You could see there were too many people crowded on the footbridge over the river. It was the Fourth of July and the crowd was huge. Several hundred people, at least.
Just about everyone had a beer in hand and they were whooping it up. They spilled into nearby streets or found spots along the riverbank. It was early in the day – just after noon – but drunkenness was already evident among the revelers. The sound of firecrackers banged and popped.

There were a few fights here and there, drunken brawls in which many punches were thrown but very few found the mark. The first few cops began to worm their way through the throngs of people. Brawlers were led handcuffed to police cruisers.

But the crowd didn’t settle. It grew more and more frenzied, like the ocean at the beginning of a storm. More cops came. Then more. The crowd took on a blue hue, as if a giant pen had leaked into it.

Chaos ensued. More fights, more firecrackers, whoops and screams. A beer bottle sailed across the crowd in a crazy arc. It landed with a crack against a police officer’s skull. Blood dripped from his temple and down his cheek. He was dazed but not seriously injured as he was led to safety. The cops had seen enough.

Within minutes, the first of the State Police troopers began to arrive, pouring more blue into the rainbow of Fourth of July merrymakers on the riverbank.

The troopers didn’t advance on the swarm of people. Not just yet. They stood in a line at the edge of the street, staring with stony faces at the crowd. Waiting for reinforcements. Riot police would be at the scene in minutes, with shields and batons and pepper spray.

Meanwhile, from the bridge, there was a horrible crack. Something had let go – a cable or beam or a row of bolts. The bridge itself canted horribly and spilled a few frolickers into the river. Others abandoned their beer and grabbed railings to keep from falling in. Whoops of celebration were replaced with screams of panic.

On solid ground, the riot police had arrived. They moved into the crowd now, pushing people back and grabbing troublemakers. From a safe distance, it looked like a big machine programmed to distinguish bystanders from mischief-makers.

Yet the crowd was still writhing like a live thing, people pressed shoulder to shoulder and howling, like a scene from the final hours of Mardi Gras. It was nastiness and it would last into the early evening. By the time most families were preparing for the start of professional fireworks, the Fourth of July had been ruined.

My predictions for the celebrations in the Twin Cities this year? Nope.

In fact, this particular frenzy had nothing to do with Lewiston or Auburn. It happened in Waterville in 1990 and I was there. I wasn’t among those arrested, thank you very much. I also wasn’t one of those who spilled drunkenly into the river when the bridge went crazy. There are eels in there, you know. Giant, man-eating eels the size of pythons.

But I digress. I was talking about the Fourth of July and how it can make sane people crazy. It’s a day meant to mark a time of liberation and we liberate in various ways. It’s the midsummer and our friends are all around us. There’s good food, good drink and things that crackle, sizzle and pop.

If things work out right, we are truly freed that one day, from financial worries, from boredom, from work. Even Stephen King doesn’t work on the Fourth of July (at least that’s what he told me one of the many times he called me for story ideas). It’s a time, not of rest, but of celebration.

I always thought the Fourth would be wild in Lewiston. Gunfire blending in with the holiday explosions. Screams of terror mixing with shrieks of delight. Alcohol-fueled street crime and mayhem to make the Waterville fiasco look like a picnic.

It isn’t so. I’ve been here nine years and the Fourth has always been a matter of orderly celebration. It’s eerie. You get thousands of people jammed together on the bridge and instead of getting ornery, they get polite. Excuse me, ma’am. Please cross ahead of me. Pardon me, sir, you seem to have dropped your billfold.

One theory is that those with a propensity for trouble head somewhere else for the Fourth. Maybe they get spooked by the wholesome hordes that wander down to Great Falls for the festivities – all the shiny happy people with their coolers and blankets and soda pop in Day-Glo cups.

Hey, it’s all good. So people tend to behave on the Fourth. No one needs me hanging around with my notebook and camera. I’m taking the day off. Please be careful with sparklers. Be sure to thoroughly cook all meat on the grill. And please be on your best behavior the entire day, so as not to render all the above observations moot.

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