I was driving across Iowa the night of July 4th when fireworks erupted all around us.
My 10-year-old daughter Anna sat in the backseat and oooed and ahhed after every explosion that burst over the small towns along Interstate 35.
The sight of fireworks is supposed to conjure up images of patriots manning the ramparts and holding the British at bay. I’m sorry they haven’t done that for me since July 4, 1986.
Back then, I was the summer newspaper intern at the Galesburg Register-Mail. I spent much of my time writing obituaries, covering festivals and going to meetings too boring for anyone else to attend.
But the most enjoyable thing I did that summer was follow the paper’s sole photographer, Dale Humphrey, with my own camera. Dale was a nice guy, but a bit subversive.
He’d been at the newspaper since the end of World War II and he didn’t much like being told what to do.
Hanging in his dark room were these words: “Doing a good job around here is like wetting yourself while wearing a navy blue suit. It gives you a warm feeling inside, but nobody notices.”
And there was a middle manager in the newsroom that Dale waged a daily war against. The two would begin each day waving their arms and hollering at each other.
The rest of the newsroom would look the other way as the old photographer and middle-aged editor had their daily row.
On Thursday, July 3, the two got into a particularly heated argument.
It went something like this:
“You’re going to take fireworks photos at Lake Storey.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Well, then who is going to do it?”
“That Reeder kid over there will.”
The mid-level editor cast a jaundiced eye my direction and shrugged.
A few minutes later, Dale emerged from the dark room with a photocopy of a Popular Photography article about how to capture images of fireworks.
“Here, read this, Kid. It has everything you need to know.”
I read the story and scratched my head. It required tripods, bulb settings, cardboard in front of the lens until the right instant and a shooting space removed from other light sources.
I said, “Dale I don’t think I can do this. It’s a bit more advanced than I learned in school.”
He looked at me and said, “You can do it, just follow the instructions.”
Next, I found myself in the dark on a muddy lake bank trying to manipulate a tripod that kept toppling over and holding up the bottom of a shoe box until a Chrysanthemum of flame burst over my hometown.
I shot 32 frames of fireworks and dropped the film off that night in the newsroom darkroom for Dale to develop.
The Saturday paper arrived at my home. Fireworks photos made up most of the front page above a “Scott Reeder” credit line. I was relieved. It was like taking a test you thought you failed and getting an A.
My parents were proud. My mother told me I should have more confidence in myself.
The next workday, editors and reporters congratulated me for my photo skills. Then I saw Dale and said, “Well, I guess the photos worked out after all.”
“Nah, Kid, none of them came out. I just used last year’s photos. Nobody knows the difference.”
So, last week, as I watched the bombs bursting in air, they didn’t conjure up thoughts of liberty or valor. I was thinking of a trick played on me and a community that didn’t know the difference.
– Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions.