COLUMBIA — Thousands gathered downtown and in surrounding parks for live music, Jamaican jerk chicken and — especially — fireworks during Columbia's 61st "Fire in the Sky" on Thursday to celebrate Independence Day.
Although the fireworks show capped off the evening and served as the main attraction, some attendees simply savored the opportunity to spend time with family or enjoy the outdoor music.
Old Glory garb
It’s impossible to miss Johnny Nelson.
Sitting front-and-center to hear local band Man in the Ring perform in Peace Park, Nelson wore head-to-toe flag apparel.
His polo shirt — half stars and half stripes — matched almost perfectly with his two-toned pants, with a right leg of stars and a left leg of stripes.
“I got the pants years ago,” Nelson said, though he couldn’t recall where. “Probably Walmart.”
He acquired the shirt sometime later and also has a flag jacket that he’ll pair with the outfit in the colder months. He takes the ensemble to other patriotic events such as air shows and honor flights.
Patriotism is important to Nelson, a maintenance man, and his wife, Marsha, a nurse at Truman Veterans Hospital. Nelson’s father served in the Army Air Forces in World War II, before the branches split. Several of their neighbors in the Shepard neighborhood served in the Armed Forces in recent years. One returned. Another did not.
“They’re the ones who made it so we can come here today and celebrate freedom,” Marsha Nelson said. “Family, friends, we celebrate for all of them.”
A return trip
The King family was looking forward to creating lasting memories and annual traditions on the Fourth of July. For the second consecutive year, Rick King, Susan King and their daughter Kamarita, 10, drove from their home in Rocheport to catch the fireworks display.
"Last year we came to town and parked in the garage and found out it was a pretty good place to watch fireworks," Rick King said.
They parked on the top floor of the Fifth and Walnut Garage, just a short distance from the Sixth and Cherry Garage, where pyrotechnicians launched the "Fire in the Sky." The Kings planned to eat ham sandwiches together while watching the sky light up. Kamarita especially looked forward to the Kool-Aid that would accompany her meal.
"I think they're loud," Susan King said of the fireworks’ close proximity. "But I like the ones that fan out and have all the pretty colors."
In memory of a friend
Myra Lovelace firmly grasped seven red, white and blue balloons in her left hand as she made her way into Peace Park. While people were busy setting up stages, Popsicle and hot dog stands for the Fourth of July festivities, she eased down onto a bench. From beneath the mirrored blue lenses of her sunglasses, tears rolled down her face.
"I can’t get fireworks tonight. I don’t feel like doing nothing violent. I just … am in misery,” Lovelace said. She said she came to Peace Park to hang the balloons in memory of her best friend, who committed suicide Wednesday night.
"I’m going to write her name on all of these balloons. And if they fall, they fall, but" — she took a deep breath — "I'm going to pray for her in heaven. I’m going to lift her up as high as I can."
As she finished writing the third letter of her friend’s first name on a blue balloon, it popped. "You don’t have to give up,” Lovelace whispered to herself over and over.
Ciara Christensen is half-Danish and half-American, living in Springfield where she is studying for her licensing exam to become a psychiatrist. Almuhanad Melhim is from Syria, but lives in Columbia and words as a senior economist at IHS Global Insight.
For the married couple, the Fourth of July is all about spending time together with their 2-year-old son, Hanay, and enjoying the "beautiful" weather. They had just playfully raced across Francis Quadrangle and were taking a break from their fun on the steps of Jesse Hall on a sun-soaked holiday afternoon.
“This, what you see in front of you, is our family,” Melhim said. “Our son lives with me and she only visits on weekends and holidays, so we’re appreciative of the time we get to spend together.”
Missourian reporters Claire Boston, Youngrae Kim, Lakshna Mehta and Danielle Renton contributed to this article.
Supervising editor is Jake Kreinberg.