I hope you don’t see this until tomorrow – the 5th – or later. I hope you spent all day – on the 4th – visiting with friends and family – attending parades. Most of all, I hope you were witness to a great fireworks show.
Here’s a ramble, updated from sometime back – a reminiscence, offering a perspective most are not fortunate to be part of. A story of The Fourth of July from a Pyro’s close up view, our dance with fire. Fire destroys. Fire sustains life and brings people together. And sometimes, fire ignites imagination!
As a very young child my transcendental intuition was literally ignited by fire on Independence Day. In small town, Lakeview, perched on Oregon’s high Desert, residents came together for a community picnic. Later, the fireworks displays were held at a drive-in movie theater.
I was three, no more than four years old when following the films, (most here remember that there were always two back then), I watched as an aerial shell rose into the air on a column of purple fire – a comet tail tracing an ariel shells accent 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.
Long before I knew the word or its meaning, I’d seen the Transcendent, and with near missionary zeal, wanted others to experience what I had. Which is probably why, years later I operated a display fireworks business. When asked, I’ve always said that I believed it was all because of that purple comet.
For years, on the fourth of July I sent out crews of “Highly Trained Professionals,” loaded with all the fireworks and shooting gear needed to put on a show for towns around the area. It’s a wonder we never killed anyone. Yes, we were trained and had years 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 defy explanation – a great big rush and you got paid to do it… sometimes. Once a year we did it for free. And gawd… was it fun!
Early on the morning of the Forth, drivers converged from towns all 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 1.3G Explosives. Given the time of year – the day…, they might as well have said, “FIREWORKS ON BOARD!” While on the road, the real danger faced was other drivers staring – causing them to steer whatever they were driving right at us.
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. Something 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 a group of friends.After all the other crews were “papered,” packed and on the road – the storage bunker was still packed with cases of shells destined for Wallowa Lake or La Grande – sometimes both, as we often shot back to back – two shows in a row. Both over budget and each with equal enthusiasm.
With member of the crew coming from across the state, we gathered for this purpose for twenty years. Yes, we were friends. But we all knew it was really about all the fuse and powder. We were there to shoot shells!
These were the “free” ones. Throwing profit, and more in with the community fund – the result was a whopper show, far out sizing either small towns budget. Civic organizers probably never knew or understood. No matter. This was a worship offering – an attempt to satisfy the Deities of the Transcendent. Actually, it was an attempt to satisfy pyro lust. Never fully satisfied – we always wanted MORE!
Wallowa’s show – being a, “lake” show – was inherently, more dramatic. With all that water to receive the fall-out – we could include long duration shells – shells who’s components were likely to still be “hot” when they reached the ground. Not something we could intentionally allow to happen in the middle of a field of dry grass.
So, acres of water to extinguish fallout. High mountains for a backdrop during daylight, set-up hours also served to darken the night sky – allowing less light to spill back over the horizon after sunset. And a mirror – all that water again. An oversized reflection pond doubling the effects displayed in the air.
Shot from three massive floating platforms heavily roped together. With 4000 sq ft. of deck space and the required safe distance from the crowd, we had clearance for the big ones – shells up to sixteen inches in diameter. Even so, we never shot anything larger than twelve’s.
Forgive the cliche, but if ever it were true – where fireworks are concerned, size really does matter… so, of course, the bigger the better! But the wicked witch’s of Oregon bureaucracy had pledged that we would never enjoy the ultimate thrill. True to bureaucratic small mindedness, without regard for the law or their own rules, they limited our permits to twelve inch shells. They just never got it. And as concerns The BIG one – a sixteen inch’er… neither did we.
Forget the sixteens… a twelve inch shell is nothing to sniff at. Particularly, the right shells – expensive suckers made by the gifted craftsmen at Yung Feng & Co. These hard breaking beauties – each a masterful composition. An intense performance of rising effects, rich coloration, and outrageously wide, breath-talking canopies of long duration stars.
All morning and on through the afternoon we worked to position and secure the equipment. Racks holding 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, Nothing could be allowed to 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. After adding extensions, the fusing is draped and taped safely around the mouths of other mortars – bringing each end to the front where it is securing taped to the lip of the rack. A fuse running over the mouth of a mortar can result in a shell being jerked prematurely from its tube – exploding at our feet. Always exciting – potentially lethal. We never let it happen. Shells and fusing secured – they were ready for the scorching flame of railroad torches.
The set-up ran the length of both sides and down the middle of the barge. Both ends were left open, these being our access to the fire extinguisher – a lake full of cold water! With float jackets squeezed under our coveralls and a fast little boat manned and ready to pull anyone from the water, our bulky looking crew worked from end to end of the barge, repeatedly flicking glances at watches, willing the minutes to tick by faster.
By late afternoon I’d personally offended every crew member – it was part of the ritual – me telling and re-telling 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.
When set-up was complete, I salved bruised egos, making time for everyone to tell their funniest – “Tom’s an Idiot,” story, They had plenty of material to work from. Now we’re a tribe regathered, bonded by years of experience. No year – no show exactly the same. All the old story’s were re-told and we grinned like idiots, riding a river of adrenaline in anticipation of the semi-controlled madness soon to erupt around us.
On board, we had a huge amount entertainment grade explosives – everything the budget allowed and like I said – 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. The sponsors were skeptical. Up until we took over the contract, they had endured a half hear-ted effort supplied by competitors. With only a few mortars – each tube was re-loaded between shots. The shows were slow and attendance dwindled when local residents began to here about our shows in La Grande.
Having assured them that by hiring our crew this would change, I suggested that they, ‘bill it” – advertise the show as, “SHAKE THE LAKE!” The name stuck and year after year – safe to say… we shook the lake! Back to that first year – the committee chairman met us after the show, check in hand and tears of relief in her eyes. One of the few times I’ve made a woman cry and felt good about it.
Long before dark, the park had filled with thousands. Having believed the advertising – late comers now lined the highway and rocky shore. 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 – the concept of private property was ignored – shattered, really. And all with a remarkable minimum of in-civility. You made lots of new friends if you owned a house near that lake!
8 PM. Heavy ropes straining, the tow boat eased 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, now computer driven 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 fire a show, you’re standing in a shower of sparks and burning debris – nose to nose with towers of flame. Over and over, the body absorbs the shock as lift powder ignites, accelerating each heavy cylinder to a couple hundred miles an hour in fractions of a second. Did I already tell you it was a rush?
Yung Feng shells deserved particular attention, and that’s what we gave them. With a heavy throat-ed, low note, the larger of those special shells lifted. This was a signal for the crew to stop everything and watch. In silence, eyes following the orange glow of an ignition fuse tumbling, end over, as a shell rises to altitude. What happened next varied according to the specifics of the shell in the air. But it was always great, These were the ones we remembered and talked about later and the year after that. Particularly if it happened to be a Nishiki Kamuro. We’ll talk about them later too
The big shells were on a smaller floating deck anchored an extra 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.
Even this small barge was an awesome sight. Particularly for those who knew what they were seeing. With ropes attached, each heavy shell was lifted to the lip of its mortar and gently lowered 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 and dropped anchors before inserting the arming key on the firing panel. Watching the indicator lights – feelings of relief settled over the crew as the ready signal – a green LED began to flash.
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 watched as lift energy shoved the small barge completely underwater – leaving us staring helplessly… wondering if the electrical system would live to ignite the next shell. Amazingly… It always did.
Ten pm – with that one-last look at the “clock,” the show begins. 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 fiery hot rain, concussion and dazzling light. We were transported. Fire dancers in Carhartts and heavy boots – a ballet for 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 firing switches… But wait! We need to revisit the whole sixteen inch shell thing.
Those really big shells – the ones that got away? Like I said… forget em! We’d doubled down for the finale. Crowning it with two eight inch Kamuro’s – 8 + 8 there’s our 16! We followed these with the last of our ten inch shells – a single Yung Feng Chrysanthemum – a single, gigantic red flower. Following it were two more Yung Feng’s. Both Nishiki Kamuro’s. Both Twelve inch! Bureaucrats – you can’t fire them, but you can screw’em with the math. 12 + 12 = 24! Surrounded, as described with racks of smaller shells – add pre-fused finale boxes and a-hundred salutes… now you have a nice finale shot.
A push of buttons and their away. First the eights framed by multi-tubed, finale boxes.Then the Ten preceded by flights of smaller shells. And with one final flick of a switch, the twelves lifted with a roar. Beginning a long ascent – they gracefully arched away from each other before a perfect, simultaneous break. Whith shells of this size performing at altitude, time goes side-ways again, component stars spreading to some eminence diameter in apparent slow-motion as a result of the altitude.
Kamuro’s are different, their primary components being huge, long duration, glitter comets. After the initial break they develop to spherical perfection – the canopy… no gaps, no ragged, deformed edges before beginning a slow motion decent. The glitter composition, microscopically porous charcoal infused with chemical wizardry, continues to burn – near weightless particles hang in the sky motionless to the eye as the remaining comet bodies descend, an umbrella now, still perfectly uniform – hundreds of feet in diameter – glittering, drifting to earth. Each thick, fiery tendril still vibrant and full from top to bottom. Finally, all that remains is a single ring of stars that wink out simultaneously only to reappear as a last red flash a few feet from the surface of the lake.
These big shells are accompanied by fusillades of salutes… Heavy concussions just before that last mesmerizing performance of Kumuro glitter… and It’s over. Totally, K-I-C-K Ass!
Burning embers, smoldering bit of paper littered the deck and mortars continue to smoke. Occasionally, a shell, having failed to fire but still smoldering, will lift with no warning. Nobody wanted to be near when that happened so we’d all sit somewhere out of the way, mixing the last of the adrenaline sloshing through our systems with cans of beer – the first anyone’s had all day – and cigarettes – whether you were a smoker or not. Nothing could have 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 finale shell that we’d shot during some other 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 farther, brilliant stars spread as only they can from a really big shell, ever wider until they’ve filled your field of vision. Finally, his dad told me, gravity caught up with the kid and he fell over backwards – though never for a moment breaking focus with that huge ball of fire. “All he said was, “Wow!”
His dad and I smiled – thinking of his boy and remembering our own “Wow” moments. Remembering a purple comet – I’m pretty sure I know exactly how that kid felt.