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CLASSIC: Fireworks in Jaffrey, NH

CLASSIC: Fireworks in Jaffrey, NH
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FireworksYankee 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.

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