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.
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.”