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Another Portland Blog

Tuesday, July 20, 2004


The Battle for Cannon Beach - Finale

Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3? Here.


Was this really a class war? Was I, as usual, blowing things out of proportion? Did anyone really care about the seagulls on top of Haystack Rock? Did it matter?

As day turned to dusk, my family and a thousand others are lingering around campfires like revolutionaries in war paint outside a tea boat. Behind nearly every drift log and fold-up beach chair there's a stack of fireworks. Our eyes scan for beach patrol trucks and we're laughing. There's no way Cannon Beach's police department, which employs, maybe, a dozen people, will be able to crack down on all of us. When the sun finally dipped below the edge of the Pacific, the beach will be filled with the "whoosh!" of blazing mortars and the patriot screeching of countless Whistling Petes.

"Captain America" is a middle-aged super-patriot with a passion for low-budget pyrotechnics that dwarfs my own. Every year he digs a trench lined with tiny American flags with his teenage sons. Tonight he's wearing a bald eagle tank top and slamming canned Budweisers with his brood. Since he always drops well over a grand on rockets, their beer-soaked display is an annual highlight. Five years ago, one of his kids almost set the Tolovana Inn on fire when a Saturn Missile launcher fell over, sending fifty missiles into a second-story screen door. A year later he almost killed Shanna with a defective bottle rocket. If every visitor to the beach were like him, I would sympathize with the locals and their efforts to turn the town into a north coast Malibu.

The Captain is usually a subject of scorn for everyone that makes the mistake of setting up camp within range of the Captain America family trench. Tonight, he has the potential to make up for years of sloppy hijinks. He will no doubt be our shinning star- a George Washington for Cannon Beach's firework guerillas. With a case of American suds powering through his veins, he will not hesitate to defy the local ordinance to defend his God given right to fill the night sky with florescent flames.

As it gets darker the mood gets tenser. It feels like Hoth in the moments before the Empire show up on that frozen plain. The police roll down to the sand off a boat access point. At their disposal are two trucks and a dune buggy. The three vehicles break up. The crowd jeers at this tiny battallion. Already gone is the warm vibe and good ol' fashioned fun of past Independence Day celebrations. We're all criminals. This is a tinder box standoff waiting for a single spark to turn this into a full scale war.

A purple mortar goes up. Several hundred people cheer. The first shot has been fired. A truck does a 180 turn in the sand and bombs down the shore to ticket the culprit. Another family lights sparklers. Neon comets fly in every direction. Captain America joins the fray and lights off a series of mortars. The war is underway.

The sun is gone and the scene quickly becomes a seaside Wack-A-Mole game. Third graders become pint-sized revolutionaries and sneak down to the shoreline to light out off cardboard bombs. The dune buggy pauses a hundred yards away from three tots with sparklers. The cop atop thinks about it but keeps going. It's too early yet to bust preschoolers.

Earlier that day, Shanna and I weighed our liberal dogma and nagging environmental ethos against our insatiable need to blow shit up. We're over half mile from both of the beach's bird sanctuaries. As usual, we will clean up our mess. If any birds have their feathers ruffled tonight, it won't be by our hands. Our parents have given their grown children their full approval. Even they, upstanding citizens, are itching to fight the powers that be.

After watching several families have their 4th of July stashes confiscated, Shanna's forehead is so hot you could fry a dozen Cadbury eggs on it. This is a girl that once lectured me, in tears, after I bowled a pumpkin down a hill on a long-gone junior high Halloween. Now she's roasting marshmallows and quoting Mel Gibson's "FREEDOM!" speech from Braveheart. She's gone from being someone who throws away voter ballots to die-hard freedom fighter in the space of four short hours. All it took was the possibility of a Fourth of July without fireworks.

We sneak up into a beach access point between two $500k homesteads. We're testing the waters. According to the fine print on the ordinance, we're not allowed to shoot off anything on the sand. We're on grass. We light off a mortar and assume there's nothing anyone can do about it.

A woman's head pops out of a house. We figure we're in for a lecture but throws out a flurry of questions instead. They too have a cache of fireworks. We offer them our interpretation of the ordinance and two minutes later, her son and I are shouting "FIRE IN THE HOLE!" as we run away from loaded cardboard cannons. Soon, we are joined by a man and his daughter. He laughs like a mad scientist as a purple fireball explodes overhead. "He's a fireman," she giggles.

With a professional firefighter on our side, a man who should despise these dangerous toys, our actions are now 100% justified. We are all stout-hearted patriots and the cops, madly to trying to keep a lid on the celebration, are heartless commie Benedict Arnold fascists with zero tolerance for all American fun. We mock their dune buggy and futile attempts to stop us. We are winning. They are scum.

Shanna and I return to the beach fire where our parents are rolling their eyes and muttering at this Orwellian scene. At least a dozen families are shaking their heads as their fireworks are tossed into the back of one the trucks. The woman and her son have been nabbed. He hands over a grocery bag full of roman candles.

Enough with this half-hearted dilly-dallying. Morale is sinking up and down the coastline. It's time to hit these cops with the strongest, most obnoxious firework in our arsenal. Our next move will be to light off a $30 display called "The Hot Tub." It will be a bold, blatant stand against this small town police force and the property owners no doubt watching the scene from behind the second floor windows of their McMansions.

200 yards down the shore, the dune buggy cop is sitting behind a dune, waiting for someone to do something stupid. A quarter mile away, someone does and he zooms off. We have 2 minutes, tops.

With our backs lowered, we run down towards the waterline and I hum the Mission Impossible theme song. Let's see what these bastards think of this. The fuse won't light and we're losing time. One of the trucks is coming our way. It goes and a round of green fireballs blaze up into the sky. Good God, did they see us? We duck and weaving past families on our way back to "base camp." This is all tremendous fun. We're striking a blow for freedom. Our nation's forefather's are no doubt smiling down on us from Heaven. We are blessed. We cannot lose.

But we've made a huge error. Neither of us have taken notice of a dark figure in a red raincoat, lingering at water's edge. The truck arrives and pauses a football field away. The plan had been to return to the fire, wait ten minutes, and go back for the empty Hot Tub shell. A cop hops out and grabs it.


No one says a word. My parents, who have never, ever received anything more than a speeding ticket in their whole lives, are absolutely terrified. Being the stupid idiot that I am, I taunt the cops with the flash bulb of my digital camera, convinced they're after another family. A small man in a black uniform wanders up with a 1,000 watt flashlight. Without thinking, I jump up to greet him.

"You can hand over the fireworks or we can start talking about penalties. The fines start at $500 and go all the way up to $3,000."

I'm not about to hand them over. He asks for my ID but my wallet is in the room. I'm fully prepared to make this man's job as difficult as possible. My father rises and decides to save me from a stiff fine and a possible night in jail. The red jacket cop/spy has joined us. "They're under the beach blanket," he spits with a vicious grin.

And I was really looking forward to lighting off the one shaped like a choo-choo train.

We're lectured. The cop doesn't ask if we're locals. He immediately cuts to "Didn't your hotel tell you about the ordinance?!!" My father lies. "We hand delivered stacks of warnings to every place in town." Another one interrogates my mother. He tells her that he's a Vietnam veteran and that he hates having to do this. We are all criminals. The little cop goes off on a five-minute tirade about seagulls and local hotel managers throwing away the warnings to prevent guests from checking out early.

The four of us nod politely and offer the cops a spattering of "Uh-huhs." Satisfied, they take off without breaking out a fine book.

But they’ve cast a gloom over the evening. Beach fires up and down the shore are going out. Our brave stand against the forces of evil and neo-facist opression has lasted a grand total of 45 minutes. These five cops have conquered the spirits of thousands. Families with beach chairs trudge, scowling, back to their rooms.

Somewhere in the fray, Captain America's fireworks must have been nabbed. I pass their camp and his brood is slumped in plastic lawn chairs, glumly staring at a blue cooler.

We discuss heading up the coast to Seaside, where there's likely to be a Dionysian pyro ogry in full effect. But the holiday is already ruined. We toss sand on the fire and wander upstairs to watch the Twilight Zone marathon. Somewhere, Ben Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt, John Wayne and Ronald Reagan are shaking their dead, proud heads.


Several thousand family traditions were probably ruined that night. There’s no telling how much an incident like this might cost Cannon Beach’s economy. Next year, the unthinkable may happen. There may actually be a "vacancy" sign in a hotel window on the 4th.

Joking aside, Cannon Beach's transformation from family getaway to playground for millionaires is nearing completion. As the community continues to crack down on short term house rentals and as the price of hotel rooms continue to inch above the $200 mark, middle-class tourists will have to head elsewhere. On one hand, the birds that reside on Haystack Rock won't have their sleep interrupted by mortar shells next year. On the other side, they may soon be priced out of their nests.


The whole saga can be found, with larger photos and in its entirety, in the feature archives of Welcome to Blog.

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