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DC Fireworks Were a Sight to Withhold

July 22nd, 2019 by dk

Residents of Washington, D.C. love four family traditions, strategically strewn across the calendar. Sledding around the Capitol building’s hill. The Easter egg roll on the White House lawn. Independence Day’s parade and fireworks. And lighting of the National Christmas Tree. Taken together, it makes a year of growing up near the nation’s capital.

Changes made to the town’s 4th of July fireworks created plenty of chatter. Not much has been written about what it was actually like — aside from the tanks and other disruptions of tradition. I was there. This is what it was like.

Finding a good vantage point for watching the fireworks was trickier than usual. I wanted to see, but not be seen. I worried that any throng on the mall could later be compared with President Obama’s inauguration crowd. I wanted to be no pixel of that.

I walked south from the National Mall to a development called The Wharf. It offered plenty of public seating and unobstructed views over the Potomac River. The fireworks display began exactly on time, at 9:07 PM. It was impressive for the first 90 seconds.

After several large booms to direct our attention, the sky lit up with what seemed like a chain-link fence of white lights. A luminous curtain hung in the air. Each burst seemed perfectly spaced from all others, as if they were pulled taut by invisible mesh. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

And then I didn’t see anything at all. None of us did. The opening barrage left a thick smoke that sat in the sky, obstructing all views from the east. Most of the city saw only black sky. That luminous curtain became a dark wall, unmoved for the next half hour.

Extremely humid air plus a marine inversion over the river created a standstill in the sky. That was impressive in its own right, but not worth watching. Any breeze would have dissipated the obstruction, but there was no breeze. None at all. Nature was holding its breath.

People wondered aloud if the planning and expertise necessary for a good fireworks display had been ignored. Humidity and marine inversions are not unusual in midsummer Washington. That impressive luminous curtain might have worked better at the end of the show. I don’t know. I’m no expert.

We could hear what was happening beyond our view. “It sounds like a good show,” one woman said as she left with a sigh. Pops and booms sounded like amplified microwave popcorn, but with the wrong smell. For the next few hours, Washington had the worst air quality in the nation.

Thousands were watching, but there was nothing to see. Occasionally a display — always red, it seemed — would peek around the edge of the smokescreen. Some cheered derisively, but most shrugged. When the 35-minute show ended exactly on time, that drew the largest cheer. The irony was as thick as the humidity.

I read the next morning that Virginia residents saw a great show. Like so many things in the political realm, what you saw that evening depended entirely on your point of view.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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