We will again be free


Randy Riley - Contributing columnist



Forty years ago, like most people, during special events and holidays than involved fireworks, I would sit along the sidelines and watch the night sky turned into a blaze of glory by the pyrotechnicians. I always loved the big boomers, the whistlers, the silver palms, and golden palms. I loved the sight, feel and smell of a good fireworks show.

As a member of the Wilmington Optimist Club, we worked all year long to organize the annual July 4th celebration.

In those days, the festivities started in the morning. We had a big chicken dinner, games, music and more games until we ended the day with our huge fireworks show.

For the first few years I helped with parking cars and collecting donations at the city park. I freely admit, I envied the guys on the other side of the pond who helped the licensed pyrotechnicians with the fireworks.

Finally, one year the pyro guys came over to our side of the pond and said they needed help with the fireworks display. I jumped at the opportunity. A few years later, I was one of the licensed pyrotechnicians.

Many years later, before retiring as a “shooter,” I was an employee of Rozzi’s Famous Fireworks. The last show I helped shoot was at Riverfest. I was one of the guys on the barge. It was great.

There is a saying among pyrotechnicians. “He who has smelt the smoke is never again free.”

It’s true. After a fireworks show, the actual shooting area is usually cloaked in thick smoke. The shooters are covered with grime, soot and a special smell that is unique to fireworks.

I loved it. Everyone who shoots fireworks loves it.

Unfortunately, like thousands of other fireworks fans, I was sitting at home on Sunday night waiting for the Western & Southern/WEBN fireworks show to start from an “undisclosed location” location. About halfway through their outstanding show, Debbie and I figured out that they were at the Kentucky Speedway.

It was sad that no one could be there. We were used to both banks of the Ohio River being saturated with people. Shouting and cheering back and forth is part of the excitement, but not this year.

The show was phenomenal, but it was a huge disappointment to fireworks fans that they could not be close enough to feel the boomers, see the faces of fans reflected in the glow of the blazing night sky… and smell the smoke.

There are so many things we have missed this year.

It really hit people this spring when high school proms were cancelled. Graduation ceremonies were held virtually or, in some cases, not at all.

Vacation traveling has become risky. Our planned trip to Ireland has been postponed until May of 2021. Hopefully, we will get to go next year.

Churches have been closed. Sermons are being streamed live on Facebook. Wedding, and even funerals, have been scaled down. We have not been free to celebrate, rejoice or mourn. Our lives have been postponed.

One of the highlights of our year has always been the Clinton County Corn Festival. No one could resist the great food and fellowship of this community coming together to celebrate our agricultural roots.

From the beginning, as a member of the Optimist Club, we were there to sell Snow Cones to the crowd and often to just give them to the little kids who didn’t have the money and just looked like they needed a icy treat.

As a hospital employee I became the designated “Hog Caller” for the CMH Corn Olympics team. I won twice, once as Elvis and once as Pete Rose. I think it was because of those crazy performances that I spent the next 10 years as the host and emcee for the Corn Olympics.

That was a special, outrageous time for me and the crew who made the annual event happen. Standing on that dirt track while dodging outhouses and the occasional water balloon; listening to the groans from the crowd following a particularly corny joke and feeling the applause and laughter was a priceless tribute to the joy felt by this community. It was priceless.

It is not going to happen this year. Following a special meeting of the officers and trustees they decided to cancel the 2020 festival. They announced, “This decision was not arrived at easily, but for the health and safety of all participants, we felt this was the safest course of action. We will be back in 2021 and with your help, we will make that show as great as we have every year before.”

I look forward to next September.

Whereas fireworks shooters who have smelt the smoke may never again be free, the rest of us, once the coronavirus is under control and the pandemic is history, we will be free.

We will once more be free to join hands in joy and celebration and to join our hearts in worship and in mourning. We will be free to live the social lives we all love.

We will put this pandemic behind us.

Until then, be patient and be safe.

Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

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Randy Riley

Contributing columnist