Playing With Fire

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Fireworks continue to evolve. Shaped shells have gained popularity as they blast hearts, peace symbols, and even “happy faces” into the sky. A new effect I saw at the PGI convention was the “lampare,” or gas bomb, a kind of antifirework that explodes with a sinister boom into a roiling black and red fireball. Crowds love it. Electric firing and the possibilities it opened for fireworks choreography have made music a standard part of shows today. And fireworks artists are beginning to use computers to control the firing of displays, allowing for a more complex synchronization of effects.

The Disney organization, probably the world’s largest user of fireworks, is a leading pyrotechnic innovator. The company developed a system to hurl shells skyward with compressed air and to ignite them with electronic chips, further increasing the precision and predictability of the display. A Disney executive says that the company considers fireworks “cost-effective,” an odd view of an activity whose essence has always been joyful waste.

In spite of all the innovation, thousands of old-fashioned small-scale fireworks shows continue to light up the Fourth. A typical half-hour display costs from five to ten thousand dollars. Some are still shot by volunteer firefighters who buy “shipped shows” from manufacturers and take their chances. Audiences can still smell the smoke, sense the slight danger, become caught up in the genuine magic of the event.

True fire masters share their passion with customers rather than just sell a product. “We take such pride in our shows,” Jennie Bradford says. “I know we spoil our customers, but we just love fireworks. We can’t shoot a show we’re not happy with.” And the craft continues. Amateurs still toil in garages, professionals in small workshops, struggling to perform the ancient alchemy, to make base matter yield up happiness.

“Who doesn’t like fireworks?” a spectator remarks after a Legion show. Pyrotechnics offer children and adults delight in equal measure. Perhaps their enduring appeal is their luminous perishability, their very evanescence, which makes them at once so wondrous and so rare. Like memory itself, one might say. Fireworks consistently evoke nostalgia. Hardly a person I have talked to about them did not begin by saying, “When I was a kid … ” and go on to recite an account of mystery or mischief: shells blossoming over some long-ago town park or firecrackers punctuating a summer’s day in a summer without end.

In Fall River, Frank Coluccio flicks a switch. Both barges erupt. Twenty-three-inch shells fly skyward simultaneously; a row of mines sprays purple stars 150 feet into the air; huge purple chrysanthemums burst overhead. The show has begun.

For the next half-hour shells blossom overhead, reports boom, serpents streak across the sky like fiery sperm. Dave Datres’s charcoal crossette shells fill the night with the spark trails of comets that then burst, flinging out yet more trails. The choppy water fragments the colors into jewels; the buildings onshore echo back the wrenching blasts of the salutes. The spectators scream with delight.

The finale builds and builds, piling a heaving mass of fiery flowers into a kaleidoscopic bouquet. Golden palm trees materialize. Legion’s famous spider-web shells paint the darkness with sparks. Three enormous diadem chrysanthemums explode and hurl out long sparkling trails. It all culminates in a cannonade that threatens to bring down the vault of heaven, a mounting series of concussions that we hear not with our ears but with our bodies and even our souls.

And we drive home through the mild summer night, satisfied.