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CLASSIC: Fireworks in Jaffrey, NH

CLASSIC: Fireworks in Jaffrey, NH
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Photo/Art by Terry Croteau
Yankee Classic from July/August 2001

In a three-acre sandpit in front of Steve Pelkey, 11,000 live fireworks shells poke out of the grit like land mines. Most are stuffed into mortars, racks of them bolted onto flatbed trailers or strung together on the ground with wooden strapping in sets of three, four, six, and ten. The mortars sunk into a hillside hold the largest shells, which are the size of basketballs. In all, there are two and a half tons of explosives, enough to blow a strip mall sky-high.

A week ago these shells, the raw material of the largest show in New England, sat stored in cardboard crates marked “Made in China. Explosives. Handle Carefully.” Nearly 20 men spent five days unpacking them, loading them (“Never let any part of your body hang over a loaded mortar — it can blow your head off”), then running miles of electrical wire to connect each shell’s fuse to a bank of computers on a folding table at the edge of the pit. The computers ignite the shells within 100 milliseconds of each other. Pelkey stands behind the hard drives and fiddles with a pair of walkie-talkies; police and paramedics crackle on one handset, and Fireworks Command, clearinghouse for all event-day communications, broadcasts over the other.

Behind him, on lawn chairs, in pick-up beds, in roped-off lanes to the food court of Italian-sausage and fried-dough vendors, a crowd of 30,000 jostles in anticipation. The sun has sunk behind Mount Monadnock, turning the tarmac pink at the Silver Ranch Airpark in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Everyone waits for the night sky.

A hometown boy in his late thirties, Pelkey barely acknowledges the crowd gathered tonight to see his work of art. He owns Jaffrey-based Atlas Pyrotechnics, the biggest fireworks company in New England. He bought the company more than a decade ago from his wife’s family and grew the mom-and-pop operation into a national contender. Fireworks has been a Jaffrey business for five decades. Pelkey turned the company around, taught himself the art of shooting fireworks, and pioneered computer-fired shows. Now Atlas paints northeast skies with more than 600 shows a year, including municipal extravaganzas for Boston and Washington, D.C.

Evening cools with the fading light. Parents push babies in blue polka-dot strollers, couples line-dance, and grandparents play cards while they wait. Some people came when the gates opened at 3:30 P.M.; it’s now 8:30 P.M. Fifteen minutes until “Go-time.”

For the past ten years, Pelkey has reserved a weekend in August to fire this display at the airpark, the chamber of commerce’s annual fund-raiser. Hundreds of volunteers set up temporary fencing, work the gates, and haul garbage after the fact. Harvey and Lee Sawyer, owners of the airpark, shut down for several days in advance to prepare. The show raises thousands of dollars for the rescue squad, scholarships, and the town’s green spaces.

Pelkey takes some money for the show, but not enough to cover his costs, and nowhere near its $150,000 retail value. While the festival is Pelkey’s way of giving something back to the community, it’s also his chance to show off. He invites important clients to wow them with the latest tricks and technology. As a result, the people of Jaffrey are fireworks snobs: Only the best will do. Tonight, the buzz is that this will be Pelkey’s most artistic show ever, since it marks Atlas’s 50th anniversary.

A handful of burly men in dusty T-shirts hang around the control table. Pelkey’s annual show has something of a cult following on the circuit –pyrotechnicians come from far and wide to work alongside a creative leader in the industry.

Pelkey began working on tonight’s show when the ground was still under February snow. In his office, crammed with fireworks memorabilia — glasses, towels, posters, pins –he spent 100 computer hours choreographing a dance of fire, a chorus line of sparks and strobes. Most of it was in his head. A pyrodigital program breaks down songs into milliseconds, but the art comes in knowing each firework by heart –when it will lift, how it explodes, how far it will fly (up to 1,400 feet), the cadence of its sparks –and matching a skyful of this to music. Pelkey and his right-hand man, Matt Shea, put the finishing touches on the program just two hours ago.

“We need duct tape,” Pelkey calls out. Several guys scramble. A roll appears from a truck cab. Bob Reed, a strapping sun-streaked blond from Manchester-by-the-Sea, looks out at the minefield and says, “It’s held together by spit, glue, and duct tape.” A couple of the men laugh knowingly. It’s true. Beyond the computerized firing system, fireworks are low-tech. Tinfoil and rubber bands are tools of the trade.

At 8:35 P.M., offers of earplugs go around. A cop car cruises by. The sky is a smoky gray canvas with wisps of clouds. The guitar player picks a twangy solo. The crowd erupts. The men eye the crowd like shy dancers peaking out from behind the curtain. For some of them, this is the closest they ever want to come to fame: to be a shooter at the big Jaffrey show, to have a hand in adding a new constellation to the firmament, if only for a moment.

Pelkey douses himself with bug spray then checks in with Fireworks Command. Everyone hangs on his next word. He wears the mischievous smile of a kid who is getting away with something: Tonight he gets to blow stuff up. But it’s more than that. Pelkey is an artist. Tonight is his Sistine Chapel. Tonight he paints the biggest ceiling of all.

Most shooters have an appetite for explosives, and this is a legal and safe way to sate that hunger. There’s no safer fireworks company than Atlas, but when you play with fire, accidents happen. On average, there are more than 8,000 fireworks-related injuries a year in America and a dozen deaths. Most are backyard accidents, but a handful happen to careful professionals. In 1997, a mishap in Falmouth, Massachusetts, scared everyone at Atlas.

Updated Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

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