I didn’t necessarily go looking for a self-proclaimed patriot, but I found one in Joel Cowart.
On Monday morning, on the eve of the Fourth of July, Cowart met me at his Pyroland Fireworks stand just off Highway 410 in Sumner.
Cowart, who has spent 27 years in the fireworks business, most recently as a wholesaler, importer and designer, owns and operates three commercial stands in the area.
A large sign greats you as you pull in: “We sell the BIG STUFF!!!”
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It’s no joke.
“We’ve got lots of stuff,” Cowart tells me with childlike exuberance in his voice as we entered a big tent with a dirt floor.
Cowart doesn’t just sell fireworks. To hear him tell it, he sells a cherished American right. Without a hint of sarcasm, he uses words like liberty, freedom and independence to describe his longstanding passion for what John Adams eloquently described in 1776 as illuminations.
It’s unclear to me exactly where the “Pooping Dog” firework that’s on display near the cash registers fits into this grand tradition, but I’m assured they have a place.
“You probably did snakes when you were a kid. So he drops a snake pile,” Cowart explains of the pyrotechnic pooch.
“Kids really like those.”
But that’s not why I’m here.
Given society’s increasingly strained and contentious relationship with the tradition of commercial fireworks use, I couldn’t help wonder whether Cowart feels like a man caught in the middle.
Or, at least like a man whose time is running out.
That’s what I wanted to ask him.
I feel like a patriot.
Pyroland Fireworks owner and operator Joel Cowart
“I feel like a patriot,” Cowart quickly responds.
“I help people celebrate the Fourth of July. I get to be part of their festivities,” he continues. “I love fireworks. I really do. It’s something I’ve enjoyed since I was a kid.”
It goes without saying that, in recent years, Cowart’s love has been routinely challenged. And it’s a trend that seems likely to continue in our state.
Politicians and policy makers, motivated by safety concerns and complaints from parents, pet owners and a host of others, have sought to limit, restrict or ban the sale and use of commercial fireworks — American greatness be damned.
Throughout the region, local counties and municipalities have reacted accordingly. Fireworks have been illegal in Tacoma for years — a fact that has yet to stop my block from sounding like a war zone on the night of the Fourth, it’s worth noting — and late last year the Pierce County Council enacted modest restrictions designed to limit their use.
Fireworks also are banned in Fircrest, Algona, Ruston and Steilacoom.
Given the body of research and grim statistics surrounding fireworks-related injuries and property damage, it’s not hard to understand how we arrived at this moment in history. It’s sensible, even.
But make mention of this, and the intensity and cadence of Cowart’s speech noticeably picks up. The responsible, supervised use of legal fireworks is safe, he proclaims.
“It’s a take-away of liberty and freedom to celebrate liberty and freedom,” he tells me of bans and restrictions. “It’s sad.”
“The people that we sell fireworks to, they’re passionate. This is one day of the year that they celebrate,” he continues. “For a lot of people, this is bigger than Christmas. … It doesn’t get more patriotic than celebrating the Fourth of July.”
That certainly seems to be the case for Cowart, who tells me he plans to sell legal fireworks in Washington for years to come.
For him, his right to do so, and people’s right to purchase fireworks, are all matters of American principle.
“I don’t think people even understand what liberty is. The liberty that we still retain barely fit within the laws and the steep regulations that they keep doing. What’s next? What’s next?” Cowart wonders aloud, growing visibly agitated.
“We fold our liberty and freedom up and hand it over on a daily basis. This holiday is about celebrating that liberty and freedom, as an American. It’s distasteful when they take that right away.”
What’s distasteful, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. And the same might be said of a tradition that annually results in the loss of a few.
Under Cowart’s tent, it’s shortly after 9 a.m. on what promises to be one of the busiest days of the year, and customers are already starting to arrive. He points to a display in back of what he describes as mortar kits and canister shells. On another table, he shows me boxes of brightly colored “family assortments.”
His current favorite offering, he says, is a “large grand finale” piece he designed. He named it Cascadia Rising.
“It alternates huge, spinning fluffy tails that go up and break into blue and white,” he describes. “And it has really loud whistling comets that go up. And then, at the end, it has one huge row of screamers, and then one huge row of tumblers.”
“It’s awesome,” he concludes.
As he’s speaking, I notice a son and father finishing a small purchase at the front of the tent.
Cowart sees them, too.
“People who come down to buy fireworks are generally very happy,” he says. “Look at that kid right there.”
I can’t argue. The boy does look happy.
No word on whether dad gave in and bought a few Pooping Dogs.