(Although, given my posting history here, you could well be forgiven for supposing the Mafia had broken all my fingers and left me to tap out posts with only my nose. Sorry about that.) I was, however, on fire for a minute or two. Eric and I helped out the uncle-in-law with a fireworks show on the Fourth. We were there all day longâ€”there’s a lot more involved than just lighting fuses.
When I was younger and my family lived in Anchorage (as opposed to when we lived in Louisiana, or Texas, or Virginia, or California, or other parts of California), we sometimes broke the law and brought home fireworks we’d bought from the stands that sprung up every summer on either side of the highway just outside the city limits. I was always good for one sparkler before those lost my interest, and once, when we lived on a military base, I tried making a U.S. American flag in the driveway with colored smoke bombs. (I packed them tightly together on the ridged concrete to make a lovely and eminently recognizable flag. Which meant, of course, that when the smoke went up, there was no room for it to diffuse without combining with the smoke all around it. So instead of a flag, I got a cloud of smoke marbled here and there with red and blue, but generally the color Play-Doh turns when you mix more than three different cans.)
One year we went all out and bought the large set of fireworks. There were sparklers and smoke bombs, but other things, too. I shot off my first Roman candle. There was also a fountain, a squat little fortification wrapped in paper that sprayed a plume of golden sparks for a couple minutes and badly disturbed one of our dogs. (He kept running up to it, sticking his nose as close as he could without getting burned, and barking at it. Much like he did with the central-vac outlets.) The best piece, though, was a home version of the fireworks they use in professional showsâ€”the kind that shoot into the air before exploding into rings and flowers. This one was a paper-wrapped tube probably about a foot high, with a flat, molded-plastic base. My mom and dad and sister and I climbed over the railing of my parents’ deck onto the garage roof, and my dad and I set up the little cannon and lit the fuse. The result wasn’t all that fantasticâ€”it was a single peony or something like thatâ€”but it was the first time I’d ever launched a firework into the sky.
Until this year. But the little tube my first airborne firework shot out of wasn’t much like the professional deal. As with so many creative fields, the equipment the pros use isâ€¦not very fancy. The guns, as I came to call them (correctly or not), are two-or-so-foot lengths of PVC pipe in various diameters, each with a wooden disk screwed into the bottom as a blasting surface. The guns go in wooden racks, which each hold one row of about five guns. We spent the first part of the day hammering together supports, so that the racks would stand up on their own and not fall over when the pyro exploded out of the guns. We had multiple safety talks (in spite of which one fellow lost all the hair on the backs of his legs, thanks to some improvident waving around of a dripping flare near a bundle of quick match), and we got to wear protective clothing and practice lighting things on fire.
We laid out all the guns in formation, and loaded one ball into each gun, with the fuse hanging out the muzzle. The fuse on a firework like these is actually connected to a preliminary charge, which pushes the firework out of the gun and at the same time lights a secondary fuse. The secondary fuse burns for three seconds or so as the firework climbs, and then it explodes the main charge, which is when you get the “Silver Brocade Waterfall and Dahlia,” for instance. With three lines of racks, and dozens and dozens of guns per line, we didn’t have enough wire and firing boxes to automate the whole show. We wired up the more complicated and dangerous parts so that they could be lit from the sidelines, where Eric and the uncle-in-law were.
But at five minutes ’til showtime, I and the other guys took our positions just behind the ranks of guns facing up to the cloudy night sky. I wore a hardhat, safety goggles, earplugs, four layers on my upper body (two of them long-sleeved), thick canvas gloves, and jeans. At one minute ’til showtime, the uncle-in-law gave us the signal and we lit our flares. Right on the hour, he set off a screeching, flashing cluster of pyro called “salutes,” and the show was on. Each of us had been assigned a number, and as the uncle-in-law shouted out my number, it was my job to light a firework with my flare and then get out of the way. Only “get out of the way” really just means “try not to be deafened, blinded, or struck by explosives,” because I had to stay in place to light another the next time my number was called.
It was more like a war movie than I had expectedâ€”lots of noise (one of my earplugs slipped, so I had to try to hold it in place by hunching my shoulder up and hoping the four layers of fabric muffled the explosions), lots of heat, lots of bright flashes, and flaming bits of paper raining down on me. One of them landed on my neck, so I had to swat it off as quickly as I could without missing my number. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Eric tells me another little flying torch landed on my helmet and stayed there until it burned out a minute or two later. (Scorch marks on my helmet back him up.) He was a heartbeat away from rushing out to me with the fire extinguisher, before he realized it wasn’t my head aflame, but my helmet.
After I shot off my last firework, I ran out of the setup and over to the sidelines. No point in staying among the explosions, I figured. (I found out later that my scurry across the grass was backlit by the guns behind me, and looked like I was running away in fear.) Up to this point in the show, I hadn’t seen a single firework go off. I was so busy doing my part that I didn’t get to watch anything. But now it was time for the finale, which Eric and the uncle-in-law were operating by wire, so I would finally get to see some of the show. And what I saw was a conflagration.
To make up to the audience for some troubles earlier in the show (caused by fuses that had been coated at the factory with some sort of paraffin but not labeled with that fact), the uncle-in-law told Eric to set off all of his segments of the finale at once. The uncle-in-law likewise keymashed his firing box, so that the finale didn’t so much build to a climax as go boom. Some part of the boom, though, seems to have knocked over a rack of Roman candles, because suddenly there were bright green-and-yellow projectiles cartwheeling across the ground toward the base-of-operations area on the sidelines. Our crew (and their loved ones who helped out during the day but not during the show) scattered, hoping desperately not to be hit by fireworks: I hid behind a huge tree, kids hid behind the truck, Eric hid behind his uncle. At least one candle shot under the truck. One of the guns holding a cluster of Roman candles was somehow fired out of its rack; it lodged under the tarp Eric was sitting on, not six inches from him, very much like a torpedo mistakenly fired onto land in a World War II comedy. We recovered firework casings a good thirty or forty yards from the setupâ€”with our base of operations directly in the path they traveled, but somehow untouched. Someone must have called the fire department, because we heard sirens toward the end of the show, and after all the smoke cleared, two firefighters came down to our base to make sure everyone was uninjured. Which we all were. We were not, however, terribly pleased to hear the fellow who had contracted the uncle-in-law to do the show ask whether there was a finale still to come. I have since concluded he must be neurologically insensitive to light, heat, sound, and even the audience’s communal worry that some of us in the show might be blown up.
In all, it was a remarkably fun day of manual labor, country-club food, pleasant company, and utter havocâ€”easily the most exciting Independence Day I’ve ever had.