John Adams, we can only assume, wouldn’t be pleased.

Two hundred and thirty-four years ago, as the Second Continental Congress prepared to declare the United States of America free and independent of Great Britain, the man who would go on to become our second president made a bold and accurate prediction in a letter to his beloved wife, Abigail.

“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival,” Adams wrote. “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”

He was talking, of course, about what is now the Fourth of July. (Although, for the record, Congress declared its independence on July 2, 1776, and didn’t get around to signing the Declaration of Independence until early that August.)

And by “illuminations,” there can be no doubt that Adams, as he peered centuries ahead, saw fireworks.

Until now.

Portland City Manager Joe Gray last week released his proposed budget for the year starting July 1 — and it’s not pretty.

Forty municipal jobs gone. Higher trash disposal fees. Snowier sidewalks. Elimination of the one-free-parking-ticket-every-six-months policy, which was clearly on the slippery slope toward a socialist government entitlement and thus shouldn’t have been allowed anyway.

But no more fireworks?

Easy as it would be to blame Gray (or better yet, make like a Tea Partyer and question his patriotism), I won’t.

Facing a cost of $45,000 — $30,000 for the show and $15,000 to keep the peace on Munjoy Hill — the city manager had little choice but to throw a wet blanket over an annual celebration that draws tens of thousands to Maine’s largest city each July 4. Without private fundraising or sponsorship, Gray said, the show simply can’t go on.

According to Nicole Clegg, the city’s communications director, this is not a repeat of two years ago, when the city put out the call for private sponsors to foot the fireworks bill. Nobody did, so the city went ahead and paid.

“We’d kept it in the budget” just in case, Clegg recalled. “It’s not in the budget this time.”

Nor, alas, is Portland the only municipality that’s bracing for an All-American Dud come July 4. A quick Internet search shows that 2010’s fireworks are either in peril or have been canceled in Chicago, Colorado Springs, Baltimore and San Jose, to name a few.

“We’ve been very concerned about this for the past year,” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the Maryland-based American Pyrotechnics Association. “It’s the one day of the year we, as Americans, choose to gather and celebrate our country.”

Felix Grucci Jr., whose world-renowned Fireworks by Grucci dazzled Portland last year with its 22-minute “state class” extravaganza, agreed. He’s the fourth generation to operate his company, which has kept people looking skyward through the Great Depression, two world wars and any number of recessions.

“It’s free entertainment — and there’s not much of that left in our economy,” noted Grucci. “To many families, it’s the only thing they have to look forward to all summer.”

Granted, Grucci and Heckman are in the business of selling things that go bang. But profit motives aside, where would we be without all those memories of the annual pilgrimage up Munjoy Hill, the flotilla of pleasure boaters watching from Casco Bay, the terrified young children wondering what they did to deserve this after-bedtime fusillade?

(My favorite July 4 memory: It’s 1983. At the first boom, my panicked son Eric, then 3, dives under the nearest blanket. Looking out during a short lull, he tearfully announces to everyone within earshot, “I think I shoulda brought a book.”)

Last year, Heckman said, numerous communities that had called off their fireworks were back on the horn in June, pleading for the pyrotechnic contractors to squeeze them in. Some had found corporate sponsors, she said, while others had used the collection-jar and pass-the-hat approach.

Heckman said she has even been toying with a nationwide “mobile giving” campaign, whereby people could automatically donate to the fireworks nearest them by texting their zip code to, say, 1-800-BOOM.

“I wish I’d thought of it earlier,” she said, “because there’s no way to get it up and running in time for this year.”

State Rep. Herb Adams, D-Portland, a historian whose lineage actually intersects with that of John Adams, said Tuesday that a July 4 without fireworks atop Munjoy Hill would truly be “a sign of hard times.”

Munjoy Hill, after all, is precisely where John Adams stood in 1774 when he vowed to his soon-to-be-ex-friend Jonathan Sewall, “Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I am with my country. You may depend on it.”

And when Adams and his fellow authors of the Declaration of Independence decried King George III as the tyrant who “has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns and destroyed the lives of our people,” they weren’t just blowing smoke.

“That’s a direct reference to the British burning of Falmouth (now Portland) in October of 1775,” noted Herb Adams. “Not many people are aware of that today, but it was completely known to everyone back at that time.”

Adams, for one, will still do his part to keep the patriotic spirit alive this July 4: As he has for the past six years, he’ll stand at the entrance to the Wadsworth-Longfellow House on Congress Street and read the Declaration of Independence, all 1,320 words of it, from start to finish.

Reading our precious history aloud, however, is but a part of what John Adams had in mind two centuries (and counting) ago.

We need to “illuminate” it.


Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]


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