The Tet Offensive comes to Rhode Island

It was not a great Independence Day week for our cat, Diamond.

Days before the big holiday, she was in the family room one evening, calmly looking out of the window and languidly cleaning herself, when a neighbor set off fireworks. The loud boom and harsh crackle drove her off her perch like a blast from a water cannon, and she shot up the stairs faster than a bottle rocket.

When another round of booming commenced, Diamond tore down the stairs and hid behind some boxes in the basement. She did not want to come out for hours.

As the week went on, with steadily more fireworks each night, she began nervously scratching her chin, until she had opened a wound.

Often she prowls around outside the house, faithfully returning each evening at about 8 p.m. She likes to sleep at the end of the bed, usually in a ball slumped against my feet, even though she risks getting clomped in the head when I turn over in my sleep.

We had intended to get her in early on the big night, but on the afternoon of July 4 she disappeared. Night came on, and sporadic explosions were followed by steadier and steadier activity, until an astonishing cacophony began. Low thump-thump-thumps, booms, crackles, shrieking missiles, a rat-a-tat noise as if from a distant automatic rifle, and high-pitched explosions filled the air like a prickly, solid wall of noise, for hours.

It sounded like the Tet Offensive. Well after midnight, it continued, pretty much eliminating the idea of sleep for those of us who had to get up early the next morning for work.

At 1:30 a.m. or so, it let up a bit. The booms came slower now. Still no cat.

Sap that I am, I slept downstairs on the couch in case she should scratch at the screen trying to get in. I really did not need this aggravation of waiting up for a family member who had broken curfew, especially as a father now onto his third teenager, but that’s life.

Around 3 a.m., I woke up, opened the front door and Diamond scurried in, looking half-panicked and half-relieved.

That was a common experience this year around Rhode Island, which chose two years ago to honor the freedom our founders bequeathed us by making some fireworks legal.

Those who think the legalization of drugs will not increase their use might want to consult the effect of this minor change. Though the relaxed law only permitted such items as sparklers and other low-to-the-ground devices — party poppers, ground spinners and toy smoke makers — it just about opened the Gates of Hell.

Rippling rockets, with starbursts above roof tops and deafening explosions — all technically illegal — have become de rigueur in the local private fireworks community, and vastly more prevalent, in my opinion, than two years ago. Not being a devotee, I have no idea whether they were purchased from the fireworks tents that popped up all around the state, by the side of the road or in the parking lots of convenience stores, about a week before the holiday.

Residents complained of property damage — singe holes in their canopies and outdoor carpets, paper from spent firecrackers littering the neighborhood, even fire risks, as when one rocket-like explosive reportedly toppled over and blasted into a neighbor’s basement, igniting a basket, and another reportedly set someone’s deck on fire.

Around the state, Rhode Islanders reported to police that their pets were traumatized, their quality of life was spoiled, and they had to cower indoors until the explosions had abated. Someone groused to me that Rhode Island regulates everything that should not be regulated, and fails to regulate everything that should.

Well, that is life in the Land of the Free. Freedom is often extended, even if its crucial companion — personal responsibility and respect for the rights of others — is rarely taught.

On the other hand, as somebody who has done a fair amount of historical research, I can assure you this craziness is a treasured part of America’s cultural heritage, and goes way, way back. In the 19th Century, many people hid in their shuttered homes on July 4, often to avoid not just fireworks, but wayward bullets from the guns of patriotic drunks.

Yes, Rhode Islanders’ blasting and bombing can be dangerous and annoying, especially when it goes on long into the night. Fortunately, the barrage mostly seems to go away after about a week. Even if it does scare the cat half to death.

Edward Achorn (eachorn@providencejournal.com) is The Journal’s deputy editorial pages editor.