I have to wonder if this bittersweet story of the 26th was hatched in the mind of a reporter sleeping, pillowless, on the hard, rain-soaked floor of an orphanage. What I witnessed in Buchanan was more in line with what the vice president had promised: “moderate pomp.”

Liberia’s 26th bore an uncanny resemblance to an American Fourth of July celebration—circa 1847. A brass band played “Que Sera” while dignitaries filed into a pavilion with white walls, a red aisle carpet, and columns painted a fresh blue. John F. Kennedy was invoked in two speeches, only heightening my historical vertigo. “Ask not what Liberia can do for you…” the keynote speaker bellowed. The president wore a pale blue dress, a burgundy head scarf, and pearls. “The darkest hour,” she reminded Liberians, in closing, “is just before the break of dawn.”

“What about the fireworks?” I asked, startled by the post-lunch flight of guests. Dignitaries were piling back into Range Rovers, Monrovia-bound.

Fireworks? Liberians looked pityingly on my expectation. “It always rains on the 26th.”

So: the Chinese and I should have known.

And so the gala that evening was under-attended, overstaffed, and sufficiently deflated that the DJ had to blare “Lady in Red” to fill the empty pavilion. Waiters set trays of fried shrimp and mini turkey sandwiches on tables. A crowd of uninvited Liberians, muddy-sandaled boys who’d been standing behind security lines since morning, began crowding against the double doors. I watched one waiter pass a loaded tray of appetizers outside, and watched that tray come right back, in seconds, bare as a clean fish hook.

Now!” cried one of the waiters as he grabbed my arm and pointed to where everyone was rushing. Outside, on the edge of a wet driveway where a UN jeep skidded loudly in the mud, a crowd of troops and gala hangers-on stared through the rain—at fireworks.

An explosion of blues opened with a pa-pa-pa, dripping twin aqua spiders down the wet sky. Next, well-timed red florets, soon outdone by straight lines of gold, ripped through the smoke. Finally, a loud, lone green one exploded, gone before my ears lost its echo.

“You scared!” The man in front of me was turned around, amused by my flinch-ready face. I glanced down at my hands, where they gripped my bare upper arms, and thought: this is what it looks like to brace yourself.

Every July since the early eighties, I’ve seen fireworks. Sit me in a field among hot dog eaters and kids waving glo-stick necklaces, and I know what the fire and bang signifies: a country showing off ammo to a home crowd, to patriotic effect. But here, from the edge of a muddy driveway populated by men wearing machine guns, fireworks felt like an exercise to wait out.

Finally, someone yodeled like a frat boy at a tailgate. I looked gratefully in the direction of that yodel, then back at a red blast, its glittering trail, mashes of bright white light with delayed bangs, and impatient rounds of purple overtaken by more white, piling up into what I recognized, with relief, as the finale.

The night rain was an ocean dropped through a colander. Driving off, I expected the 26th—the public 26th—to look drowned out and done. But the road we took was not yet dark. The shed shops were glowing; small lights in small businesses, opened after hours. A private party carried on at blessing business center. Teenagers packed into DIS & DAT beauty salon. An older crowd gathered at new light video rental. People congregated at WIND BLOWS bar and restaurant. At CHANGING FACES BEAUTY SALOON. At NEW LIFE WOODWORK SHOP. I’d watched for PPD and listened for panic, but the 26th closed with neither. Just a summer moment imploding, smoke with rain. If a renaissance, the cautious kind.

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