Playing With Fire

FRANK COLUCCIO showed early promise: He blew up a toilet in Catholic school and fired cherry bombs from a slingshot.

“To some people,” he says, “amateur pyrotechnician sounds a little like amateur neurosurgeon.” Fielder laughs through a thick beard and goes on to muse that if he couldn’t continue making fireworks, he would take up serious cooking, another pursuit that involves recipes and mysterious transformations. In fact, the composition for stars is rolled out in sheets like cookies, cut, and dusted with gunpowder before being dried. Fielder even makes his own charcoal, an ingredient that yields lush golden sparks.

Amateur pyros have a long tradition. With the coming of the Enlightenment, hobbyists began to experiment with science. Pyrotechnics, Alan St. Hill Brock writes in his History of Fireworks , “seemed to offer to the chemist a means whereby he could demonstrate, publicly and visually, his scientific proficiency.” Amateurs still play an important role. “They’re a kind of informal research and development arm of the industry,” Jennie Bradford says. “They have the time to experiment with new effects and to invent new varieties of shells.”

During the day, the convention spins around a range of technical seminars and meetings about such topics as “beginner fountain making,” “multibreak shell construction,” and “the use of binary flash powders in proximate pyrotechnics.” Late in the afternoon a fireworks bazaar opens in a defunct cold-storage warehouse. Outside, a rocket soars over the water with the sound of a skidding tractor-trailer; a blast of flash powder sets off a car alarm a quarter of a mile away. The air soon fills with the aroma of brimstone. “Once you smell the smoke,” a pyro adage holds, “you’ll never again be free.”

When darkness arrives, the PGI conventioneers, joined by thousands of lawn-chair-toting Muskegonites, move to a waterfront park for a no-holds-barred show. Members compete in thirty-one categories of homemade pyrotechnics, ranging from small rockets to elaborate girandoles, which spin like infernal merry-go-rounds and then go careering up into the zodiac. Michelangelo is said to have constructed one of these devices more than four hundred years ago.

I begin to learn some of the nuances of fireworks. Spherical Chinese and Japanese shells burst into round patterns of color resembling, and named for, flowers—chrysanthemums and peonies. Italian or “salami” shells, so called because of their cylindrical shape, usually achieve their effects by means of multiple timed explosions, each one spilling out colored stars, serpents, whistles, or other effects. A spiderweb sprays charcoal streamers. Willows leave trails of sparks weeping in the sky. “A twelve-inch double-petal peony, outer petal blue to red mag, inner petal pearl to silver flash, and a red mag pistil,” the announcer says, introducing a sky-filling explosion.

What’s the point of it all? The essence of the convention is that there is no point. Fireworks are about celebration and beauty and childish delight, pure and simple. “People tell me to act my age,” a graying pyro explains. “I just tell them I’m no actor.”

Now, with the barges lashed to a mooring buoy and a velvety darkness stretching above the river, the Fall River show, which has taken two days to set up, is ready to go. Two car batteries will provide the power to ignite the electric matches. A warning beep announces that the control panel is armed.

Coluccio and Bradford stay on the barge, sheltered from sparks by a plywood framework, while the five crew members scramble onto the tugboat to watch the show from a couple of hundred yards away. “If anything happens,” Bradford says, “we want to be the ones who are on board.”

The flashing blue lights of Coast Guard cutters keep back hundreds of pleasure boats. Spectators crowd the shoreline. A few stars glimmer overhead. We’ve arrived at one of the most delicious phases of any fireworks show, the moment of intense anticipation that precedes the first shell.

When they go home from their convention, PGI members return to a quasilegal world. While self-preservation pushes most to take reasonable precautions, few are in complete compliance with the law. Defiance may be part of the attraction of the hobby; pyros rate high on insubordination.

The running battle between the promoters and detractors of fireworks is an old one. As early as 1731 a law in Rhode Island banned “the unnecessary firing of Guns, Pistols, squibs, and other Fire-Works.” A phalanx of agencies oversees the industry today: the Consumer Product Safety Commission; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the U.S. Department of Transportation; and a crazy quilt of state and local regulators. The result can be maddening, especially for the smaller firms.