The Big Bang Boom
September 11, 1990
WEEDSPORT, NEW YORK — I’m here at the Weedsport Speedway waiting for something to blow. Who knows where it’ll come from? Who knows what it’ll be. There are guys behind concrete Georgia barriers darting around with lit flares. There are women at the far end of the track wiring rocket fuses. There’s a motorized digger drilling holes in the hardpack for mortar emplacements. It’s griddle hot, and shadeless as Arabia, out on the big tan oval of jigsawed dirt. Across the street is the Rainbow Lanes. Down the road is a True Gospel Church of Christ tent. Six miles west of the cornfields around the raceway is the century-old maximum-security prison where the electric chair made its debut.
From out on the speedway comes the madhouse whine of fuse ignition and a guy cackling, “We’re going to be shooting a lot of shit today!” I hear a boom and turn. Then the rockets began to fly.
It sounds like war, but these are just recreational missiles that seem to be skimming my scalp — fun rockets, the very best kind! That big boom? A beautiful shell going off. And this is the Pyrotechnics Guild International, Inc.’s 18th Annual Convention, a gathering of 1000 people who’re never happier than when they’re putting match to fuse.
It’s a strange place to find oneself on a hot summer afternoon, given the current state of the world, watching strangers play with gunpowder and ornamental warheads. Let’s just say I came with a friend, a rational urban professional whose life reaches a pitch of ecstatic unreason every Fourth of July. He’s a pyro, to use the lingua franca. At the moment he’s off buying fast-acting fuse called quickmatch to blast some rockets he’s got stockpiled at home.
It’s important you know that this is not a group of George Meteskys. Not at all the sort of folks who smithereen cats with M-80s. This is not your Soldier of Fortune target group, either. Put them in fezzes, and you’d have a lot of Shriners: peaceable bourgeois folks in their comfortable middle years. They’ve come from all over the country, even Europe, driving vans and semis and flying on commercial carriers with contraband stowed in their bags. They don’t look like outlaw types. And in their own minds they’re not. Fireworks may be illegal in 37 states, but to a pyro the right to blow things up is as inalienable as an NEA grant.
“You here to write about us?” asks a plump sunburned woman from Colorado. “That’s fine. But just don’t use the B word. That’s very bad press.”
The B word, of course, is … Well, as I said these are hobbyists we’re talking about — rational, fun loving, pacific. As hobbyists go they’ve got an edge on, say, stamp collectors because the stuff they trade is dangerous and highly controlled. Some of it’s toxic enough to rot the brain. Some of it, when used in certain combinations, has what you might call volatile potential. Some of it, injudiciously used, could take your average Joe and send him jetting through space without benefit of a capsule.
These facts are not incidental to the government’s fascination with pyros as a group. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms hovers over a pyro gathering like a grim shadow — worse yet, like rain. The feds know that most of the attendees are on hand for five perfectly legal days of seminars, a banquet, and schmoozing, five nights of the newest innovations, the latest “flitter” and stroboscopic effects, and a grand finale that includes ignition of the world’s longest string of firecrackers. They’re also aware that an awful lot of pyros have the chemical know-how to build rockets and shells in basement workshops, and ready access to controlled items like blasting caps, quickmatch, and blackpowder. It’s perfectly obvious, even to me, that if you know how to build a rocket you also know how to make a B word.
The blue bucket seats clamped to the bleachers have bolts in the center that come at you like a rectal thermometer. In the parking lot I pass a couple walking to the grandstand with their daughter. “Imo put her lady’s Smith & Wesson away until she’s old enough and gets out of college,” the wife says. The kid, a junior pyro, shoots her a Squeaky Fromme glare.
There’s one other spectator on hand for this afternoon’s session of “free shooting,” an hour when interested pyros can shoot off the stuff they’ve brought. Behind the grandstand there’s a fenced area for Class C explosives, light shells, and noisy backyard stuff. Out on the track is a separate area for Class B, the ballistics-level fireworks graded, on a hazard scale, just below army munitions and dynamite. “It’s gonna be a fine day,” says the man holding a Camel in a three-fingered hand. He lights up, drags hard, and exhales luxuriantly as someone shoots off a smoke bomb in the distance. Acid-yellow clouds waft our way and blend with the hot-dog aroma from the weenie shack. The man reads my creepy fascination with his missing digits and nonchalantly says, “Lawnmower.”
Within an hour of my arrival, several people have delivered elaborate spiels on safety. From what I can gather, shooting off fireworks is no more treacherous than knitting socks, possibly less so since you can get a nasty rope bum skeining yam. Fireworks just get worse press. The all-time downer was a New York Times front page that tortured logic with the claim that fireworks killed more people between one January and December than botulism had. They never said how many people died as a result of eating fireworks, but they did mention that there’d been two food poisoning fatalities that year and three firecracker deaths. “Lousy journalism, is what I say,” is the opinion of the woman who recounts the tale. “The worst that usually happens is a finger, at most an eye.”
As I sit in the bleachers on Wednesday afternoon reading from the Pyrotechnic Guild, Inc., rule book, which came with every conventioneer’s impressive registration kit, I happen on article 6, part 20 of the Official Fireworks Safety Guidelines. This section, covering rules on Public Display, is especially interesting. “At no time shall any person place any part of his or her body over the mouth of a mortar,” it says. I really have to give that one thought.
A white flash comes from the direction of the tree line at the north end of the speedway, followed by a molar-jangling report. “Must have been a four-incher,” says the Camel man. Lighting his second butt, he blows out the match, then touches the tip to his tongue. “Can’t be too careful,” he grins.
At this point I should declare my prejudices and mention that, when I was 10, a man in a fast-moving Buick tossed a half-mat of lit Black Cats at my feet. It didn’t seem like karma and it didn’t hurt me a bit, but the effect was nerve-racking — like being machine-gunned, without the holes. Since then I’ve tended to prefer fireworks at a nice distance: the Macy’s display did me fine until the year I went to the East River and found the upper deck of the FDR Drive reserved for “special” department store guests. What are fireworks, I ask you, if not populist?
My buddy, however, is fanatic. He belongs to that choice company that charts its Independence Day activities to coincide with the best displays. He whiles away the idle hours sussing out catalogue bargains, charting trips to scuzzy New Hampshire towns where the border is marked by plywood fireworks shacks. He can dilate on the differences in quality between shells called Overlord in Sky, and Double Dragons, and Autumn Drizzle. He’s on a first nickname basis with some of the finest Mafia steerers on Elizabeth Street, and has visited tenement apartments with enough fireworks inside to take out a city block.
He never thinks one Roman candle when he can think 10, fused together on an armature to spurt in goofy orgasmic sequence. So for him, and folks like him, this convention represents not just a once-yearly huddle of seminars on “energetics,” on new developments in “spin-stabilized rockets,” or “parlong stars,” or “go-getters,” but the rare, legalized chance to blow shit up.
The salesroom helps in that regard. Set up in an old, gray-painted Quonset hut behind the bleachers, the heavily guarded Class C shed opens each night at six. You can’t get in without your official badge, the one with tiny firecrackers imprinted on it fuse to tail. And there’s good reason. Inside the shed are folding tables thick with fireworks — both the finished products imported from Japan, China, South Carolina, and Macao, and the hard-to-get component parts. At a roped-off discount area, stacks of shopping baskets are provided for your “popping convenience.”
“The possibilities for mayhem are outstanding,” says one shopper amiably, mulling the purchase of several smoke bombs, each capable of releasing 40,000 cubic feet of smoke in 60 seconds. His hat reads “Support Fireworks, a Glorious American Freedom” and his arms are crammed with Twinkling Stars, Colorful Birds, Happiness Fountains, and Space Warrior Wheels. Checking out a 16-inch bazooka called Aerial Crossfire that looks impressive to me, he speaks like a highly discerning shopper. “Piece of shit,” he says. “Probably just Autumn Drizzle in a tube.”
Near the wall by the exit are several tables covered with Ziploc bags. For pyros who roll their own, these ready stocks of zinc powder, aluminum, antimony, and sulphur are reason enough to come. Frame wire and potassium perchlorate may not be hard to buy on the open market, but you don’t find good quickmatch at K Mart or Ames. And it isn’t every hardware store that carries smoke dye at just $8 a pound. “It makes a kind of muffled boomf” the saleswoman explains.
In chemical terms, a fireworks explosion is a “highly exothermic redox reaction,” a phrase somehow inadequate to the beauty of smoke and flame in motion. I learn this during a crash course in the poetics of pyrotechnica over three days in Weedsport, a snoozy, rundown farm town just west of Syracuse.
I learn many things, among them the fact that the aerial fireworks you see at public displays are called exploding bombshells; and that these are cylindrical or spherical containers made of paper and filled with pyrotechnic compositions propelled in a manner identical to a cannon ball being fired from a cannon. I learn that the typical bombshell casings are made of paper, that they are launched with an exploding charge of black powder called the “lift charge,” and that the cannon from which they are propelled is called a mortar.
Fireworks mortars were once commonly made of metal before the development of PVC tubing, the preferred tubing at the convention being “Pyro Pipe” from Mighty Mite. “Feel how smooth the inside is,” says a Connecticut man with Harpo hair, as he slips an arm elbow-deep into an eight-inch diameter tube. He encourages me to caress the tube, too. “Suitable for launching major rockets,” he says.
With nothing to impede a rocket as it exits the mortar, the launch goes smoothly and beautiful shapes soon appear in the sky. If burrs or other obstructions snag a rocket, a launch aborts, shells blow on the ground. This, in fact, happens one night during the three days I spend in Weedsport, when a six-inch shell blows up prematurely. Watching from the grandstand, I note silhouetted shapes darting around in the distance, see the red beacon of the flares they use in place of Bic lighters, and suddenly hear a gut-punch boom. The concrete barriers at the perimeter buck in place. The little flare figures scurry about. The announcer makes some clucking noises on the loudspeaker and people in the grandstand tense, waiting to hear an ambulance wail. But there is none. And seemingly no one is dead. Next morning when I wander out to check the blast site, I find a crater measuring fully six feet across.
“The term bombshell is used less frequently today amongst professionals because of the negative connotations in the term bomb as an infernal machine or item of destruction,” reads a pamphlet written by Roger L. Schneider, Ph.D. From Schneider, a fireworks consultant with an admirably deadpan prose style, I glean much information: the devices called flash bombs are correctly termed “salutes,” for instance. Salutes explode in the air producing a brilliant white flash and a deafening boom. The bursting of a single container to produce a colored pattern is called a break. Fireworks that explode and then shatter again to form new stars are the result of successive breaks.
Once airborne, timing fuses on each of the consecutively layered shells insure that they burst in rapid, distinct succession. According to Schneider, these multibreak shells are known as “sausages” but at the PGI convention people seem to call them multibreak shells.
Some shells have two breaks. Some have six. Some baroque numbers have as many as 10. Aerial shells at big public displays will often be packed in a larger shell whose diameter ranges from two to 12 inches or even larger. At the PGI convention there is a Japanese 24-incher, and another mammoth, perhaps of world record size, that is 28 inches across.
The Japanese shell never lifts very far off the ground when they light it. And the second goes altogether unlit. An insurance company sent to check the situation decides at the last minute that Weedsport is too close to the New York State Thruway to permit detonation of an explosive device that huge: it might jerk a tractor-trailer full of Purdue chickens off the road.
Arriving on Wednesday we have, by Thursday morning, already experienced more fireworks than most people see in a year. And I’m not talking sparklers and Bang Snaps.
After checking out a midday auction of fireworks paraphernalia in the Skaneateles Room of the Auburn Holiday Inn, I stop for a Coke at Sundaes ‘N’ Such in unscenic Weedsport. The college-aged waitress leans on the counter and mentions that she can see the nightly fireworks displays, not open to the public, from her bedroom window.
“You’re lucky,” I remark, adding, with newfound expertise, that the 100 cases of exhibition fireworks Hop Kee Pyrotechnics, Ltd., is blasting were imported from mainland China especially for this show. “Not everyone gets to see this quality stuff,” I tell her.
“Not everyone gets five days of explosions all night long, either,” is her level reply.
Thursday evening begins with several hours of open firing, then a display by the amateurs of the Connecticut Pyrotechnic Association. There are two governing bodies in the fireworks trade. The American Pyrotechnical Association represents the industry and the big names like Grucci. The Pyrotechnic Guild International counts Grucci among its members but is mostly a guild of hobbyists.
“This will show you what you can do with $700 in fireworks, or a half a million retail,” says the announcer before Allan Klumac Jr. puts his flare to the fuse of a 15-minute display that starts with a “fountain” of spark rockets on an armature turned upside down. The idea of using fire to create the impression of falling water is ancient. The Chinese did it first. Yet, as visual alchemy, this effect is perennially refreshing and extreme. There are other fantastic illusions, among them a line of sparking horizontal wheels, a grid of whistling rockets, an armada of helicopters linked with an umbilicus of quickmatch to lift off at once. Steven Spielberg himself couldn’t top it.
Afterward, there is an hour and a half of competition — a critical nightly feature of the convention — when individuals who’ve constructed their own fireworks face each other down. “The enjoyment of fireworks … ought to be an education in the enjoyment of all worldly splendor. You pay your money … and you get an absolutely momentary pleasure with no nonsense about it,” wrote Iris Murdoch, with perfect accuracy, in Under the Net, going on to gasp that a good shell is “a spurt of absolute beauty.”
There’s little doubt in the mind of anyone here that fireworks, which the Japanese call “burning flowers,” is art, and that great fireworks artists are alchemical gods. I say this confidently after meeting a 43-year-old machinist from Whitman, Massachusetts. This man, who asks to remain nameless (“If you print anything about me, I could go to jail,” he says) makes a specialty of multibreak missiles. With his own chemical formulas, and miniature tools customized for the purpose, he constructs rockets in a basement workshop. The rockets are crafted with the kind of meticulous care you associate with crazy obsessives: packed and taped in casings he makes himself and binds with Christmas paper. The crossette pellets themselves are immaculate. And more elegant still is the way they explode with something close to absolute symmetry, a tough feat when you’re dealing with pellets of chemical fire exploding midair.
For this year’s competitions the man brought along a series of single-break shells. Before the evening show, he shoots off some multibreak rockets just for kicks. From the rear of the track he fires them in the general direction of a gibbous moon, and we stand around watching them arch and explode, perfect, white glittering trails in their wake. The breaks are crisp. The shells blow and hold their incandescence in ways that seem to contradict Newton’s law. There’s no mistaking a shell made by this man for anything as banal as a highly exothermic redox reaction. It’s clear to anyone watching that these rockets are his signature inscribed on the sky.
“The Fourth of July was always my Christmas,” he tells me later in the Owasco Room of the Holiday Inn. As waitresses break down a party, he gives me his history in brief. “I used to drive all over the place to see shows,” he says. “I’d go anywhere. I said to myself, ‘Someday I’m going to see what it’s like to light a rocket myself.’ Starting in 1980, I began following this guy who was in the business around obsessively, doing his scutwork just to be around fireworks. I dug mortar holes, lugged equipment. But he never let me even touch a fuse.
“After two years I gave up. I thought, ‘I’ve given it my best shot and I failed.’ By coincidence I met someone then who opened doors, helped me learn to load shells, taught me what flash powder was, and showed me the Pyrotechnica series of magazines, which is the Bible of the craft. I began to shoot some small shells in competition. I entered them and when it was time for the awards part of the banquet, my name kept coming up.
“As I got more experienced, I began to make small stars, then crossettes and tourbillions and colored stars with whistles. I’ve been doing machining since I was seven years old and it’s always been my nature to watch and work meticulously. If there’s anything different about my rockets, it’s that I pay exquisite attention to detail.
“I’ve thought about trying to do it for a living, but very few people can make it that way. The fact is I’m a toolmaker who makes rockets on the side. At night when I’m trying to go to sleep, I lie there and I dream about fireworks. I think up different effects, time sequences, and trajectories. It’s a crazy person’s hobby because of the ephemeral quality and all the hard work. To give you an idea, I had a shell entered in competition several years ago that I clocked at every minute of 40 hours to build. I went full-tilt on that one. I brought it to the show and it was beautiful. But the shell lasted 15 seconds in the air.”
On the evening that we talk, this man wins another competition for best individual rocket in a field of five contenders. Then he heads for the stands with the other pyros to watch the show. By 9:10, the bleachers are filled with spectators for a demonstration of Hop Kee fireworks. The bleachers are also wreathed in rocket exhaust, a pale gray smoke.
Hop Kee is a father-and-son outfit run by Wilson and Alex Mao. They’ve brought some hefty artillery from factories throughout China: six-to-10-inch shells, huge rockets, big ground cakes, things with brand names that suggest nothing so much as the Tet offensive. Conventioneers are given ratings sheets to score the effects of Thunder Bird, White Horse, Red Lantern, and Linked Triad shells.
For 20 minutes or so, Hop Kee fills the sky with Dragon Eggs, Giant Red Peonies, Malachite Peonies, Blue Peonies, Yellow Peonies, and Clustered Camellias. Shells break into retina-shattering plumes, then quickly give way to the first report of another lift-charge. A bunch of Red Lanterns go up on huge concussions, burst and eject parachutes which rock hellish red embers to earth. A Silvery Swallow Shuttle blasts off and breaks into dozens of smaller shells of different colors. A group of Fairy Maidens zooms up with a fizzy, nattering sound. A Flying Willow shell scatters glittering motes above the track like crazed hatchery spawn. Host of Dragon covers the speedway with frenzied incandescent sperm.
By the time Prosperous Spring Over Grassland explodes I’m in a state of delirious surfeit. Also slightly blind and near deaf. But the show isn’t over. There’s still a 4000-shot Swarm of Charging Wasps, a Bumper Harvest, a Spring Thunder, some Green Meteors, and Hundred Birds. A 200-shot laser shell whose name I miss shoots magnesium plumes that resolve in icicles of smoke. Against the black of the sky, the ghostly afterimages have an evocative effect that is clearly a result of watching too many bad Vietnam movies. “Well, the colors were wonderful,” says a nearby pyro, in patently underwhelmed tones. “But, you know, the breaks really weren’t that great.”
For three days I’ve been hearing people whisper about the Super String. Now the day is here. “There’s nothing like it,” says a woman named Bonnie Kosanke. “I don’t really want to say it’s like an atomic bomb, but there’s this amazing quantity of energy consumed in one explosion. It makes this rolling sound you won’t believe, just like roaring flame.”
In a shed near the raceway gate, they’ve been gathering firecrackers for the big moment. Vendors and conventioneers are hustled for crackers throughout the week. “It’s July 3 all over again,” says Ken Lupoli of Dapkus Fireworks in Durham, Connecticut, when he lays eyes on the 40-foot strings stretched on the smooth concrete floor. Unraveled from the fat wheels that string crackers come in, the explosives are being aligned and stacked.
“These firecrackers really go like mad,” says a man in a T-shirt that gives a telephone number for “A Good Bang.”
“They’ve got that nasty, nasty fuse,” says a woman talking to no one.
Kids and women lay out and neaten the long strings, then cinch them in layers with twine. A sexy brunette in a pink polka-dot minidress scooches along with the Super String between her legs, patting the crackers straight. It is, in fact, a scene of pure Americana.
In a far corner are thumb-thick Celebration crackers heaped in messy stacks. They’ll be piled on last. So far there are 340,000 crackers. By nightfall a world record is achieved: 1,500,000. “Stand behind a jet engine and you’ll get some idea,” says a bearded pyro named Richard Owlett.
“Unless the heat gets to all of them at once, and then bloof, mass destruction,” says the man overseeing the Super String. Kneeling nearby, Norman Cornellier of Cornellier Fireworks cuts even lengths of wire to bind the long strings into mats two crackers wide and five deep. Cornellier, I notice, is missing the ring finger and part of the pinkie on his left hand.
By evening the wind’s tracking from the northeast and the sky has a sinister gray cast. Sheet lightning cracks in what one hopes is the distance. And the bleachers are jammed. At 8:15, five thousand locals stream in for the only public exhibition of the week. The announcer heralds the Super String and someone blasts the Triumphal March from Aida over the speakers. With a Vanna White look-alike conducting, three separate lines of bearers troop into the arena heaving the massive snake segments of Super String in a scene that’s demented Cecil B. DeMille. I spot my reasonable friend at the head.
There’s a cherry picker waiting to hoist and join the three strings to a scaffold constructed for the purpose. There’s a hook-and-ladder from the Town of Brutus fire-house standing by to put the fire out.
Earlier in the day someone had slipped into the shed and dropped off a cluster of firecracker wrappers, arranged prayer-wheel fashion, with blessings and messages written on each. “Pray for all the souls of those who were killed by fireworks and that we learn from their unhappy end,” read one, “including Orville Carlisle, a wonderful old snort.” Another asked the fire gods to “Bless the Big Bang Boom.”
And I’ve come to feel the big bang boom could use the help. To hear pyros talk about it, fireworks stand every chance of going out of business, permanently, as part of the merry legislative trend to protect Americans from themselves and keep us available for Middle Eastern outings and Uzi target practice. “We don’t have the lobbying background like the NRA,” is how one PGI member explains it. “It’s cheap for the feds to win a big victory by wiping out fireworks, because it’s easy to do and it looks good.”
It wouldn’t look good to five-year-old Amy Powers and her four-year-old brother, Greg. Amy and Greg and their mom, Janet, snuck in from the public area and they’re sitting in a roped-off PGI section with a perfect view of the Super String. Amy and Greg and Janet are levitating with excitement. And their excitement is catching. Somehow the thought of this small family and the thousands around them riveted by the instinct to witness a big talking fire-snake pumps my adrenaline to some state of atavistic thrill. The ghouls on Skull Island couldn’t have felt more primitive than I do.
A clutch of pyros who’ve paid for the privilege head for the fuses. They light the quickmatch bundles and run like hell. Then the Super String does something stupid. It refuses to start. It sputters, teases, jerks around. It’s an awkward situation, that aching moment when you know the foreplay’s gone on too long.
At last a brave, foolhardy soul nips toward the fuse with a torch, and gives the thing a light. What happens next is simple enough. The Weedsport Speedway becomes a creditable imitation of a nuclear holocaust, brain-searing noise and a wall of white flame so truly horrific that when it ends you are convinced that you have also. Then the last crackers sputter to silence. Firemen hose the ground. You pat yourself. It’s a wonderful feeling. You’re alive. ♦