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CLASSIC: Fireworks in Jaffrey, NH

CLASSIC: Fireworks in Jaffrey, NH
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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.

A crew loaded shells on an offshore barge for a Fourth of July display. As was common practice back then, mortars were left uncovered to be reloaded by hand later in the show. A bad shell exploded low and its “stars and effects” — golf-ball-size fireballs, the guts of a firework’s color and noise — showered sparks onto the exposed shells below, igniting everything at once. Atlas’s crew members dove into the water, but not before some suffered burns. After the accident, Atlas worked with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop industry standards, including regulations for barge shows. After Falmouth, the already conscientious company became more vigilant. Tonight, a dozen safety personnel stand by.

A warning shot sends up a golden plume of sparks, and the first whiff of sulphur wafts by the control table. “Fireworks Command to Atlas,” a woman’s voice calls. “Should we do a time check?” Everyone synchronizes. 8:40 P.M.

The band is still playing. Pelkey jokes, “They managed to ruin a perfectly good Bob Seger tune.” 8:42 P.M. Time to strap on hard hats and flick on headlamps. At the two-minute warning Pelkey asks command, “Can we shut off the parking lot floodlight?” He glances toward the annoying glow, a mar on his canvas.

Outside the airport on Route 124, taillights pulse as latecomers straggle through the gates. A neon blue Ford Ranger pickup carries a six-pack of teenage boys, all with ball caps and Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts; heavy-metal music gets turned down as they pay the $30 a carload to get in. On this day, Jaffrey’s population swells sevenfold: 30,000 people gather inside the airport and another 12,000 watch from outside the gates –up at Kimball Farm eating ice cream, parked at the high school, or in lawn-chair brigades in nearby backyards. Once the show begins, drivers pull cars over anywhere, creating an instant, townwide traffic jam. The 12-person police department hires 40 extra officers to keep the peace. The majority of busts are for underage drinking, with occasional assault and disorderly conduct arrests. With that many people in town, it’s a wonder nothing more drastic has happened in the festival’s 11 years. But it’s not the minor incidents the police guard against; it’s what could happen –a riot, errant fireworks shells, car fires. It’s such a stressful experience for the chief that he starts his vacation the day after the show.

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