Playing With Fire

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A tugboat pushes us slowly past the waterfront of Fall River, Massachusetts. Lined up on the steel decks of two barges are twelve hundred mortars packed with explosive charges. Overhead, evening sunlight drapes white mountains of summer clouds.

 

A tugboat pushes us slowly past the waterfront of Fall River, Massachusetts. Lined up on the steel decks of two barges are twelve hundred mortars packed with explosive charges. Overhead, evening sunlight drapes white mountains of summer clouds.

“I get a few knots in my stomach about now,” says Frank M. Coluccio, an easygoing mustached man of fifty who is president of Legion Fireworks. He is sorting out the wires that will connect his guns to an electric control panel. The last-minute jitters are understandable. In an hour Coluccio and his partner, Jennie Bradford, will take the stage in front of tens of thousands of eager spectators for one of the company’s biggest shows of the season. While they mount their fireworks extravaganza to cap an annual city celebration, the two will be stationed in the midst of a storm of exploding gunpowder potent enough to heave shells the size of a basketball a thousand feet into the air. It gives, Coluccio says, “an adrenaline rush.”

Legion carries on a venerable craft tradition that has permeated pyrotechnics since it arrived in Italy from China five hundred years ago. Using methods that have changed little over centuries and formulas passed down by word of mouth, Coluccio and his people hand-fashion many of their shells in small workshops. The well-known pyrotechnic clans—the Gruccis of Long Island or the Zambellis of New Castle, Pennsylvania—grab the glamour shows. But it’s the smaller firms that decorate the Fourth of July in towns across the country and provide the fiery, satisfying climax to firefighters’ carnivals, ethnic fairs, and municipal celebrations.

 

Man is the only animal that is afraid of the dark and the only one that has mastered fire. Pyrotechnics is the art of artificial fire, fire that is independent of the diluted oxygen in the air. Fireworks mixtures include an oxidizer, a material that gives up oxygen when heated. This chemical, typically potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, must be purified, ground to a powder, and mixed with equally pulverized fuel. The resulting composition burns with astonishing rapidity and vigor.

We can trace the roots of pyrotechnics to medieval China, where alchemists experimented with purified chemicals in search of an elixir of life. Perhaps having observed how saltpeter lent energy to fire, around A.D. 850 they tried combining the mineral with charcoal and sulfur. The result proved magical. The mixture, which in the West came to be known as gunpowder, was one of the discoveries, according to the philosopher Francis Bacon, that revolutionized the world.

Yet the invention did not révolutionize Chinese society. The idea that the Chinese used gunpowder only for celebration goes too far; in fact they invented flame-throwing fire lances and incendiary war rockets early on. But without a true gun the Chinese did not fundamentally alter their method of making war. By the twelfth century they were using huo yao , “fire drug,” for pleasurable diversions.

When gunpowder reached Europe in the thirteenth century, it inspired the cannon, which spelled the end of aristocratic feudalism and shaped the modern nation-state. At the same time, the awakening of knowledge that followed the Dark Ages nurtured the birth of pyrotechnics, which by the 1400s had begun to be incorporated into pageants and celebrations across Europe, a flickering of controlled fire to welcome the Renaissance.

At fall river, as we chug out to take our position before the city’s riverside park, we pass the USS Massachusetts , now part of a naval museum. The sight of the battleship’s massive sixteen-inch guns invokes the connection between pyrotechnics and warfare. Up until the eighteenth century, armies commonly employed civilian fire masters to handle their artillery. Their profession was closely associated with alchemy, danger, and dark secrets. They supervised cannon in combat and fired salutes to celebrate victories. They also began to mount elaborate fireworks displays for public festivities.

Early pyrotechnicians developed three basic gunpowder tools that still provide most of the effects we see today. First they contained the powder in a closed case. Light the case with a fuse, and the sudden burning creates gas that explodes the container. Thus the firecracker, the larger “salute,” or the bursting shells of an aerial display.

When they packed powder into a tube closed at one end, fire masters observed, hot gases, flame, and sparks rushed out the other. The result was a fountain of fire. Some of the earliest pyrotechnics, in fifteenth-century Florence and Siena, involved large plaster figures that spewed fire from their eyes and mouths. When the tube was reversed, the expanding gas gave it forward momentum, turning it into a rocket.

Finally, fire masters learned to ram a projectile down on top of the powder in those same closed-end pipes. Tonight that tool, the gun, in the form of hundreds of cardboard, plastic, and steel mortars, will hurl aloft the thousands of aerial fireworks we’ll be seeing.

A pyrotechnician’s work begins months before the summer season. During the winter Frank Coluccio applies himself to the exacting and repetitive work of constructing shells, the innocuous-looking “bombs” that yield the color, sound, and glitter of a display. Purchased shells can be more economical, but Coluccio prefers to use traditional custom-built ones in his shows.

“Five years ago we made 80 percent of our shells,” explains Legion’s vice president, Jennie Bradford, a compact and energetic woman of thirty-six. “Now, because fireworks from Asia have gotten so cheap, probably 60 percent of our shows consist of highquality shells that we purchase, mostly from China.”

RENAISSANCE pyrotechnicians developed three basic tools that provide most of the effects we see today.
 
 

The Legion plant is tucked unobtrusively into a seventeen-acre site near the Hudson River, seventy miles north of New York City. The work goes on in thirty-three small and widely spaced buildings, which include storage magazines, drying rooms, and workshops. Air-powered or hydraulic presses are used for a few operations, but much of the construction of fireworks is still carried out by hand. No better method has been found.

Bradford and Coluccio are Legion’s only full-time employees; they hire a cadre of experienced “shooters” to help fire shows during the summer. They also buy shells from master shell builders like David Datres, a fifty-two-year-old railroad-communications cable splicer who has long pursued pyrotechnics as a sideline.

One of Datres’s specialties is the charcoal “crossette,” or splitting comet shell. He shows me how he packs comets, small cylinders of charcoal-rich composition, into the cardboard cylinder that will carry them aloft. Each comet contains a tiny firecracker that will blow it apart, multiplying the effect of golden trails of sparks. “This is really a labor of love,” he says. “I make them the way the old Italians used to.” The technology for shells of this type can be traced back into the sixteenth century.

Timing is everything in fireworks. With each shell he makes, Datres carefully measures and arranges the ingredients to produce a calculated pattern in the sky. He wraps the whole shell in glued paper and string, securing it against the force of the explosion that will send it flying. “I once put together a shell for a competition,” he says, ›that took me sixty hours to construct. It went off in twelve seconds.”

Mixing the volatile flash powder that gives salutes their bang is the most dangerous task in any fireworks firm. At Legion it’s carried out on humid days in the spring and fall to minimize the threat from static electricity. “We realize the danger,” Coluccio says. “That’s why we’re conscious of safety every minute we’re working.”

In their beginnings fireworks were not the center of a spectacle. They served as theatrical effects during pageants involving dragons, giants, and enchanted islands. The Italians, who first developed fireworks in Europe and have maintained an affinity for the art ever since, built elaborate facades—called temples or machines— whose porticoes and columns served as backdrops for the pyrotechnic fountains, rockets, and Roman candles that illuminated saints’ days or other religious festivals.

The eighteenth century ushered in the golden age of classical fireworks. In the early 1700s the Ruggieri brothers, whose name would become synonymous with the craft, moved from their native Bologna to France and became fire masters to the court of Louis XV, mounting increasingly opulent spectacles at Versailles. During his sojourn in Paris, Thomas Jefferson saw displays mounted by the Ruggieris.

Fireworks arrived in America as early as 1608, when Capt. John Smith “fired a few rockets” to impress the natives during the difficult days of the Jamestown colony. At the time of the Revolution John Adams, in a letter to his wife, predicted that the signing of the Declaration of Independence would be celebrated with “bonfires and illuminations from this time forward forevermore.” While “illuminations” is sometimes taken to mean fireworks, it’s more likely that he was referring to the custom, before streetlights were common, of illuminating buildings and public squares with candles in windows and on walls. But pyrotechnics soon did become a Fourth of July institution. Skyrockets filled the air over Newport in 1781, and Boston put on its first full-scale Independence Day fireworks display in 1805.

By the end of the 1700s most of the effects we see today were in common use. In the air, shells, known in those days as balloons, burst into patterns of fire, sparks, and darting “fisgigs.” Many types of rockets soared skyward, including the caduceus, which left behind a spiral trail. On the ground, fire masters set off fountains, suns, and trees of flame. Spectators also witnessed rockets that leaped in and out of the water like dolphins and wheels that metamorphosed through fifteen patterns. An early treatise gives directions for producing “silver and gold raine” by filling thousands of goose quills with powder and packing them into the head of a rocket.

What classical fireworks lacked was color. Granulated charcoal left a trail of lingering orange sparks. Iron filings glowed white. Chemical additions like amber could tint flames with pastels, but the deep and varied colors that we enjoy today were unknown.

During much of the early history of fireworks, pyrotechnicians relied on skyrockets as a mainstay of their shows. Rockets carry their fuel with them, leaving a brilliant trail of sparks as they soar into the sky. When the fuel is spent, the rocket’s “garniture” explodes, setting off reports and a spray of stars or serpents. But skyrockets are not often used in commercial shows today. They carry a smaller payload than shells shot from a gun, and their trajectory is less predictable. Moreover, they require the weight of long wooden shafts to keep on course, and these sticks present a danger as they fall.

Legion still fires smaller shows by hand, in the manner of traditional fuochisti . I watched Frank Coluccio set off a display in the little town of Coxsackie, on the edge of the Hudson River. Some of the shells were loaded into mortars in advance, including those for the finale, which filled a long row of guns, the fuses chaining one shell to the next. The rest were laid out under a fireproof tarp, ready to be dropped singly into mortars.

HAND-FIRING has dangers: Fuses leave the shooter little time to get clear; a “low break” can spray the ground with burning stars.
 

Coluccio extracts one of the shells and lowers it by its fuse down a steel tube about three and a half feet long. As he lets it go, he touches the fuse to a flare. The fire races down to a measured sack of gunpowder at the bottom of the shell. This lift charge explodes with a hollow “thwomp!” During the four seconds the shell takes to reach a height of six hundred feet, a time fuse burns down, finally reaching the burst charge inside. The shell explodes, flinging stars outward in a spherical pattern. The stars are nuggets of chemicals that burn with a colored flame, sometimes changing hues before they die out.

The variety of rich colors that we know today began to appear in the 1830s. Descendants of the Ruggieri brothers were among the first to make stars using potassium chlorate, which causes metal salts to glow with distinctive hues. Salts of copper yield blue, those of strontium red, barium green, and so on. Fire workers also used newly refined metals to brighten their effects, beginning with magnesium in the 1860s. By the end of the century powdered aluminum was offering an inexpensive brilliance. “Its advent opened a new era of the art,” wrote the English pyrotechnician Alan St. Hill Brock.

Hand-firing a show has built-in dangers. Fuses burn quickly, leaving the shooter little time to get away from the mortar before the formidable explosion that lifts the shell. Sometimes shells blow up before reaching their intended height, a “low break” that sprays the ground with burning stars. Shooters have been killed when a spark touched off a shell they were preparing to drop into a mortar.

At Coxsackie, before half the shells have been fired, drops of rain begin to splatter on the parking lot that separates the spectators from the shooting area. In minutes it’s pouring. The wet-dust smell of a summer shower mixes with the tang of gunpowder. The show goes on. By the end a crowd of soaked spectators cheers an ear-shattering finale that challenges the storm itself.

Rain has always been a worry for fireworks artists. On the Fourth of July in 1876 a massive display was slated for Fairmont Park in Philadelphia to celebrate the nation’s centennial. A huge crowd gathered in the sultry evening. As darkness fell, a thunder-storm boiled over. The pyrotechnicians knew they had no choice. According to a contemporary account, “The whole range of fireworks, including temples, gigantic portraits of Washington, mounds, volcanoes, stars, patriotic mottoes, pyramids, and other structures, all on a scale never before seen in America, must be discharged at once or never discharged at all.” The audience was “stilled and entranced” by the short but stupendous spectacle.

 
 

Throughout the nineteenth century the re-enactment of battles on both land and sea remained a pyrotechnic staple, but pyrotechnicians also began to mount the first of what might be called modern shows: fireworks with no scenery whatever. There also arose a new fashion for set pieces. These were wooden and bamboo frames covered with pyrotechnic lances that created pictures in fire. The Brock family of England were specialists in set pieces, and during the 1880s visiting potentates such as the king of the Maoris or the Shah of Persia marveled to see their own portraits unfurled eighty feet high in colored fire. An unfortunate malfunction on a Brock set piece once caused the eye of Queen Victoria to wink lewdly at the astonished crowd.

In America the English pyrotechnician Henry J. Pain catered to a taste for historical vignettes using fireworks. He operated an amphitheater at Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach, near Coney Island, for many years. Patrons watched actors scurry around in togas as Mount Vesuvius erupted, sending fire streaming onto Pompeii. In 1882 the British fleet shelled the Egyptian port of Alexandria; a year later Pain’s customers could view this “magnificent naval and military spectacle” in a fiery re-enactment involving 350 players.

When he was five years old, Legion’s president, Frank Coluccio, set a fire under a porch. Later he blew up a toilet in a Catholic school and fired cherry bombs from a slingshot. An early fascination with fire and explosions is typical of many pyrotechnicians I’ve met.

Fireworks have also helped inspire many budding scientists. “Fired cannon, pop, and firecrackers all day. In the evening had five skyrockets,” reads a Fourth of July entry in the diary of the fifteen-year-old Robert Goddard, whose early work in rocketry put America on its path to the moon.

Coluccio followed his father into the masonry trade and for years satisfied his taste for gunpowder through membership in a cannon club. While on a bricklaying job in 1975 he heard Legion workers testing salutes, tracked down the company, and soon became a part-time shooter.

Legion had been founded in 1920 by Joseph Chiarella, who followed a tradition of immigrants bringing pyrotechnics to this country from Italy. He was noted for his elaborate set pieces, such as “The Battle of Bunker Hill,” “Flight of a Zeppelin,” and a topical “Spirits of 1933”—a huge bottle outlined in fire to honor the repeal of Prohibition.

“Grandpa” Chiarella died in an explosion at the Legion plant in 1970. Coluccio began running the business eleven years later. He continues to use formulas and methods handed down from the company’s founder. He also has followed fireworks tradition by involving his own family in the business: His father, brothers, sister, and in-laws all help out firing shows, especially during the busy Fourth of July season.

Both Coluccio and his partner have the great fortune to have merged vocation and avocation. “I was always involved in the arts,” Jennie Bradford explains. “I drew pictures, I worked in the graphic arts. But when I found fireworks, I was home.” As the designer of Legion’s shows, Bradford selects effects that will enhance one another and surprise the audience. She works in multiple dimensions of space and time and, as a show approaches, she completes a detailed second-by-second script. For electrically fired shows, she sometimes makes an audiotape to cue the shooter and to help coordinate the timing of the firing with any accompanying music.

When I first visited the Legion plant, Bradford, whose enthusiasm about everything connected with fireworks is irresistible, told me, “You have to go to the PGI. That’s where you’ll meet the real pyros.”

The Pyrotechnic Guild International is an organization of fireworks enthusiasts, many of them amateurs. They maintain a deep sense of fireworks tradition; their symbol is the sixteenth-century “Green Man,” who wore a foliage outfit, carried a sparking torch, and assisted the fire master in mounting displays.

The pyro clan gets together once a year to share information, show off their latest fire-art creations, and enjoy great fireworks. Freely exchanging formulas, methods, and safety tips, PGI members have helped break down the long tradition of secrecy surrounding pyrotechnics. Last year their black-powder orgy drew more than twenty-two hundred members and their families to Muskegon, Michigan, a quiet Rust Belt town optimistically dubbed the Riviera of the Midwest. One of this band of amiable eccentrics was Jack Fielder, a machinist from the Detroit area.

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.

APHALANX of agencies oversea the industry today, and the result can be maddening, especially for the smaller firms.
 

“We had a DOT inspector show up once,” Bradford tells me. “Because of a printing error by our box company, this guy was going to fine us two thousand dollars per box if we had used any.” Professionals also complain about the five-million-dollar insurance coverage required for all vehicles carrying fireworks and the voluminous paper-work burden.

At the PGI I talked to a fireworks manufacturer named Cameron Starr, a tall man from the Dakotas who’s a kind of industry Billy Graham. In 1993 Starr founded the National Fireworks Association, to give fireworks people a unified voice—a formidable challenge in a fiercely competitive industry that includes hundreds of retailers and display companies that operate only a few weeks each year. “We are not against regulations to make things safe,” says Starr, who in 1947, as an eleven-year-old entrepreneur, started a roadside fireworks stand. “We’re against the ridiculous rules and the nitpicking.”

The display industry has an excellent safety record. Professionals hardly need government reminders to operate safely; insurance costs already eat up at least 20 percent of most companies’ gross revenues. “People in the fireworks industry regulate themselves,” Starr points out, “because they know they will die if they don’t.”

Punctuating the regulatory debate have been the occasional horrific fireworks accidents. In 1902 William Randolph Hearst, who had just been elected to Congress from New York City in a walkaway, arranged for a massive fireworks display in Madison Square to celebrate the victory and to build momentum for a presidential bid. The show was poorly planned. A mortar tipped over; the stack of ten thousand shells waiting to go up caught fire, and the ensuing explosion killed seventeen people, injured one hundred, and blew out doors and windows on the square.

The use of fireworks by private citizens has also been a frequent target of legislation. During the nineteenth century serious carnage began to accompany the Fourth of July rite. At a time when infections, especially tetanus, could be lethal, injuries from even small fireworks constituted a serious threat. As early as the 1880 the press was lambasting “firecracker and torpedo patriotism.”

Public guardians soon began to impose restrictions. Cleveland passed the first citywide ban on consumer fireworks in 1908. During the Depression, Michigan took the lead in enacting statewide restrictions. By the early 1950s, twenty-eight states had adopted legislation banning all consumer fireworks, with fourteen others enforcing serious restrictions. A loophole that allowed mischievous children to order fireworks by mail was closed in 1954.

The federal government outlawed cherry bombs and ashcans, or M-80s, in 1966. In the mid-1970s the Consumer Product Safety Commission proposed a ban on all firecrackers. Partly moved by protests from Chinese-Americans, who use firecrackers in religious and cultural celebrations, the commission relented. In a compromise, it limited firecrackers to a finger-stinging fifty milligrams of flash powder; a typical cherry bomb contains about thirty times as much.

Pyro proponents try to shift the blame to negligent parents who let their children set off fireworks unsupervised. They also note that many injuries are caused not by legal fireworks but by bootleg M-80s and other illicit devices. The pro-fireworks faction has always resisted an Independence Day marked only by parades and church bells. Substitute “kindergarten mother-play” for the martial spirit of rockets and salutes, a popular magazine warned in 1904, and “see how the tea will go overboard.”

The fact is, of course, that danger is an integral part of the fascination with fireworks. Fire awakens a primordial fear and enchantment. When the low break of a shell at a display sends flaming stars sailing toward the crowd, the cry is not of consternation but of delight; the show takes on extra brio. And in spite of bureaucratic handwringing, the popularity of fireworks has burgeoned since the 1976 Bicentennial. The reopening of trade with China a few years earlier had given the industry a boost with a surge of innovative and inexpensive fireworks.

Aerial shells form the mainstay of modern fireworks shows. And the pace of shows has accelerated. What once might have been a forty-five-minute display is now packed into twenty relentless minutes. As late as the 1960s spectators watched leisurely shows that combined shells with imaginative setpieces: Niagara Falls, a tank battle, a chariot race. Partly because of safety rules that push viewers farther back, set pieces are less common now. Even the fiery American flag at the end is be coming a rarity.

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.