As the helicopter flew overhead, its rotor blades slicing through air, I stood on a rooftop, camera in hand, and the Louisville skyline transformed into Mosul, the Iraqi city where I perched on rooftops as an Army photojournalist. I felt my chest; I was missing my body armor. I reached for my weapon’s cold steel. It, too, was missing. I wiggled my toes, expecting to feel the tightness of a combat boot, only to push the cushioned Nike sole. I came to, quickly realizing I had experienced my first flashback.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the worst part of my day.
Hours later, I maneuvered through the packed Louisville waterfront for a good look at the world’s finest fireworks display—Thunder Over Louisville, the grand kickoff celebration to the Kentucky Derby. Despite people warning me about fireworks’ impacts on veterans, I told myself, I’d be fine. What could fireworks do to me?
I soon found out.
With one powerful burst, my muscles jumped. Another crack in the sky and I cowered under my arms. With a third, complete fear overtook my body. I was shaking, crying, while others hoisted their children awing at the colorful art in the sky. I sprinted home afraid for my life and curled into a ball.
That was 2006. Year by year, I shook war’s shackles until I could eventually find my new self. But fireworks owned me. Each burst, percussion and the mortar-like sound causing my body to react with uncontrollable and often violent twitches. I had separated the emotional connections to the sounds, using grounding techniques to prevent flashbacks, but the physical symptoms did not end. No matter how much I prepared myself, fireworks always won and would force me to hide.
Last year, at Disney World, I came to the numbing realization that I will never watch fireworks with my son. This conclusion greatly pained me, but I accepted it.
When firecracker season rolled around this year, I was smoking a cigar and sipping rum in the backyard. Neighborhood kids popped Black Cats, bottle rockets and whatever else. Even from my yard, protected by a fence, I could feel the percussion and smell the powder in the air. The cracking sounds made my ears ring, which they’re always ringing anyway, so no biggie. But something odd happened: I didn’t twitch.
A couple days later, I’m smoking cigars and sipping bourbon in my buddy’s screened-in porch. The fireworks are closer. Clear as an AM radio: the lighting fuses sizzled and the kids “wowed” with each impressive bang. Once again, no twitching.
Could cigars be my coping mechanism? The fine and sometimes brittle tobacco texture and puffing really seemed to minimize my reaction to the loud noises.
Off to a grand July 4 celebration in Prospect, I chose to put this theory to the test, packing my bag full of good drink and stuffing two cigars in my pocket—Nat Sherman and Macanudo. The first pour Clos Martin XO 15-year-old Armagnac tickled the palate, but Nat Sherman overtook its softness. The second, Foursquare Rum with a Zinfandel finish, stood up to the bold cigar. Hmm… there’s a bit of a pecan note in this cigar, I thought to myself, assessing the smoke and rum.
Meanwhile, crack, pop, crack, pop. In the neighborhood of Hunting Creek, kids and families were popping fireworks all around. I heard them, even appreciated an occasional zing, noticing a particular bottle rocket sounded nothing like a mortar, a welcomed surprise. They were just noise; I was studying the cigar, Nat Sherman’s Nicaraguan Torpedo, and its rum pairing.
But this wasn’t the true test. When darkness hit, the neighborhood brought out the big guns and lit up the sky. People come from all over the state to watch Hunting Creek’s awesome display and celebration.
Old Forester 1920 now filled my Glencairn and Macanudo Cru Royale burned in my hand. In all my years, I don’t know I’ve had a better pairing than this. 1920’s complexity melded with the Cru Royale’s nuance, with each offering vanilla and spice and richness unlike any cigar-and-whiskey pairing I’ve had. But I was also so intent on studying this stick, this whiskey, both of which I’ve known from previous pleasures, that, I admit, the moment may have influenced me. Is the pairing really that good? Who knows? But I keenly studied it when I realized my schedule was wrong: The fireworks started 15 minutes later than I had anticipated, and the stick was near its end when they started.
Pop, pop, pop.
Oh, no, My stick is nearly gone.
I tossed my Macanudo stub, sipped the final Old Forester drops and braced myself.
I was without what I had perceived to be my coping mechanism—the cigar. Should I go inside? Am I ready for this? I looked at my wife, holding our son’s hand, and I knew I couldn’t leave. No matter what, I had to endure. This was his moment.
Then, they came, flaring the sky with pink, purple, blue, red, orange and lot of gold. Puffs of smoke trailed with the wind, and explosions vibrated the ground I stood upon. With each burst, my chest felt an impact similar enough to the real deal. They sounded a lot like artillery shells launching, too, but that wasn’t the noise I heard.
Leaning against a bench, 3-year-old Oscar looked up and with each rip in the sky, “wow, that’s awesome.” “Oh, that’s so cool.” “Mommy, daddy, did you see that?”
I did not twitch.
I did not shake.
But I did cry.
I can watch fireworks with my son.
Fred Minnick is the author of several books. His latest are available wherever books are sold.