ALACHUA – City of Alachua lineman Preston Howell says the 50 by 30 foot American flag hanging at stage left at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex in Alachua is soaking wet and very heavy.

Howell, 29, is strapped in and linked to a bucket and is rising up until he is more than 50 feet in the air. He’s towering over the flag and crowd that is gathering at Alachua’s 16th Annual July 4th Celebration, aka the “Largest Small-Town Fireworks Display in America.”

“Each spot where there’s a line,” Howell says, “I’ve got a collar [knot] to keep it from coming down.”

This is Howell’s second time manning the flag borrowed from Santa Fe College’s Veterans Affairs Office. For three years now, the flag release has been the sign that Fourth of July fireworks are about to begin.

Sandra Torres-Pintos, Coordinator of Veterans and Military Success Services at SFC said she is happy to loan the flag to the city of Alachua.

We at the Veteran and Military Success Services Office are happy to help others display their patriotism, especially in celebration of our great nation’s independence,” says Torres.

The Flag, the fireworks, the entertainment, the activities leading up to the evening display. Maybe that’s why Mashable.com has ranked the city of Alachua’s yearly Independence Day celebration No. 6 in the country.

The digital media website founded by Pete Cashmore in 2005 and followed by more than 23 million, people lists the top 15 places to view fireworks in an article “Where to watch the best fireworks this 4th of July.” It starts out with Boston, Massachusetts and ends with San Diego, California.

Thousands of spectators are already finding their spots as Howell hangs out high up.

“I’ve been a part of it two times,” he says. Howell has worked for Alachua as a lineman for 9 years.

This is the end of Howell’s shift, and hopefully, the last time he needs to rise up and fuss with flags or power lines on this Fourth of July, which he says he’s excited about spending with his wife Katie, 4-year-old son Tate and his 1-year-old son Tibbs who has not yet witnessed fireworks.

Tate runs up to his father hoping he’s ready to join him and the rest of the family, but he still needs to go up one more time to untie those ropes.

The day has been a busy and long one for Howell and other lineman and utility crew members. “I had five power out calls,” Howell says about his day at work. “A limb fell on a line in Turkey Creek.”

“We’re here today mainly for all the vendors,” he adds. “We’ve been running around all day.”

“If you bump it, it rocks,” Howell says about the bucket he’s in. It’s a super buggy that rotates all the way around. He tips it forward and back.

As he heads up to get ready for the unveiling, thousands are gathering around the stage and spreading out on blankets across the field. The sun is setting.

Four-year-old red haired Ariana Hollett is running around with a mini American flag in one hand.


Tyler Scian, 16, is painting with a bunch of kids and having fun mixing red, white and blue paints.

Datyana Coleman-Hubbard, 4, is standing on her dad’s shoulders with her hands raised up high as a patriotic Natalie Nicole Green works her way around the stage in 6-inch heels. Her shoes, of course, have stars and stripes and her outfit has the same color scheme. Green is winding up the crowd gathered around the stage. She is singing “Rolling On The River” and folks are singing along and clapping and crowding the stage.

Little Mike and the Tornadoes were on that stage earlier in the evening and so was Gainesville artist TJ Brown.

WWII and Korean War Veteran Corporal Bob Gasche, 92, tells the crowd the advice he received before he wrote his speech.

“Be sincere, be brief and be seated,” he says.

He then spoke of his morning taking part in the parade in Micanopy. He says it was warm and patriotic.

“People were cheering, flags were waving, fire engines were going,” he says. “It was just a heartwarming morning.

“I fought on the island of Iwo Jima ladies and gentleman,” he says. “During WWII it truly was a privilege to serve our country in this manner. I was not a great officer of any kind, I was a rifleman, I served on the front line. I was wounded after two weeks of combat at Iwo Jima,” he tells the crowd.

He is decorated in medals including a Purple Heart.

Now, more than 25,000 people have gathered.

And it is time for the flag to drop.

If flows and is caught in the lights shining on it.

Alachua resident Bonnie Burgess and her friend Burt Wetherington of Gainesville are sitting on a blanket looking up at the fireworks. One after another, and then a burst of red. Burgess reaches her hands up toward the fireworks reaching out, moved by the display and the entire crowd takes it in.

Burgess wouldn’t miss this show in her back yard.

“I’m a life-long citizen of Alachua,” she says.

For more than 30 minutes the display continues and then settles down after the grand finale. And the sky goes dark. Everyone cheers and claps.

The crowd is disappearing and the field is almost empty when a few more straggling fireworks make their way into the sky.

The organizers are pleased. Alachua Vice-Mayor and Master of Ceremonies Ben Boukari Jr says, “The weather cooperated, the entertainment was excellent, the fireworks were spectacular.”

The Alachua Police Department is pleased.

“Believe it or not everything went rather well,” says  APD Public Information Officer Jesse Sandusky.

“We had a huge crowd at the rec center, but everyone behaved themselves. No arrests were made and no one was escorted out of the event. It may have been one of the smoothest Fourths that we've had.”

As for Howell’s evening…He dropped the flag and joined his family and watched one-year-old Tibbs see fireworks for the first time and says, “He was mesmerized.”

     #     #     #