Relay: White Lightning

I was totally, fully, joyfully alive

   The full impact of where I was standing during the Great Bonac Fireworks show on Saturday night did not really hit me until I saw a photo taken by someone on the tugboat floating right behind us, looking toward the barge loaded with fireworks where, with hard hat and goggles on, earplugs stuffed into my ears, I tipped my head back at virtually a right angle to see the shells exploding right overhead.
    Through the keyhole-like openings in the walls of the plywood shelter protecting the electronics panels firing the show — and us — was the orange glow of flames through gray smoke as the lift charges catapulted the aerial shells out of their mortars. The vibrations set off by the boom of the biggest started deep in my body, rolling outward through me even as the next rumbles rose through my feet from the steel deck of the barge.
    I heard snatches of the musical choreography — a bit of Van Morrison, a few bars of Adele — as I watched a fellow pyrotechnician holding his metal wand over each numbered spot on the board, moving from one to another to make the electrical connections as he listened through headphones to the cues: “Fire one, fire two . . .”
    I’m sure I had a goofy grin on my face. I was silent — mostly, except for a hoot or two — but every bone in my body, every cell and nerve end, was thrumming. Not only because I was in the bay, on a barge, only feet from a maelstrom, but because in those moments, all 22 minutes of them that stretched forever but went like a snap, I was totally, fully, joyfully alive. And it wasn’t just a rush. It was beauty, and life, and art. And destruction, explosion, mind-blowing power. All at once and manifesting itself in pretty, glowing special effects above my head.
    There was no fear involved. Fireworks by Grucci, the top-notch company that put on the show as it has for 32 years, has honed its procedures, testing worst-case scenarios and devising safety protocols to safeguard against them, over years.
    As an apprentice pyrotechnician, having taken the Gruccis’ training class last spring, I was surrounded by a skilled and experienced crew, except for one other newbie like me. They worked for the better part of three days to put together and break down the much-anticipated display. As the tug pulled our loaded barge through the flotilla of boats moored in Three Mile Harbor for a great summer evening, people on many of them applauded — a hand the crew well deserved.
    I’m honored to have been able to practice my wiring with Matt, a veteran pyrotechnician who patiently allowed me to work alongside him all day and showed me the trick of flipping a sweatshirt hood up over my hard hat to keep the sparks from going down my back, and all the rest, including Tom, my classmate, who gave me a high five to celebrate the accomplishment of our first big show.
    They, along with Steve, the chief pyrotechnician on the show, to whom I owe my gratitude for the whole experience, had my trust.
    Yes, of course there is a risk. But life is a risk. And not that I want at all to tempt fate, but I’ve been floored by things far bigger than an eight-inch mortar, emotionally at least. 
    Being in all likelihood past the midpoint of my life, in the midst of all of the slogging and striving we do to survive, and even the sweetness of ordinary days, I want all the kaboom I can get, as many moments of thinking, “So this is it,” and feeling heart-stoppingly alive, as I can find.
    I’d spent the day lending a hand to the crew as they placed each shell in its tube, unraveling the wires, connecting one shell to another, and attaching them to the electrical panels that would in turn be connected to the master boards. It’s painstaking work, hot and back-aching, but, a couple of us agreed at one point, somewhat relaxing, meditative. And then of course, later there’s that gratifying display.
    Everyone’s been saying what a spectacular show it was, and, with the Grucci artistry, I’m sure that’s true. My experience of it was so different from any other show I’ve seen, I can’t compare. Sure, it was beautiful, but it was just being there that blew the cobwebs out of my brain.
    The guys that have done years of shows, I noticed, are no longer awed by the visuals. Instead, they’re looking to see if every shell fires, to make sure the show is going off without a hitch. And if there is one — like a radio crackling out, muting the cues, or shells that go off prematurely, or fail to rise — they want to know just what went wrong.
    Nonetheless, when the last firework trailed away and the harbor filled with congratulatory boat horns and whoops, there was shared exhilaration, hugs all around, and comments like “Great show.”
    And now, I’m totally ruined. The thrill of fireworks will be, well, not so much of a thrill unless I am a part of them. And what the heck can I do to equal that thrill? I asked the crew. Just keep doing it, they said. Like they do.
    That photograph? Snapped by Anthony, a longtime pyrotechnician who kept the day lively with a dance step here and there, it was virtually all smoke and fire, white lightning framed by the squared edges of the wood shelter and the barge where I stood, having the time of my life.

    Joanne Pilgrim is an associate editor at The Star and recently completed training as an assistant pyrotechnician for Fireworks by Grucci.