the most moving Memorial Day displays I’ve ever seen.

The Festival of Flags is sponsored by the local American Legion post and a local funeral home. It takes place at noon at the Greenacres Memorial Park located in neighboring Ferndale. I only just discovered this ceremony a couple of years ago when a friend of mine mentioned that she was attending. I suspect that many local residents, like myself, still aren’t aware of it.

A quiet bench offers a place for people to reflect.

The three-hour event starts at noon with food and music, this year provided by the barbershop group known as the Mount Baker Toppers. The opening act is followed by a short remembrance speech delivered by a military officer from somewhere in the region. This year’s ceremony will close with the unveiling of a new World War I memorial and the release of a dove, a nod to the peace that never quite seems to last for long in today’s world.

However the true highlight of the event is the more than 1,700 American flags that flap in the wind and line the pathways of the beautiful cemetery grounds throughout the Memorial Day weekend.  I went out to the cemetery two years ago just to have a look.  It was the year after my Dad had died–hard to believe it’s now three years since his passing–and I felt going out to the cemetery, particularly on Memorial Day, was a way I could remember him and pay my respects since I couldn’t visit the little country cemetery in Kansas where he and my mother are buried.

My first glimpse of the Festival of Flags was from the rain spotted window of my car,.

Memorial Day was rainy and dreary that year. But the day brightened for me when I pulled off the road, drove through the cemetery gates and caught my first view of the red, white and blues through the rain spotted window of my car. I sat quietly in my car reflecting on the year before while hoping that the rain would let up.

The gentle breeze kept the flags furling.

Eventually it turned to a light drizzle so I grabbed my camera, hopped out and began to photograph the flags.  Capturing the flags, so to speak, was a challenge. There were so many. A gentle breeze furled and unfurled the Star Spangled banners as a photographed. I pretty well had the cemetery to myself, except for a handful of people who had come early to set up for the ceremony that followed.

I walked through the forest of flags, not having to say a word to anyone, just me, my camera and, I felt, my Dad.  The time was a welcome break from the usual Memorial Day madness and just what I needed to personally honor the day. Whatever you do this day, I hope you’ll find a way to personally give tribute to those you love who may have given their lives or served time in our armed forces.

School Festival Created Halloween Fun & Family

A friend of mine was telling  me the other day that she was going to be the fortune-teller at the Halloween Festival at her son’s school.  I smiled and then recalled to her my own sons’ Halloween Festivals when they were in public elementary school in Los Angeles.

I had just come across some photos that I had taken at those festivals so they were fresh on my mind.  In fact, I’ve written about the festivals before. Here’s a link to take you there in case you missed it: http://wp.me/p2ohfO-4BE.

My friend, Pam, dressed as a 'friendly' clown and staffed the ghost castle game at the Calahan School Halloween Festival.
My friend, Pam, dressed as a ‘friendly’ clown and staffed the ghost castle game at the Calahan School Halloween Festival.

Ours wasn’t an elaborate festival but simple, old-fashioned fun with games handcrafted by parent volunteers that provided entertainment for the kids.  Many of them had been designed in coordination with the teachers (an amazingly talented bunch). In addition to the fun they provided, the games actually taught the kids something about chance and probability, physics, calculation or science. That aspect didn’t necessarily register on the kids, of course, but they still had to use some of the skills and thinking processes associated with those academic areas in order to play the games.

Games at the Halloween Festival were designed to teach the kids concepts such as chance and probability.
Games at the Halloween Festival were designed to teach the kids concepts such as chance and probability.

Parents too had a great time.  The festival, held on a Saturday before Halloween, drew families to the school to create a true sense of community within the larger Los Angeles school district, one of the largest, in fact, in the country. This served us well when the Northridge earthquake–measured at 6.4–rocked our school which was located near the epicenter of the quake. Although our school–Calahan Elementary–miraculously didn’t sustain the greatest damage, student enrollment dropped by nearly 100 overnight when families homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged so badly that they could no longer live and work in them.

Parents staffed the games at the school's Halloween Festival while the kids tested their skills.
Parents staffed the games at the school’s Halloween Festival while the kids tested their skills.

The Halloween Festival had built a true caring spirit for the school and families who were part of it. When those students disappeared from our school, their absence left a huge hole and psychologically difficult for the students who remained.  When the district then wanted to move two of our teachers because the school population had shrunk, the entire school rallied in an effort to prevent that action.  Our protests wound up as front page news of the Los Angeles Times and resulted in our teachers remaining at the school until things could be stabilized.

Principal Parade
The principal led the kids in a costume parade around the school grounds. Although he usually dressed in costume himself, this particular year he didn’t. Students still had a great time following him around the classroom and playground.

That kind of ‘togetherness’ is a lesson from which our country’s current political environment benefit.  Calahan had at least 18 different home languages with kids whose families came from all over the world.  The Halloween Festival, in particular, did more to break down any cultural, political or language barriers that existed between us because it took all of us parents, working together, to make it happen. Everyone had something to contribute and contribute they did.  Now, years later, students, teachers and parents keep in touch through our school group Facebook page or e-mail. And Calahan kids who have come after us, often ask to join just because they too have a fondness for the school. It truly was an exception in a district where schools were mostly detached from those who attended them and from each other.

I dressed as a witch on year and took photos of everyone who came in costume to Calahan's Halloween Festival.
I dressed as a witch on year and took photos of everyone who came in costume to Calahan’s Halloween Festival.

While Halloween is a scary holiday for some, for me and the kids who grew up at Calahan Elementary, it conjures up sweet memories of fun and family.  I hope it will do the same for my friend.

Graduating My Assistant

Every year about this time I get a little sad.  That’s because it’s graduation time for many high school and college students. To be sure, they deserve to celebrate their years of hard work and accomplishment. But for me, the celebration is bittersweet when I have to say “Good-by” to my studio assistant.  I haven’t had to do this for three years so I guess I should be grateful. Still, I got a little teary-eyed when I said farewell and best wishes to my studio assistant, Megan Marler, on Thursday .

Megan graduated with honors from Western Washington University (WWU) this week with a Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology.  She headed out-of-town early Friday morning for a road trip to her home back in Colorado where she will soon be married on July 5.  I can hardly believe that it’s been a little more than three years since she first contacted me about the possibility of working with me as my assistant.

Megan is usually behind the camera with me, not in front, having worked for the past three years as my studio assistant.
Megan is usually behind the camera with me, not in front, having worked for the past three years as my studio assistant.

I was pretty impressed with Megan right from the beginning. She ‘cold-contacted’ me about working me after searching out my information on-line. She already had worked in the studio of a Colorado photographer. It so happened that my previous studio assistant, also a Western student, had just recently graduated and moved back to her home in Indonesia, when Megan contacted me.  The timing couldn’t have been better.  Megan hadn’t yet arrived in town but we set up a time to meet once she got here.

Although she had an interest in photography, she planned to pursue an education that would lead her to physical therapy or something similar. I don’t remember now how it was she came to enroll at WWU, but I’m glad she did.  It didn’t take her long to settle into student life here.  She quickly made the university’s women’s crew team. (I was thrilled to learn this, having covered rowing at the 1984 Olympics for TIME Magazine.) Her height, six-foot, and strength clearly gave her an advantage, both in rowing and as my assistant. I jokingly tell my clients when we’re on location with my assistant that they are my ‘human light stand’. But it’s hard work as they must hold and position my reflectors in order to place my light just as I want it on my subject. Sometimes they are standing in the weeds, in the water or on the rocks just out of my camera’s view, but close enough so that I get the light I want. Megan learned quickly and was often able to anticipate exactly where I’d like her to go before I even directed her.

Megan, who graduated with honors from WWU, shows off her diploma on the Western commons.
Megan, who graduated with honors from WWU, shows off her diploma on the Western commons.

She excelled on campus in her classes and on the row team. Her classload wasn’t ever light but she managed to do well in them all. At the same time, she was up every weekday, on the water and ready to practice with Western’s crew team by six a.m.  It didn’t take long for this inexperienced rower to make the varsity eight-woman boat. WWU’s women’s crew team is nationally regarded and they prove it year after year by having been selected to compete in the NCAA Division II National Rowing Championships 13 years straight.  They won the national title seven consecutive years from 2005 to 2011. Megan was on the team that represented WWU in 2013 and 2014, and went with them to Nationals in 2014 to win third.  The team wasn’t chosen to go to this year’s Nationals. But Megan, and four others of her teammates, were named National Scholar Athletes by the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association.

Megan sits second from the right in this photo of WWU's women's varsity eight crew competing at the Pacific Conference Rowing Championships earlier this spring. The photo is taken from the WWU website.
Megan sits second from the right in this photo of WWU’s women’s varsity eight crew competing at the Pacific Conference Rowing Championships earlier this spring. The photo is taken from the WWU website.

Besides being on the crew team, Megan somehow found time to help coach a local girls select soccer team, stay active in her church and ‘job shadow’ with a local physical therapist. I have every confidence that she’ll continue to do well no matter what path she chooses to take in the life ahead of her. I will miss her big smile, conscientious work ethic, attentiveness to detail and cheery outlook every time she stepped through my studio door. I’m proud to have had her alongside me for countless photo sessions and in the studio doing work for me far below her skill level without complaint. I’m sorry to see her go, but at the same time excited to see where she goes next. Congratulations, Megan!

In the traditional manner, Megan gives hers graduation cap the celebratory toss!
In the traditional manner, Megan gives hers graduation cap the celebratory toss!

 

Having a Blast in the Big Apple

My memories of the Fourth of July are mostly of awakening to the sounds of firecrackers popping off somewhere in the small town in Kansas where I grew up.  As soon as I could get myself dressed, I’d be out there too with my little brothers lighting a string of Black Cats, setting off sticks of sparklers, or watching a jet black pellet, sold as a ‘snake’  grow into a delicate twisting cylinder of carbon ash when a match was held to it.   But three years ago, I was treated to a different kind of Fourth of July, an aerial spectacular staged in the largest city in the U.S.–Fourth of July New York City style.

I arrived in the city with my husband early that morning on a flight from London where we had been visiting friends.  My cousins, Terry and John, who live in Manhattan, asked us to join them for their holiday celebration that evening if we weren’t too jet-lagged.  One of the things I love about travel is the opportunity to experience how other parts of the country or the world celebrate holidays.  So when my cousins extended their invitation,  I was going to be there. By flying in the early, we could go my son’s apartment, shower and clean up and then grab a nap in order to be awake for the festivities that night. Falling asleep wasn’t hard, as neither of us had dozed much on the seven-hour flight across the Atlantic.  Waking up in time to go to Terry and John’s was harder.

Old Glory hung from the balcony faded by the sunset and offering a glimpse of the high rises behind.
Old Glory hung from the balcony faded by the sunset and offering a glimpse of the high rises behind.

But by early evening, I was ready to party. We hopped a cab across town to my cousins’ apartment building in Chelsea. They had recently moved from the first floor to the tenth floor. One side of their three bedroom apartment faced towards the Hudson River, where the fireworks show was to be that year. Macy’s, the department store that sponsors the big event, rotates the show every other year between the East River and the Hudson River, so as to give New Yorkers living on both sides of the island a fair chance to see it.  Terry and John’s place couldn’t have been a more perfect place from which to watch that year’s extravaganza.

The colors of the sunset itself against New York's skyline rivaled that of the fireworks that were to come on this Fourth of July.
The colors of the sunset itself against New York’s skyline rivaled that of the fireworks that were to come on this Fourth of July.

Folding deck chair filled their little balcony so everyone could sit for the show. At one end of the balcony, John was manning the grill where hot dogs and hamburgers were sizzling hot.  This was a backyard barbecue, Manhattan style. Terry, who’s a great cook, had all the trimmings ready as well as some tasty side dishes and a dessert just in case you got hungry later. When you stepped in off the balcony to ‘dress’ your dog or burger, you could still catch the pyrotechnic spectacle being broadcast live on the living room’s big screen television. That option also included live performances by various entertainers that took place on Liberty Island before and during the big show.

From the balcony, we could see a steady stream of people heading down towards the river hoping to stake out a good observation point.  Their arms were loaded with picnic baskets, bags of food, folding chairs and ice chests as if they were camping there for a week.  Thousands of excited kids and their parents scurried down the streets, looking like, from our vantage point high above them, little ants in one of those clear plastic ant houses.

 

Sky rockets burst around a New York high rise like a halo of light.
Sky rockets burst around a New York high rise like a halo of light.

Excitement mounted as darkness descended over the city’s skyline. The first of the big fireworks went trailing high into the sky and at its pinnacle burst into sparkles of color.  Our little party all ‘oohed’  together as people always seem to do when watching fireworks en masse.  Five or six barges had been anchored in the middle of the river and loaded with nearly 30-minutes worth of sky rockets, giant cones and Roman candles that sped high over the skyline when ignited before exploding into bright, chrysanthemum-like bouquets against the black sky.  Each subsequent explosion seemed bigger and better than the last and elicited even grander expressions of delight from our balcony full of celebrants.  I couldn’t imagine anyone not being thrilled by this cosmopolitan Independence Day display.

For me, it was a very different venue from anywhere I had been.  I had watched fireworks erupt over the empty ball field in my home town, seen the shows spread out all over Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley from a friend’s hillside backyard and watched the late night pyrotechnics over Bellingham’s bay. Now I experienced the Fourth set against a backdrop of skyscrapers silhouetted by the bursting embers of light that drifted slowly down into the Hudson.

The exploding sprays of revolutionary red fireworks silhouetted the water tower atop one of the nearby buildings during the Fourth of July spectacular.
The exploding sprays of revolutionary red fireworks silhouetted the water tower atop one of the nearby buildings during the Fourth of July spectacular.

I photographed what I could, steadying my camera on the balcony railing and shooting through the fine mesh protective screen that enclosed my cousin’s balcony. It wasn’t the best of shooting conditions but it was definitely the best of evenings.  When it was over, we cheered and watched as exuberant spectators below headed home or joined friends to continue the festivities elsewhere. The mood was definitely as bombastic as the show we had just witnessed.  This was a Fourth of July that I have cataloged as one of  my most memorable.  For what could be better than celebrating our national holiday with family, friends and fireworks in such a great city and setting?