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CLASSIC: Fireworks in Jaffrey, NH

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.

The band lays into a Shania Twain song. Pelkey turns to Shea. “Why haven’t they stopped the music yet?” At the one-minute check, Pelkey says, “Someone needs to tell the band to stop playing.” Thirty seconds, 29, 28…. Finally, as if turning down the volume on a stereo, some invisible hand fades out the band. Fifteen seconds, 10, 9, 8…. “Roll sound!” says Pelkey.

The show opens with a snake-charming melody. It floats over the crowd. Burning fuchsia strobes light up the sandy hillside. Pelkey and Shea have ten seconds to lock in the pyrodigital program to the sound track; then they watch their work unfold.

As the music builds, bigger fireworks ignite. A muffled thump, then a trail of sparks rockets skyward. Pop! A canister opens against the blackness, and bright streamers of color pulse from a center. A flash, then percussive thud felt from the feet up. Thump, pop, spark, flash, boom! Like a million shooting stars. The songs flow from classical to patriotic to pop, and the light show keeps the beat. As shells burst, Pelkey and Shea recite the names under their breath: chrysanthemum, crossette, Kamuru, piocha. People in the crowd are on their feet, shrieking. During a rocket sequence the guys utter, “C’mon, higher!”, encouraging the sizzling spaceships spinning heavenward. A fire burns in the field and Pelkey sends someone to spray it. “He’s got 30 seconds,” Shea says, knowing exactly when the next shell will burst.

Heads tilt up. Mouths hang open, craned necks start to ache. Next is a swing tune, and Pelkey conducts an invisible orchestra. Rockets rush skyward. Rainbows waterfall for Louis Armstrong. Cannons fire for the William Tell Overture. Too soon it’s the bombastic finale — seven minutes long! — when hundreds of shells blow all at once. The ground shakes, the crowd screams. Funny how screaming and rockets are the sounds of joy and wonder and war.

And then it’s over. The cheers ring so loud it seems the entire town is yelling. The last ember touches down. Volunteers, police, kids, parents, the sausage sellers, and out-of-towners — they begin the two-hour exodus from the airport.

The man behind the curtain? He shakes the hands of his crew. He is pleased with his work, a rare moment for a perfectionist. One of the old-timers, an old fireworks hand, makes his way slowly toward the huddle. He finally gets his turn. With both of his wrinkled hands he grabs Pelkeys’, his eyes wet, and tells him, “They’ve never seen anything like it.”

Updated Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

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