I remember celebrating the Fourth of July in South Haven, Michigan, with my family when I was a kid. My aunts’ cottage was right on the North Beach, so we saw some of the worst traffic, especially during the years when the town held volleyball tournaments on the holiday.
Despite the crowds, we were able to enjoy the day on the beach. As evening drew near, we dug out sweatshirts and picked out the perfect spot over in the sand. Sure, we had a great view of the fireworks from our front porch, but we wanted the full experience. Instead of a nice, comfy chair and a tall, cold glass of lemonade, we dug out a trench in the sand. At one end of the trench, we’d mound up the sand to create a pillow of sorts, and then we’d cover it all up with our oversized towels.
When the work was done, we’d lay back in our makeshift beds and gaze up at the sky, waiting. “Is it starting?” one of us would cry. “Nah,” another would answer. “That’s just somebody shooting off their own fireworks.”
We’d sigh with disappointment and settle back again until the next flicker of light started the whole round of questions again.
Watching the fireworks was never about the fireworks. It was about the experience. Ooohing and ahhhing over each explosion, listening for the appreciative gasps and applause rising up from the crowds around us. Seeing the boats out on the lake and hearing them honk and blare their horns along with our applause. Squealing when the occasional cinder floated earthward and covering our hair with with our hands as though our fingers were fireproof.
And when it was over — oh, the grand finale shot off the end of the pier! All the whoops and hollers, and then the satisfied throngs of beachgoers gathering up their things and nodding over a successful holiday.
They still shoot off the fireworks in South Haven every year, but my kids will never experience it the way I did. The town has grown, and so has the celebration. In fact, last night’s fireworks were expected to draw anywhere from 70,000 to 80,000 people.
80,000 people. Holy crap.
Guys, this is a town that normally has a population of less than 5,000.
The last time I took my kids to the beach for the fireworks, an officer from the Allegan County Sherrif’s Department kindly suggested that I take them home because it was just not a safe place for kids. For a few years after that, we watched from the safety of the front porch, but it gradually evolved from a night of celebration to a night of guard duty. Our little house was under siege as drunks stopped to pee on the walls or hurl beer cans at our windows. Our flower pots were smashed before our eyes.
Fights broke out every year, and we saw police drag away people in handcuffs. The very last year I spent the holiday at the cottage before we sold it, I lost track of the number of unconscious, drunken teens and twenty-somethings I saw being carried out by their inebriated friends.
And last night?
Hey, South Haven made the national news. Police evacuated the North Beach —my beach — due to increasing violence. People got hurt. Friends who were there have told me about near-riot conditions and multiple arrests.
So let me see if I understand this correctly. To celebrate America’s birthday, the popular choice is now to go to a lovely little resort town on the shore of Lake Michigan and get hurt or arrested. Instead of watching the million-dollar fireworks display, it is apparently more fun to get blindingly drunk and fight with other drunken idiots.
Forget about watching the fireworks with kids and seeing the joy on those little faces! No, these people would rather riot, thank you very much. And while some folks in this world may riot over some social unrest or political issue, here in South Haven they riot because . . . well, apparently because it’s a beautiful day on the beach and that’s great reason to hurt people, destroy property, and get arrested.
I think back on the Fourth of July celebrations of my childhood, and it breaks my heart to think that the same beach is now unsafe for families. Instead of watching the fireworks with our kids, we have to keep the kids inside to protect them.
Last night, there was a lot of talk of cancelling next year’s “Light Up The Lake” fireworks show. I don’t think that can happen; the town depends too much on the money that comes in over the holiday weekend. Local police tried to get a handle on things by enforcing the “no alcohol” rule this year, but that obviously wasn’t enough.
So, what can we do?
Look, I’m just a dumb romance writer. I don’t know anything about crowd control. But maybe it is time to shut down the show for a couple of years. I mean, sure, the tourists bring a lot of money into the town over the Fourth. But think about the money spent on increased police presence and clean-up afterward. When all the numbers are crunched, does it really add up to a big profit?
Maybe it’s time to follow through on all those arrests that were made. Impose stiffer fines or longer jail times or whatever.
I just don’t know how to fix it. But until they do, Fourth of July in South Haven is a weekend to leave town. Lock up your valuables, gather your loved ones close, and pray your homeowner’s policy will cover the damages inflicted on this night.
Happy Fourth of July, South Haven. Hope everyone makes it to the fifth.