After the Verdict We Watch Fireworks

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It’s the Fourth of July, and Lisa and Jody have invited us to their home in Lemont, PA for a barbecue and fireworks-viewing after the sun goes down. Central PA Fourth Fest is celebrated as being the biggest all-volunteer fireworks display in the country. The area around Beaver Stadium is transformed every summer on this day into a carnival world and throngs of people flock to the parking lots and grassy spaces, de-camp the way they do during football tailgates, partake of funnel cakes and hot sausage sandwiches from food carts. Cold lemonade. Cotton candy, I imagine. I’ve only attended properly once in the thirteen years I’ve lived in State College, and that was before I had children. I prefer to watch from a small distance, at a remove from the chaos of the crowd.

Paul and I live in College Heights and have since we were married. This is the neighborhood just north of Penn State’s main campus, across Park Avenue from the football stadium. We rent a rather non-descript duplex among beautiful, perfectly- landscaped homes owned by tenured faculty. It is one of loveliest, quietest and most sought-after neighborhoods in State College, and we could never, ever afford to buy here. I often feel like a fraud, an imposter as I walk the easy ten minutes to my office in the Burrowes Building on campus, or the twenty feet through my back yard into oak-shady Sunset Park where we have had each of my son’s six birthday parties. We are lucky to have found this space—it’s big enough for our family of four and has remained affordable on our adjunct salaries thanks to a kind landlord who likes us. We are lucky frauds. We know this.

Every year, we have followed our neighbors, our kids decked out in glo-sticks and anticipation, to the lucky spot on the edge of our neighborhood, walking up Mitchell Ave., turning right onto Holmes Street, strolling in the middle of the road if we like—the cars are infrequent and cautious of pedestrians here— turned left into the dead-end on Hartwick Ave., crossed the Dean’s long tree-lined driveway, and plunked ourselves down in the field that borders what the Arboretum, to my mind the most beautiful spot on campus. Fireflies and fireworks, kids thrilled to be out way past bedtime. The landscape suddenly stranger and more mysterious than it ever is in the daytime. Adults nearby but not encumbering. Magical, I think, though my son used the word “miracle,” and maybe that’s close enough.

***

Lisa and I stand close by, chatting and watching the girls run around the grassy field and fling themselves into the hose-cold water of the kiddie pool or down the plastic incline of the slip-n-slide. Someone–another adult—set it up too close to the blackberry bush and we worry that the kids are going to go flying into the thorny branches before they can stop themselves. Be careful, we caution them. Don’t sit on the edge of the pool, it could collapse under you. Only one person on the slide at a time. Stay where we can see you.

We wonder—Lisa and I and most of the parents I know—about how much freedom we should allow our kids. How much supervision we should provide. We muse about our own 1970s childhoods, remember them fondly as filled with something like benign neglect. Sure we survived, we say, we even thrived. But this, this is a different time.

***

Dave and Lori are here, too, setting up their camp chairs on the lawn with the many neighbors who are beginning to claim space for themselves and their families in advance of the spectacle we are all here to see. We three couples have five kids between us, all between the ages of 4 and 8. There are countless adults here, but this place literally belongs to the kids. The field is theirs. It belongs to their school—Lemont Elementary.

And that house right there? The one that sits exactly adjacent to field? Whose windows overlook the swings and the monkey bars and the kiddie pool and the slip-n-slide and the blackberry bushes?

That is Jerry Sandusky’s house.

***

On June 22, 2012, former Penn State assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, was found guilty of 45 counts of sexual abuse against children.

On July 6, 2012, I am writing this sentence and re-reading the news report from PennLive.com which breaks down his charges victim-by-victim, and the skin on my arms and neck is bristling and I am having a hard time keeping my eyes clear and my spirit from screaming.

***

Like everyone—every single person I have spoken to about the Sandusky child sex scandal since it broke last November—I am supremely relieved by the verdict. I don’t personally know anyone here in State College or outside of it, anyone who is or is not affiliated with Penn State, who has not shared my revulsion, my outrage, my despair and shame during these long six months of uncertainty. I have heard lots of strident ideas about what should or should not happen to the university administration that was in place and, presumably, in a position to act early and decisively in response to Sandusky’s behaviors and crimes; lots of opinions about what should or should not happen to the football program and Joe Paterno’s legacy. I’ve even heard a fair number of thoughts about what ought to happen to Paterno’s bronze likeness here on campus. I suspect Penn State is always going to have trouble resolving their (now) complicated relationship to the beloved coach.

But no one around me, no one, is expressing ambivalence about this verdict.

We say, Thank God and, Thank the jury.

We say, Thank the victims for their bravery.

We say, Finally, someone listened to the children.

We say, Justice is served.

***

But our hearts are still broken.

***

It’s not quite dusk. Someone has put a plank down and is shooting off bottle rockets and a small arsenal of other store-bought pyrotechnics. It’s loud; my ears actually hurt when they go off. My kids are running around, weaving in and out of other kids, adults, jumping over blankets and skirting lawn chairs with sparklers in their hands. I am thinking about the post I saw on Facebook that cautions parents that the tip of a sparkler burns at 1200 degrees. I am thinking about July 4, 1978, when my young uncles—14 and 15 years old—lobbed smoke bombs over the fence behind our house in Lexington, Kentucky, igniting piles of dry pine needles. How they had to scale the barbed wire to stamp out the fire. Later that night, I let my own sparkler burn down too far and scorched the tender flesh between my thumb and forefinger.

Lori is looking for Ben. He’s in a group of kids on the ladybug climber that really, to me, looks like a giant spider. When they climb onto her back, they are at just the right height to grab a low branch of the maple tree. It’s the perfect swinging limb, and there goes Ben, his light body flying for a moment before he lets go, jumps to the ground, smiling.

We watch the kids take turns from a distance. Lori says, “He can’t hurt himself but I am worried about that tree…”

***

We are all terrified all the time. That is a primary condition of parenthood. Yesterday, my babysitter told me, “Josephine says a bad man lives next door to Sadie and Jolie,” and I want to cry because it’s true.

Or it used to be, because Jerry Sandusky does not live in Lemont, PA, anymore.

***

It’s dark and the fireworks are going strong now over the stadium.  My kids have given out four canisters of glo-sticks we bought at Target before the party. It looks like every person here is going to a rave. Neon green, yellow, orange and blue. Some of the kids wield them like light sabers—good guys versus bad guys– others decorate their bodies with necklaces, bracelets and crowns. Josephine herself sports a yellow one on one wrist, a green one on the other. This is how Paul and I locate her for the next hour. All we have to do is find those bright circles swirling against dark sky.

***

I don’t really love fireworks set to music or narration, but this is part of what makes the Central PA Fourth Fest so grand and beloved. The local rock station simulcasts from the stadium, and we are treated to a visual display and a soundtrack of patriotic anthems, pop music and even a partial reading of the Declaration of Independence. It’s all just a little too rah-rah for me. But I’m putting up with it, leaning up against Paul while he snaps pictures of the lights in the sky. My favorites have always been the ones that look fireflies or weeping willows. Elegant and graceful. Wistful.

Rudy asks me why we are having fireworks today anyway and I explain that it’s our country’s birthday so these are like candles in a birthday cake. That satisfies him for the moment, but tomorrow he’s going to press me and I’ll find myself trying to explain the Revolutionary War to a six year old by saying, “The people who lived here wanted the freedom to live according to their own beliefs. They wanted to be able to make their own choices; to be happy and safe.”

I don’t tell him that fireworks are also symbols for gunfire and ammunition, emblems of destruction, metaphors for war. He is only six years old and right now, I don’t even want him to know that war exists. I don’t want Josephine to know that Bad Men live in beautiful houses in lovely, quiet neighborhoods and do things to unlucky children that make their parents entertain thoughts of great, raging, righteous violence.

***

It’s July 4th, 2012 and the sky over Lemont Elementary School is lit up like a birthday cake.

We watch our children’s faces glow, their eyes spark with awe.

We think about the ten boys who were so grievously hurt but who screwed their courage and found their voices. We celebrate them.

We ease back into our camp chairs and our spouses; drink beer and lemonade with our neighbors and friends.

We are here. We are here. We are here.

The porch light on the house back there is still on, but nothing, nothing is as bright as this summer sky.


Sheila Squillante is a poet and essayist, and a senior lecturer in the English department at Penn State. Together with Dave Housley, founding editor of Barrelhouse Magazine, she has edited an anthology called Notes From Inside a Burst Bubble: A Community Reacts to the Penn State Scandal. The book, which chronicles the community reaction to the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that began unfolding at Penn State in 2011, is in search of a publisher. "After the Verdict, We Watch Fireworks" will appear as the concluding chapter. She is the author of four poetry chapbooks and her poems and essays have appeared widely in print and online venues like Brevity, No Tell Motel, MiPOesias, Phoebe, Quarterly West, Prairie Schooner, Waccamaw, Literary Mama and PANK. Her work has been nominated for inclusion in Best American Essays, Dzanc’s Best of the Web anthology and the Pushcart Prize. You can find her at www.sheilasquillante.com. More from this author →