Come On, Baby, Light My Gerb
Outside magazine, July 1997
Come On, Baby, Light My Gerb
It’s bang-up time again at the firework freaks’ annual whiz-pop powderfest
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
Mike Steere is a frequent contributor to Outside.
Illustration by David Butler