Anticipating the Fourth of July, the first thing I think of is fireworks and a display we saw several years back at the 2003 Parkersburg (West Virginia) Homecoming Celebration. That August, we took our boat on its first excursion on the Ohio River. We'd worked on it since 1998, leaving the dock only for short cruises on our "pond" of the Muskingum River, located between the dams at Lowell and Beverly, Ohio. We wanted to test the boat's engine and steering to find whether all the work done on them had been correct before we attempted a longer trip. The Dresden Belle had worked fine on the comparative calm of the smaller river. It was time to let her swim in deeper water.
We left around mid-morning on a Friday, accompanying our friends, Wayne and Jean, and their boat, the Michael J. When we reached Marietta and made the right turn to enter the Ohio River to go to Parkersburg the difference between the two seemed so vast, I felt like we'd entered an ocean. The trip itself was pleasant and the four hours we spent on the river were uneventful. It was a calm August afternoon and nothing was hurried or frantic. The boat worked beautifully and Carl was so happy with his efforts, so happy to finally be on the river, that he sang with joy.
When we reached Parkersburg, we tied up alongside the Michael J. That was not without difficulty; usually boats will tie with their bows facing upriver, into the stream, while here we tied with our bow nosed up against the river wall facing the bank, as well as tied to our neighbor, the Michael J. Our boat is large and it took quite a bit of effort on the part of several men, pulling against the current with long lines, to help bring her around to face the wall. Afterwards, we visited with our friends and joined them for dinner on another boat, where we planned a trip to nearby Blennerhassett Island the next morning.
The next day we walked down to the dock to board the ferry for the two-mile trip to the island which, for a time, was the idyllic home of Margaret and Harman Blennerhassett, who had immigrated to America from Ireland in the late 1700's. While Blennerhassett was an intelligent man, he didn't possess good sense. His family gave him his inheritance and "encouraged" him to leave for a couple reasons: 1) Margaret was his much younger niece and 2) Blennerhassett seemed to be a patsy for any nefarious scheme proposed to him by political malcontents wanting money.
This latter failing caused them to lose their lovely home when, in 1806, Aaron Burr convinced Blennerhassett to finance his plot to establish a separate nation with himself as ruler in the Spanish-held southwest territory. The plan was discovered and the two men were arrested. While the treason was never proved and they were eventually released, the damage was done; the Virginia Militia raided the island to search for munitions and evidence. Finding none, they vandalized and burned the home (the present structure is a re-creation based, in part, on the remaining foundations). Their money gone and home destroyed, the Blennerhassetts left the area and spent the remainder of their lives in poverty.
After looking over the beautiful property and learning its unfortunate story, we boarded the ferry, returning to Parkersburg in time for dinner and the fireworks. People came down to the riverfront in a steady stream carrying chairs and blankets to sit on while they visited, ate corn dogs, cotton candy, and elephant ears (a concoction of deep-fried batter covered with powdered sugar). They wandered by to gaze at our boats, then watched as a parade of decoratively-lighted pleasure boats slowly cruised the area. A barge tied next to us had been decorated for a party hosted by its owner, the sponsor of the fireworks. Everyone was relaxed and happy.
As darkness fell, the Coast Guard temporarily shut down the channel to river traffic, allowing rafts of family boats to quickly fill in the area, their running lights the only illumination. The towboat pushing the fireworks-laden barge was in place mid-river, awaiting the start time. Carl and I had joined Wayne and Jean on their boat. The first salvos were fired just after the "Star-Spangled Banner" was played. In company to the music the first shells were launched from the front of the barge, going up as planned, straight and true.
All but one. Within fifteen seconds of the start, that shell had been launched, hit one of the supports of the suspension bridge over the river, then ricocheted down onto the barge, progressively setting off the mortars and displays along its length. Chrysanthemums, pinwheels, whistling things and flares meant to enthrall, in their turn, hundreds of feet above us instead went off at what essentially was ground level.
The little world in front of me turned a weird shade of green rather than the colors one would expect. At one end of the barge I thought I saw one man, maybe two, leap into the water. I stood just behind Carl, my eyes wide with awe at beauty gone awry. That is, I did until one of the missles, streaming eerily white out of the green, seemed to come straight at me. I looked over at my boat,wood, unmanned and unprotected, and left to get our fire extinguisher -- "just in case, 'cause you never know."
As I scrambled awkwardly down the Michael J's spiral stairs, Jean asked me what was going on. "Barge exploded ... rocket came at the boat. I'm scared it might catch fire," is all I remember. Just as I got to our boat and grabbed the extinguisher to take upstairs, the explosions sputtered to a halt. For a short while, the specially selected music still played until it, too, was cut off mid-phrase. It was suddenly black and silent.
The Coast Guard, police and sheriff boats responded quickly but carefully, slowly trolling the water around the barge for unexploded charges, at one point shining their search lights onto each of the sternwheelers looking for live mortars. Another set of lights was turned on the barge, revealing big chunks taken out of the top corner of its one-inch thick steel hull. It looked like a giant mouse had been snacking on it. Eventually the river was cleared, the towboat took the barge somewhere, and the Coast Guard allowed the spectators who lived upriver to take their boats home.
The party was definitely over on the barge next to us. All the guests had gone, the decorations were suddenly inappropriate and workers were solemnly stacking the folding chairs and tables. We parted company, headed for bed in order to get up for an early departure for home. The river was opened to barge traffic and returned to its gentle rhythm, rocking the boats as we slept.
Before we left the next morning to return home, we learned that no one had been killed or injured in the explosion and the one guy who'd leaped off the barge was quickly picked up by one of the police boats. On our way upriver, not long after we passed under the bridge, Carl and I saw the stricken barge on the river bank. The concussion from the blast had ripped open its hull, and, when it began taking on water, the towboat pilot pushed it onto the bank to prevent it sinking in the river. I saw a small figure walking amid the debris, dressed in a bright white shirt and navy pants, who I assumed to be the fire investigator.
Later that afternoon, as we entered the mouth of the Muskingum River, I felt like the trees closed in on us, welcoming us home. We continued upstream, passing through the locks at Devola and Lowell. Going through those historic locks was a special occasion for me because it was the first time it was necessary for me to help keep the boat off the walls, at the same time securing her to keep from bobbing around in the lock chamber. It went well both leaving and returning. Later when a friend asked Carl how I'd done, he responded with a smile that began in his eyes and reflected his pride, "She did great!" I cherished those three words of praise, but valued the smile even more. Not only did I get to see the "best fireworks show ever!" but that smile lit up my world.