Marco Island celebrates the Fourth of July

Lance Shearer

The force field bent, but it didn’t break. The invisible shield that – usually – seems to protect Marco Island when big island-wide events are happening allowed in a lightning storm in the afternoon, but then rallied to provide a beautiful sunset and clear skies by the time the fireworks began at 9 p.m.

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What started out as just a day at the beach turned into a scramble for the exits for many Marco Islanders, as the heavens opened with a downpour and thunderstorm as many were enjoying their Independence Day holiday. The beach was left to the pair of burrowing owls who have their nest by the entrance to the boardwalk at Residents Beach.

Winds whipped up and blew down unsecured canopies, inner tubes and umbrellas, sending some of them flying down the beach. The Thor Guard lightning alert system sounded, as lightning slashed down in every direction.

The festivities were pared down in any event, with the hotdog eating contests, tug of war, most patriotic swimsuit competition and other organized activities of “Uncle Sam’s Sand Jam” called off as they also were last July 4th. Marco Island Civic Association executive director Ruth McCann said they are understaffed, and she herself was busy helping around the concession stand. But at least the celebration occurred, unlike in 2020 when the whole program was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The rain blew on out over the Gulf of Mexico, leaving the air noticeably cooler afterward, and giving a freshwater rinse to anything or anyone that needed it. Beachgoers emerged from their cars or returned from home, and gradually the shore filled up, although not to were there was any feeling of crowding on what must be the world’s widest beach.

Kids splashed in the water, family groups such as the combined Papa and Lee families engaged in a game of miniature football at water’s edge, couples took in the scene, and seemingly everyone took selfies. Although there was no official sandcastle contest, cousins Elise Figueroa, 7, and her cousin Chloe Buitrago worked on their own sandcastle for the sake of art and the fun of it.

The clouds in the west made for a memorable sunset as “golden hour” filled the beach with warm peachy hues. A massive anvil-headed thundercloud showed where the storm was still cascading rain down on the Gulf, but the atmosphere at the beach was the picture-perfect small-town island-y feel Marco has come to expect. There might even have been a hint of a green flash as the sun dipped below the horizon.

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One group that had a banner day was the American Legion, with their American flag sales going gangbusters. According to Post #404 commander Lee Rubenstein, the Legion sold out every flag they had, having ordered 1,000, and took in nearly $3,000. With an asking price of two dollars per flag, he said, people were clearly chipping in extra, especially as many flags were given away free to kids.

“Our 10 volunteers did a phenomenal job,” said Rubenstein. “People were putting in $100 bills and $20s. This was our best showing in a long time.” As a result of their efforts, the beach was a sea of red, white and blue, literally dripping with flags. The Stars and Stripes were also featured in many bathing suits on young and old.

Marco Island bans fireworks, as the electronic signboard announces to those crossing the Jolley Bridge. But that apparently doesn’t extend to sparklers, which were abundantly evident as the sky grew dark. And the barge offshore where the rockets were launched is not technically on Marco Island either, so there was no violation there.

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Those official Marco Island fireworks were purchased at a cost of $75,000, according to Samantha Malloy, the city’s manager for parks, cultural and recreational events. The city provided the bulk of the funds, but contributions came in as well from the J.W. Marriott, which led the contributions at $10,000, the Hilton and MICA, which each kicked in $5,000, and the Marco Island Lions Club.

The display went on for 25 minutes. So, a little quick math tells us that the fireworks lit up the sky at a cost of $3,000 per minute, which may be close to a record for burning up tax dollars, but probably doesn’t come close. No one on the beach was counting the cost, being caught up in the spectacle, watching the “rockets’ red glare” and hearing the detonations reverberating off the shoreside condos, as though the buildings were returning fire.

After everyone on Residents’ Beach dealt with the bottleneck where thousands of people laden with coolers, floats, canopies and assorted beach gear attempted to squeeze onto the boardwalk at the same time – all amicably – people got into their cars and another July Fourth was in the books.