Come On, Baby, Light My Gerb

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1997

Come On, Baby, Light My Gerb

It's bang-up time again at the firework freaks' annual whiz-pop powderfest
By Mike Steere

Ekaterina V. Korneeva — a PH.D.-level laser scientist known as Kathy to her new American friends — takes a desperate pull on her cigarette, as if it's the only source of breathable air in the lobby of the Comfort Inn. Insomnia has her raccoon-eyed. Her pale arms, spindly in a ballerina sort of way, are folded tight against her chest. She is a vortex of unhappiness.

Korneeva's first U.S. visit has brought her to Stevens Point, hub of a low-lying flat that proves central Wisconsin isn't all charming. For the past four days she has been working as a Russian translator at the 26th annual convention of the Pyrotechnics Guild International, North America's supreme event for amateur fireworks enthusiasts. While the rest of us settle for a once-a-year gawp on New Year's Eve or the Fourth of July, these people make, shoot, study, and otherwise fetishize big-league fireworks. From dusk until the wee hours they swarm the convention shoot site, sending up private-recipe explosives in judged competitions. By day they take in meetings and seminars and browse the trade show for up-to-the-minute electronic detonators, fuses, chemical powders, and other fireworks fixin's. The Pyrotechnics Guild is another one of America's male competence cults, a splinter sect of the High Church of Home Workshop Know-How. There's an air of intensity, of hands-on competence, about these people as they diligently march from event to event. One has the sense that their finest hours are spent at immaculate basement workbenches, tools in Marine Corps ranks hanging on pegboards.

Korneeva is here with executives from Nitro-Vzryv, a former Moscow munitions consortium turned fireworks manufacturer. Just now she's fielding questions and answers at an impromptu roundtable by the motel coffee machine. Later in the week Nitro-Vzryv will launch the first Russian fireworks to be set off on U.S. soil, and the conventioneers are hungry for details. Men with proscenium stomachs and undersize T-shirts pelt Korneeva with long and complicated inquiries about Russian fireworks production. While her mouth politely does its job, Korneeva's body says she's had it — with these questions, with Stevens Point, with all of RV America, where folks happily sacrifice thousands of dollars and every minute of free time to things as baroquely useless as fireworks.

"I have never seen such people," she mutters as yet another florid enthusiast pipes up. Korneeva repeats the man's question in Russian to the Nitro-Vzryv head honcho and with a thin smile delivers the response. "We expect our fireworks to be the best and most advanced in the world. And it is very good to show them here in such a high forum." From the look on her face, she might just as well have said, "How did we let bozos like you beat us?"

"That was a ground bomb," says Chuck Stankus, a 39-year-old fireworks manufacturer with the trim, sandy-haired good looks of an Eddie Bauer catalog model. He's sitting at a concession stand about a quarter-mile from the shoot site, calling the explosions by ear. The evening competition is about to begin, and the shots we're hearing are warm-ups set off by guild members as they anxiously wait to strut their stuff for the judges. Since Class B explosives — aka aerial-display fireworks, rockets, and other mega-caliber pyrotechnics — can be launched only by special permit in most states, the convention is virtually the one time shooters get to enjoy their homemade creations. For the guild's 3,302 members, this is their once-a-year Brigadoon.

After the next godawful bang, Stankus has a moment of quiet appreciation, like a connoisseur tonguing grand vin. "That was an aerial salute, a crispy one. It made my hair move." Stankus, who lives near Pittsburgh, speaks in a low warble that sounds like a wildlife show voice-over. What we just heard, he explains, was probably a cylindrical charge of flash powder about two-and-a-half inches long. "Extremely dangerous," he says. Proof of the maker's art was the sharp, deafening wham the explosion produced.

Stankus, like most conventioneers I meet, became fixated on pyrotechnics at a very early age, as if the attraction was hardwired. He claims that he knew he had to have fireworks before he had any idea what they looked like. "When I was a kid, I used to picture firecrackers as saltines with fuses in them," he says. "It drove my mother crazy." But Stankus is a rarity among his peers, one of the few who's turned his hobby into a paying proposition; several years ago he started a company that he says is doing a nice business in small-lot fireworks for commercial shows. Still, his is a tiny entrepreneurial light. The great impresarios of fireworks were born into the business, inheriting multigenerational Italian-American dynasties — Grucci, Zambelli, Rozzi. Rozzi is the only of these eminences that comes to Stevens Point. The company stages a show, choreographed to Verdi, that approaches high art.

The blasts get more frequent as the August twilight descends, making ever-brighter flashes over Lake Pacawa, the flooded borrow pit at the center of the shoot site, a Lions Club park flanked by a divided highway and an enormous potato field about ten miles from town. As the evening gets noisier, it becomes obvious why the pyrotechnists can't set up right in Stevens Point. It's also obvious why their convention comes to wallflower towns — who but the tourist-hungry would welcome explosives aficionados? Idaho Falls, Fargo, and New Castle, Pennsylvania, preceded Stevens Point. This summer the guild will wage its war against silence in Amana, Iowa.

A rising clatter comes from a vendors' tent on the far side of the shooting area, where conventioneers stock up on Class C explosives, which are those roadside-stand items Mama disapproved of — firecrackers, small rockets, and the like. (Class A designates high explosives, such as dynamite — not the fare of pyrotechnists.) They shoot what they buy in a fenced-off corner of the potato field next to the tent. Safety committee members keep the area sane by insisting that people wear protective goggles and light fuses with smoldering punks rather than matches. From a distance, though, it looks like a combustion orgy. Rockets sprout tails of sparks through the treetops. Balls from roman candles rise to slow, loopy apogees. One popular item trumpets like a goosed baby elephant.

Practically all of the shooters are men. There are lots of women at the convention, but most seem to be tagalong wives and girlfriends. Nowhere can I find a Pyro Xena who got here without some guy. The testosterone flows thickest over on the Class B shooting line, where competitors tell one another, "You boys have some nice stuff" and "It took a month to build each one." Every so often I hear snatches of the pyrotechnic credo, "He who hath smelled the smoke shall ne'er be free." Sometimes the shooters pause after "smelled the smoke" and have a moment of silent connectedness with every other fireworks nut, living or dead.

The B line is a safety-committee police state, every movement and fuse-lighting directed by somebody with a flashlight and a radio. Each shot is prefaced by a call of "fire in the hole!" the universal lit-fuse warning cry, which sends shooters scuttling behind a protective wall of railroad ties. Post-launch, the men take timid peeks to make sure the shell flew high enough and that nothing's coming back down on them.

Pyrotechnists who really want to admire their own handiwork sometimes have a friend shoot the shell while they watch from a few hundred yards back, near the judges' tables. Cognoscenti in the grandstands murmur "nice effect" (pyrotechese for "ooh") and wax knowledgeable about whether the last explosive might have had too much "perc" (potassium perchlorate) or not enough black powder. There are two schools of shell building. The Italian school is known for noise and multiple effects, called "breaks." Asian-school shells create globe-shaped bursts with delightful tea-garden names like chrysanthemum, willow, dahlia. Both schools are judged for burst size, height, color, and symmetry. A fabulous firework, like a winning figure-skating performance, meets all of the technical requirements and becomes a thing of sky-filling beauty. "Fireworks are an artistic expression," gushes one shooter, a dentist named Donald Corter, who brings to mind a younger and fitter Rodney Dangerfield. "It's a labor of love, it really is!"

Occasionally, things go awry on the B line. One shooter experiences a dreaded muzzle break, in which his shell explodes at ground level, just out of the gun's mouth. Only the barrier keeps him from eating a big piece of white-hot home chemistry. After the first muzzle break, a second. The shooter is shaken — not by the explosion, but because something went so embarrassingly wrong. Farther down the line is a master builder with a reputation to protect. Some of his oeuvre disintegrates before it can perform fully, and he broods like Beethoven going deaf. His companion speaks consolation in a Foghorn Leghorn drawl: "It was still damn good, I don't give a shit what anybody says." He praises his friend's fire-prowess loudly to the shooters nearby and then turns back to the shamed craftsman. "It did look good. I got confidence in you, my man."

One shooter suffers a muzzle break, in which his shell explodes too soon. He is shaken, not by the blast, but because things went so embarrassingly wrong.

The big event each evening comes when the manufacturers treat their fellow pyrotechnists to sky-burning, eardrum-shattering shows. Historical firstness aside, the Russians' performance falls a little flat. I watch it while listening in on the judges, whose praise is faint and academic, with way too much use of "Interesting..." They seem impressed by Nitro-Vzryv's colors, particularly a throbbing yellow and aqua, but there are problems with burst size and symmetry. And the shells are too quiet for guild tastes.

None of this registers on Korneeva, the Russian translator. When I spot her by the grandstand, she looks more miserable than ever. Asked if she'll be sticking around for the next show, she gasps, "No more," her hand pushing away some invisible torment.

The convention blows out with a colossal 1,500-shell final-night explodofest. Long before dusk, people are dragging forth coolers, laying down blankets, pointing lawn chairs toward Lake Pacawa. Word is that 50,000 locals will be watching on the far side of fences that separate guild members from civilians. In the conventioneers' campground, kids dart through the shadows, buzzed-up with hormones and license to run around until all hours. "Hello, Heathers," says a boy attempting raffishness. Three girls walking past him have a giggle meltdown. This three-second flirt seems to do more for the kids than any amount of the old folks' multibreak shells. I wonder if pyrotech young grow up bored with fireworks.

Holding court at the shoot site is a man festooned with grape and elm leaves, wearing a string of potatoes around his neck. This is the Green Man, embodiment of the mythic character whose many incarnations included Sir Gawain's adversary the Green Knight and a certain popularizer of frozen peas. In the bad old days of pyrotechnology, men armored themselves in leaves for fire protection and called on the Green Man to watch over them as they lit the fuse on their dungeon-made explosives. The official seal of the Pyrotechnics Guild International bears an image of the Green Man patterned on a woodcut from the 1654 treatise, written by British pyrotechnist John Bate, "The compofing of all manner of Fier-Works For Triumph and Recreacion."

The convention Green Man carries a backyard tiki lamp holder capped with a topless soda can. After dark it will become a fireclub spewing sparks, just like the one brandished by the Green Man in the woodcut. But why the potatoes? "This is potato country," he says, fingering his necklace of medium-size bakers. "We're shooting out of a potato field." In his other life the Green Man is Paul Miller, a chemist from Hannibal, Missouri. He has worn the chlorophyll suit, and led the convention's closing ceremonies, since the 1990 guild gathering in Weedsport, New York.

At nightfall all eyes go to Miller, who does a little self-conscious skipping and capering to steady drum-thumps. Following him are 65 young pyros carrying 500,000 firecrackers, twisted together and rolled up like a huge piece of carpeting. They place their burden at the center of a 20-foot-high cable hung with 2.2 million firecrackers tied in strings. A fuse is lit, and everybody runs.

The log bursts into an enormous orange fireball. Even with handheels on the ears, the noise is ungodly. While the log self-destructs, the strings go off bottom to top in a sort of thermonuclear curtain-raising. Scraps of firecracker paper blizzard earthward, and the din gets so ridiculous it starts to seem quiet. After two and a half minutes, the conflagration and noise finally die down, outlasted by the whoops of the audience.

The opening moments of the big show involve set pieces — Snoopy and the American flag — that do more for the pyrotechnical than the non, for they know enough to be impressed by these static displays. The set pieces are also a return to the past, when pyrotechnics were much more earthbound than now. None but the devoted know the names for these things — gerbs, girandoles, devil's wheels. Some guys behind me give an informed running commentary on the ground effects, which rise and multiply. The showers of sparks look like something you could run through to cool off.

Then the shooters send up a great wave of fire geysers, silver and gold fountains like costume jewelry for the planet. They get the crowd howling like coyotes, but they also create a hunger for things still higher. It is time to see the sky do something. We know the sky is about to oblige because at last we hear the thump-thump of ground guns firing the big shells.

The intent behind the next hour seems to go beyond delight and amazement. The shooters are trying to shame every other fireworks show the crowd has seen or will ever see. The pacing is masterpiece tension-and-release. Aesthetic g-forces build until we're feeling the gut-and-groin glee of roller coaster riders, screaming like we're on the 90-mile-per-hour drop until suddenly we're screaming at nothing. Then comes another climb from the earth to a sky full of flowers, ending with a brain-whammer flash and bang.

An important-sounding charge mutes the volume of chattering in the grandstands. Eyes go to the void over Lake Pacawa. The shell answers the collective "Well, what's it going to be?" with a bright point that bangs and immediately extends long golden legs. The thing looks like reef life, a gigantic pencil anemone. Then the legs divide into jointed branches that make a wonderful tamarack design. The branches widen and dissolve into gold dust and the crowd gives the biggest ovation of the evening. The finale is imminent and the thought makes us crazy. We want more.

Mike Steere is a frequent contributor to Outside.

Illustration by David Butler

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