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?

9/11 Pacific Coast Time

I saw the film, “Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close,” last night.  I had missed it in theatre but was glad to find it on cable.  Most appropriate that I should have seen it the evening before 9/11 as it’s about a young boy who lost his father on that day and also about how the tragedy brought New Yorkers together.  It’s a moving and uplifting movie based on a book of the same name.

To mark this day, which for many of my generation could be considered “our  Pearl Harbor”, I thought I’d reprint the essay I wrote on the day after as everyone was still trying to sort out what had happened.  It’s longer than my usual blog posts so I hope you’ll excuse me as it wasn’t written for this format.  But also hope that it will cause you to stop and remember, if even for just a moment.

The Day After

I awoke this morning to the sound of an aircraft flying overhead. I thought it was a commercial jet from Vancouver B.C. “The airports must have been reopened,” I said to Mike. It was just after 6 a.m. The last thing I saw on television last night was that Sea-Tac expected flights to resume at 9 a.m. this morning. But it was not a commercial airliner, it was a military jet patrolling the Puget Sound. I telephoned my friend, Pat, to ask if she’d like to take the kayaks out this morning. The water looked calm and peaceful and I thought that it would be a good way to start this particular morning. She said she wasn’t sure because she hadn’t been feeling too well since yesterday. Her brother-in-law works in the Army side of the Pentagon too. He was also lucky and escaped injury. But I insisted, telling her that I thought it might help to clear her head.  So she agreed.

“The water looked calm and peaceful…”

I ran the boys to school and then headed down to the boatyard where we keep our kayaks. We hauled them out and pushed off into the strangely still
water. Our kayaks moved quietly and smoothly through the rippleless water.  We talked about all that had happened the day before and all that we had heard on the latest news reports.  Pat had heard more than I as she had been up since 4:30 a.m., unable to sleep.  I had already been to three places in town that regularly stocked the New York Times.  All three had sold out.  I telephoned the news stand downtown that carries the Times; they too were out and told me that everyone in town was out of the paper. “I thought the paper would do an overrun,” I said.

“They did,” the young woman on the phone replied.

“Well you can get it on the Internet,” Pat reminded me as we paddled past the shipyard’s pier.

“I know,” I said. “I did that yesterday but I somehow wanted to have something in my hands.”

In fact, I had logged onto the NY Times website late yesterday afternoon just as Bush was finishing his address. I read everything, consuming every little bit of information that the Times had available. Even as I read, the paper was updating its website to include Bush’s remarks and the latest updates. How busy my buddies in the working media throughout the country must be, I thought. One of them is a “special projects” editor for the New York Times in D,C, Yesterday’s events would certainly qualify. I haven’t even bothered to e-mail him. Or anyone else that I know in that business, for that matter. In some ways, I feel disconnected. I suppose almost anyone who has ever worked in the news media has similar feelings. At least they are getting answers, or attempting to get answers. The rest of us just have to wait.

Last night at dinner, my son commented on how poor the news coverage was at first. I explained to him that in situations like that, no one knows exactly what is going on. At first, you get reports that there is a fire somewhere, an explosion in the World Trade Tower, maybe a bomb. But I can just imagine the disbelief when the word comes across that an airliner has just crashed into the Towers. Then there’s word that not just one, but two have crashed into the Towers. What chaos and confusion there must have been. I doubt that not even the eyewitnesses on the street or those taping what was happening in their videocamera could believe it. It just didn’t seem real.
“You know that air crews have a code that they are supposed to punch in if  the plane is being hijacked,” Pat told me this morning. “Not one of the four planes sent that code,” she said. We both shook our heads. How could that happen? How could any of this have happened? Answers. There simply are no answers.

Paddling Past Post Point
“Our kayaks moved quietly and smoothly through the rippleless water…”

Our silence was broken by the sound of rotary propellers overhead. We looked up. A Coast Guard helicopter passed above. We watched it go by knowing that it probably wasn’t searching for lost fishermen or boaters today.

“My sister said that she thinks she heard the plane go into the Pentagon,” Pat said. “Then she called up her husband and told him to ‘Get the hell out of there,’ just as he got the word to evacuate.”

We traded more stories that we had read or heard about others who had survived.  In a way , we too were survivors. We had arisen, dressed, eaten breakfast, gotten our kids off to school and were now doing what I suspect many other Americans are doing today, talking between themselves about yesterday’s events.  We were trying to make sense of a senseless acts of terrorism. Or was it so senseless?

Somewhere in the world, someone is feeling very good about what happened yesterday. Feeling good about having shown the world that we, in America, are not as invincible as we often think that we are. It is difficult to understand exactly how this could be possible.  And yet, as anyone who’s ever been abroad can tell you, not everyone is as enamored about America as we might like to think.  We do, sadly, have enemies. Identifying exactly who they are is not always so easy.  And that’s what’s so frustrating about yesterday’s assault on the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

It’s clear to me, that whomever it was in charge was making a statement in their own sick way.  They targeted two institutions–one symbolizing this country’s financial strength and the other the country’s military strength. The fourth downed plane, I believe, was not headed for Camp David but probably also for the Pentagon. And what does this mean for us? I’m not sure but I am certain that someone out there in this world that has grown so small with the Internet, is very angry with us and we’d better pay attention.

“It’s a little odd, isn’t it?”  I said to Pat, “to think that this morning no one can fly in or out of, or around the country.”

“Yeah,” she said.

We watched the ferry cruise out towards San Juan Island just as it always does at 9 a.m. every morning. Our little part of the world seemed so quiet compared to what was going on elsewhere.

I am amazed by the stories filtering out about those who fled and survived.  I fear that there were be many, many who did not. I am hoping that our friends and family of our friends are not among the casualties.  But I know that someone’s friends and familiy members will be.  One of the passengers on one of the planes was someone a friend of ours knew personally.  And, as the days go by, I expect that will more the case. I think I am still numbed by all that has happened in the past 24 hours. I think a lot of people are.

I just learned on the local radio station that the jets to which I awoke this morning had forced a Lear jet to land at Bellingham airport.  The Lear jet, headed from Alaska to Seattle, was, as it turns out, carrying transplant organs to a Seattle hospital where a recipient was waiting.  The jet was grounded but the organs were airlifted on by helicopter. One more person would survive.  So will we.

Shooting Fireworks

It’s inevitable.  Every Fourth of July I see someone watching the big fireworks display pull out their point and shoot camera from their pocket or purse, aim it skyward and fire, hoping to capture the pyrotechnic  pageant.  More often than not, they are disappointed with the results.   I’m here to tell you how not to let that happen that to you should you decide that you simply must record the spectacle visually.

First off, turn off that flash!  Can’t tell you how many people don’t and what they end up with is a lovely view of the person’s head sitting in front of them.

Secondly, dial-up the ISO setting on your camera if it has that ability.  The higher the ISO the better chance you have at capturing the explosions as they appear rather than as big blurs that aren’t quite identifiable in the night sky.  A higher ISO will allow you to shoot the fireworks at higher F-stop and shutter speeds but know that the higher the ISO, the more “grain” you’ll get in the final image.

The fireworks display over the Hudson River in NYC was a brilliant spectacle of light. I had the perfect vantage point from my cousin’s apartment balcony!

Of course, results will also depend upon the type of camera you’re using.  Some new digital point and shoot cameras have incredible resolutions (not always related to the number of pixels it can capture) and will produce amazing results regardless.

If you’re using a single lens reflex, and you’re not a steady at hand-holding your camera with a telephoto lens, then use a tripod.  And a shutter release cable.   Years of shooting weddings requiring existing light exposures gave me the ability to get pretty good hand-held results when shooting at speeds as slow as 1/15th of a second (used to be able to do a passable job at 1/8th) but those images would never meet publication-quality standards without a tripod.

In fact, the two images I’ve posted here were made without the use of a tripod although I most likely braced my camera on a railing or something else solid that was handy.   One was made a couple of years ago of the display over Bellingham Bay while sitting at a nearby outdoor restaurant.  The other was made last year from my cousin’s apartment balcony of the incredible fireworks spectacle over the Hudson River in NYC.   It was just too good an opportunity to pass up even though I didn’t have a tripod with me.

Slower shutter speeds will yield the motion of the exploding fireworks as they drift downward.  That can be a pretty dramatic effect in the final image.  I personally like that look because it makes the fireworks look more like fireworks and not just some strange constellation.

My seat at the outdoor restaurant gave me a great view of my city’s annual fireworks extravaganza and provided good framing for a image of the giant bursts.

Also, frame your shot with something in the foreground if you can, but not with the back of someone’s head.  I say that, but if  a couple is sitting in front of you, for instance, you could back off your shot to include their full bodies with the fireworks appearing in the sky above them.  Might look good.

In my shots here, I used a lamppost and the point from where the fireworks were ignited in the Bellingham view and the NYC skyline (what could be more perfect?) for the other.    That will give your image some perspective and context and be much better than just simply dots of light against a black background.These are just  simple tips to help you get better results of this year’s big bang!  Let me know how it works out.