It’s now September – Labor Day weekend. For most – the last weekend of cook outs and camp fires. This last of Summer’s celebrations filling us full for a winter. It’s Labor Day and even after a little rain, the gathering reminds me of the Forth of July and all the July Forth celebrations that went before. Fall rains bring to a close the wild fire season. Fire, that destroys, requiring rebuilding and new growth. Fire bringing lives together. And fire that ignites imagination.
As a very young child my transcendental intuition was literally ignited by fire on independence day. After the community picnic, the fireworks displays were held at a drive-in movie theater. I was three, no more than four years old when following the films – there were always two back then – I saw an aerial shell rise on a column of purple fire, a comet tail tracing the shells path until the moment it broke – exploding across the sky with such beauty that this memory continues to burn the retina of my mind’s eye. Which is probably why, years later I operated a display fireworks business. When asked, I’ve always thought and said that it was because of that purple comet, way back when I kid. Long before I knew the word or its meaning – I’d seen the Transcendent.
For years, on the fourth of July I sent out crews of “Highly Trained Professionals,” with all the fireworks and shooting gear to put on a show for towns around the area. It’s a wonder we never killed anyone. Yes, we were trained and had plenty of experience. But we were just a bunch of overgrown kids, thrilled by the idea of all those fuses to light – all the smoke, flame and concussion of shells lifting into the night. It’s one of those experiences that short of being there, defy explanation. It’s a great big rush and you got paid to do it… sometimes. Once a year we did it for free – just for fun. And gawd… was it fun!
Early on the morning of the Forth, drivers converged from towns around the area. After checking all the paperwork – being sure everyone had a clipboard full of it, enough to satisfy city, county, state and federal cops, even the United Nations – no kidding! Permits were handed out to the lead pyro’ and case after case of shells were transferred to this rag tag fleet of trucks and canopy protected pick-up beds. Each truck had to display four, big bright orange placards announcing that you were hauling explosives. Given the time of year, they might as well have said, FIREWORKS ON BOARD! While on the road, the real danger faced were from other drivers staring, causing them to steer whatever they were driving right at us.
Out on the highways it was not uncommon for people to try to flag a one of our drivers down, thinking that he would be happy to sell them something big enough to blow up the BBQ and everybody standing in the backyard. “Ya, Baby!” Nice try, but, Not gonna happen!
With no shame, I reserved the largest show for myself and group of friends. We’d came together every “Forth,” for twenty five years. Yes, we were friends. But we all knew it was really about all that fuse and all that powder. We were there to shoot shells Ours was a water show – fireworks shot from three floating platforms. With nearly 4000 sq ft. of deck space we had clearance for the big ones. Ariel shells up to sixteen inches in diameter. Forgive the cliche’ but if ever it were true – where fireworks are concerned, size really does matter… the bigger the better! Staged on both sides and down the middle of the barge where we’d put it all together. Both ends had been left open – they were our access to the fire extinguisher – a whole lake full of cold water!
All morning and on through the afternoon we worked with a fever, positioning and securing equipment. Racks held hundreds of mortars – the tubes that contain the lift blast and direct the flight of the shells – all had to be braced and screwed to the decking, insuring that nothing could move when shells began to fly. With the equipment in place, shells were lowered individually into pipes of matching diameter. Depending on it’s location in a bank of racks, an individual shell might need a longer fuse. With this extension the fusing is draped and taped safely around the mouths of other mortars – bringing each end to the front of the racks, ready for the scorching flame of railroad torches.
By late afternoon I’d personally offended every crew member – it was just part of the ritual. I told and re-told them things they already knew, repeating safety instruction until everyone was totally fed up. Having done my part, everyone executed their jobs perfectly – no one ever got hurt. So, with set-up complete, it was time to address bruised egos, re-tell all our trial by fire story’s and grin like idiots… all of us riding the rising tide of adrenaline in anticipation of the semi-controlled madness soon to erupt around us. On board the barge was a huge amount entertainment grade explosives – everything the budget allowed and a bunch more we’d paid for personally. Having put heart, soul and more than a few of our own dollars into the mix – everyone benefited. As showtime approached thousands lined the highway and shore line. Blankets, coolers and kids filled every flat and almost flat spot for as far as we could see from the deck of the “SS Fire Island.” Including the lawns of hill-side and waterfront homes. You make lots of new friends if you own a house near that lake!
8 PM. Heavy ropes straining, the tow boat pulled us away from shore, beginning the slow trip to “Shoot Central,” where anchors were lowered into one of the most beautiful, glacier cut lakes I’ve ever seen. With the barges positioned and secure we began the process of checking and re-checking fuses and equipment. The main barge held the smaller stuff – ground effects and shells up to six inches in diameter. This was the part of the show that we lit by hand with those railroad fusee’s. It’s safer to do it all with an electric system. But we were there for the rush – a proximity thrill. Meaning that, more than approximately, shooters stood next to the action. When you hand fired, you’re standing in shower of sparks and a tower of flame – over and over, the body absorbing the shock as lift powder ignites, accelerating each heavy cylinder to three hundred miles an hour in fractions of a second. Did I already tell you it was a rush?
Shooting a show this way, other than occasional quick glances, you don’t see much of what’s happening in the air. The action on the firing line demands that everyone gives full attention to the tubes, the fuses and other crew members. But that didn’t apply to the big shells. These deserved everyone’s attention and that’s what we gave them. A throaty, low note, the sound of a heavy shell lifting. This was the signal for the crew to stop and watch. In silence, eyes following the orange glow of an ignition fuse tumbling as a shell rises to altitude. What happened next varied according to the specifics of the shell in the air. But it was always good, These were the ones we remembered and talked about later and the year after. Particularly if it happened to be a Nishiki Kamuro. We’ll talk about that later too.
The big shells were on a smaller floating deck anchored another hundred yards away – an eight by ten foot platform dense-packed with racks and stand-alone, steel mortars – hold overs from the bad old days – back when everything was shot from steel pipes. Over the course of twenty years we got smart and fabricated light weight, high-density, polyethylene mortars. But for the big shells – anything with a diameter of eight or more inches, steel was still the material of choice.
Up until the “ultra-safe,” post 911 years, an even larger, sixteen inch shell was still available. For this show, we had the room and we had the reason. But the wicked witch’s of the bureaucracy had pledged that we would never enjoy the ultimate thrill. True to bureaucratic, mean mindedness, without regard for the law of their own rules they refused to give us the necessary permission. The one – the one worth all the money and effort, had it been a Yung Feng, Nishiki Kamuro, we’d have found a way. The craftsmen at Yung Feng are renowned for their artistry. To experience the break and spreading development of one of these big shells is an experience to savor. Yes… the one that got away. To transit this world is sorrow.
Even so, our “Boat-load” of bombs was an awesome site to see, especially for those who knew what they were seeing. Twelve inch diameter shells and gear are nothing to sniff at. Propelling a heavy shell requires a lot of black powder, creating a tremendous recoil. So tens and twelve’s were positioned as close to middle as possible to prevent flipping the whole deck. More than once we watch as lift energy shoved the deck of the small barge completely underwater. Where there’s life there’s risk. When Fireworks are involved – buy insurance.
With ropes attached each heavy shell was lifted to the lip of its mortar and gently lower into place before attaching it’s fire wires to the panel. Comets fans and low altitude, finale boxes ringed with racks of four and six inch mortars, an assemblage of pyro pave’ rigged and ready fire with radio gear – each shot just a button push away – we towed it into position before inserting the arming key on the firing panel, watching as the indicator light. Feelings of relief settled over the crew as the green LED began to flash.
The show began at ten PM. The hands or numbers on a watch mean little with that much adrenaline surging through the body. Working our way up and down the rows of mortars – fast burning fuses flashing – shells lifting – surrounded on all sides by a steady rain of sparks, concussion and dazzling light. We were transported. Fire Dancers in Carhartts and heavy boots – a ballet for deities and daemons.
As the last flights of shells lifted from the big barge, it was time for the finale. Reaching for the transmitter, I prayed that the key hadn’t fallen out somewhere in the middle of all the mayhem. Twisting the key to final arming position, a finger poised above that firing buttons… But wait! We need to revisit the whole sixteen inch shell thing.
Those really big shells – the ones that got away? Forget em! We’d doubled down with the finale. Crowning it with two eight inch Kamuro’s, – 8 x 8 there’s our 16! We followed these with the last of our ten inch shells – a single Yung Feng Chrysanthemum – that’s a gigantic red flower – for syncopation. Following it were- two more Yung Feng’s. Both Nishiki Kamuro’s. Both Twelve inch! Bureaucrats – you can’t fire’em, but you can screw with the math. 12 x 12 = 24!
A push of a button on the panel and they lifted with a roar, beginning a long ascent – gracefully arching away from each other before a perfect, simultaneous break. When shells of this size break at altitude, time goes side-ways again – somewhere between slow motion and suspended animation. Component stars spreading, a thousand foot diameter fire flower developing in slow-motion. But Kamuro’s are different. And those manufactured in Taiwan by Yung Feng Fireworks are arguably among the best. As per design, Yung Feng’s Kamuro stars are huge, long duration, glitter comets. After the initial break they develop to spherical perfection. No gaps, no ragged, deformed edges. The glitter composition, a microscopically porous charcoal they are pressed from continues to burn, near weightless bits of infused carbon hang motionless to the eye as the heavy comet bodies – the sphere descends, an umbrella now, still perfectly uniform – hundreds of feet in diameter – glittering, drifting to earth but still vibrant and full at it’s original peak altitude. Finally, all that remains is single ring of stars that wink out simultaneously only to reappear as a last red flash no more than twenty feet from the surface of the lake. Totally, K-i-c-k- Ass!
The big shells accompanied by periodic fusillades of heavy salutes… that last mesmerizing performance of Kumuro glitter and it was done. And we were done in. Burning embers, smoldering bit of paper littered the deck and mortars smoked. Occasionally, a shell that has been smoldering will lift unexpectedly. Nobody wanted to be near if that happened so we’d all sit somewhere as we mixed the last of the adrenaline sloshing through our systems with cans of beer and cigarettes. Nothing could have tasted better or felt more satisfying. The tow boat guy took his time, slowly guiding the barge to shore as we floated our way back down from pyro heaven. No body stayed up there – no one got hurt, ever. That’s the really perfect part.
At some point the father of a kid who had seen one of our shows related how his boy reacted to a particularly nice twelve inch finale shell that we’d shot durig a previous show. “He fell over backwards with his mouth hanging open when that thing went off” his dad said. As the man continued to tell the story I could see the boy in my mind – leaning and leaning back as those burning stars spread as only they can from a really big shell, ever wider until the’ve filled your field of vision. Finally, his dad told me, gravity caught up with his kid and he fell over backwards though never for a moment breaking focus with that huge ball of fire. “All he said was, Wow!” The man said, he and I smiling – thinking of his boy and remembering our own “Wow” moments. I’m pretty sure that I know exactly how that kid felt.
It was to recreate for myself my first “Wow” and to share it with others that I had come to own semi-trailer loads of equipment – all the stuff it took to make a special moment for another kid and the kid that refused to grow up in me. People always asked the numbers – how high – how wide? Even after having shot thousands of them, I never really knew. What’s important is that a big shell, a good one, can make you forget everything for a moment… while, like those burning stars, you drift along in a timeless place. A moment like that can make an impression that lasts a lifetime.
That’s what happened to me. I’ve always measured the world against my experience as kid on a warm July night. I’d seen the fire – and once I had seen it, anything of lower lux would not keep my attention for long. This was how I evaluated church beliefs, church professionals and church functions. Where was the fire?
It took me years to realize that the fire I was looking for was inside of me. All that time it was burning hot but my eyes just couldn’t see it. The Kingdom of Heaven is within us, every one of us. A teacher who knew this fact would be of great assistance. But ultimately each of us is responsible for making our own way back into our hearts – doing the work required to allow the light to come out. There is no one to blame for the time it takes – the false steps. Not teachers. Not God. Not ourselves. As T.S. Elliot reminds us, “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Well… if you’re a pyro, maybe not the first time. But we will all know that we are home.
#WallowaLake #Wallowa County #JosephOregon #Fireworks #ForthofJuly #TomCarroll #transcendental #ShaketheLake