Tuesday, July 3, 2012


What was a 43 year old lawyer doing on a barge in the middle of the Ohio River with a half ton of explosives?

The Fourth of July! Independence Day! Fireworks!! Was there a boy alive in these United States whose heart didn't beat faster at the thought.

Flags and parades and marching bands are fine. Picnics and hotdogs and outdoor games are just great. But FIREWORKS.   The very essence of this country's annual birthday extravaganza. Pictures of firecrackers exploding form the backdrop of newspaper ads for weeks in advance of the big day.  Television gives us shells star-bursting in the background as the car/furniture/swim­ming pool salesman offers that special sale price in celebration of the Fourth.

I admit it. I'm a complete fool for things that explode.  I was one of those kids who pestered his father for weeks in ad­vance of the Fourth. "Did you get any fireworks yet?" I'd ask at least five times a day. "Did you get any cherry bombs?" Of course my dad, being a responsible father of the fifties,  had  limited his  purchases  to  snakes (little black buttons  that  when  lit smoked and grew long  ash snakes) sparklers and a couple packs of lady-finger  firecrackers. The evening of the Fourth was always exiting, but sadly, it never felt like enough.

It was the big municipal displays that set the tone for the proper level of pyrotechnics. I felt that anything less  than  a rocket  ascending to the night sky in a trail of sparks  followed by the chest thumping WHUMP as the shell exploded into a  colored starburst  of millions of trailing meteors was, while not a  com­plete let down, at least not all that exciting. Firecrackers made a good loud noise, but they didn't fly. Bottle rockets both flew and exploded, but without the starburst. You can see the frustra­tion.

When I was ten I teamed up with my fifteen year old buddy, Cal, who lived down the block, and entered the mysteries world of science and engineering (junior division). Together we would cut the guts out of old TV sets, re-wire record players into hi-fi
noise blasters and, after that fateful day Cal went to the library, learned to make gun powder.

Gun powder. The Chinese concoction ironically intended by its unknown inventor as a potion to prolong life.  Magic black powder that, with the proper chemicals, could be created in a garage by two kids who had run out of TVs to dismantle.

We mixed, we lit and ... it fizzled, smoked and sparked (a little) then went out. Clearly something was missing and  that something was a container (to contain the powder and contain  the burn until it could reach explosive proportions). We wrapped our black powder in aluminum foil to make a tube shape, not unlike a firecracker. Since we had no fuse we simply left one end slightly open  and made a trail of powder to this end. Our test area was Cal's back yard where we set our device and fuse trail on a slab of scrap 2 x 10.

     Our plan was to light, run and watch the fun as our cracker blew up with a resounding boom. With the Fourth of July approach­ing I think Cal was planning a "booming" business selling home-made firecrackers to the other kids. I just wanted to see the thing explode.

We, that is, Cal, touched match to fuse and the powder began to sputter, then burn up the trail to the shiny foil cracker.  He ran  to our bunker behind the garbage cans (where I was already set  with my dad's old football helmet on my head) and  got  into position  just as the fire reached the open end of  the  cracker. With a sound like a cat spitting, the thing took off from its 2 x 10 launch pad, hit the grass 5 feet away and skidded and skipped across the lawn only to come to rest against the dog house next door. No boom. Not even a pop. But did we care? Not one bit. For in  that instant, as we looked first at the thin trail  of  smoke coming from the now spent cracker and then at each other, we both realized the extent of our invention. We had made a ROCKET!

Did we continue our quest for bigger and better rockets? Did Cal go on to Cal Tech to run the Jet Propulsion Laboratory?  Did these two boys blow themselves to bits (or at least damage impor­tant body parts) in a lesson filled tragedy told and retold on the newspaper's op/ed pages each July 3rd? No. In point of fact, after making a couple more foil rockets and launching them with unimpressive success (one made it onto Cal's roof) Cal discovered an adventure and mystery even greater than homemade fireworks. Cal discovered girls.

Eventually I too discovered girls and the particular brand of fireworks associated with that part of life. But I never  lost the thrill that comes from setting match to fuse and then jumping back  as  a cherry bomb tears the air with a  flash  and  report, leaving  the smell of gunpowder in the nose and a 12  inch  round hole  in the lawn. And now the fates had conspired to grant that ten year old pyromaniac his dream. I was going to help shoot the fireworks display for the city's Fourth of July celebration.  

Nine of us had boarded the old gravel barge down the Ohio River from Wheeling, West Virginia. Eight men ranging in age from thirty to sixty and one of the guys twenty something girlfriend. The guys carried the cardboard boxes of "Bombs", some covered in Chinese characters, from the pick-up truck to the barge, while Michelle and Jay (the sixty year old father-in-law of Ron, the shooter) carried the lanterns, cooler and shovels. The barge was a hundred feet long and twenty-five feet wide and was secured next to a crane barge to which we would be anchored at the shoot site. The day had been one of those perfect Fourths you remember from your childhood; clear sky, no humidity and just  a slight breeze. The perfect kind of day to blow something up.

The floor of the barge had been loaded with several tons of sand and earlier in the day, Ron and some of the others had set the tubes and mortars for the show. The front of the barge con­tained the "Finale" tubes. A double horseshoe pattern of 250 16 inch long pieces of thick walled plastic pipe set in frames of wood and held in place by sand bags and piled loose sand. In  the middle  of  the  barge where the tubes for  the "Flights",  four groups of six tubes each which would hold six bombs fused together. During the show these would act as fillers to add excitement leading up to the grand finale. Then at the back end of the barge were the main mortars. The real fireworks launchers.  The scary stuff.

The big fireworks rockets we love to watch on the Fourth of July aren't rockets at all. They're bombs that are set off inside of pipes pointed (hopefully) into the sky. The finale bombs,  all 250 of them, are 2-1/2 and 3 inches across and are either cylinders  8 inches  long or round like balls, each  with  its  paper covered  fuse  sticking out the top. All of the fuses are tied together so that once lit, the finale will progress, bomb after bomb, without anyone having to light another fuse.

The main mortars are steel pipe set in sand inside of a long wooden box which is then also set in sand bags and loose sand. For this show Ron had set four each of 3  and 4 inch  pipes  and three  each  of 5 and 6 inch pipes, all pointing  skyward  in  an ominous row. This was not to be the hi-tech modern electronically controlled fireworks display seen at theme parks, shell bursts timed to the instant and coordinated with blaring music. This was old fashioned fireworks. The men at the bomb box hand bombs to the runners who drop them into the mortars.  The shooter then lights the fuse that is left hanging out of the tube with a railroad flare. The bomb's first charge (at the bottom) explodes in the tube which sends the bomb several hundred feet into the air.  Then the secondary charge(s) explode giving the effect, Starburst, Palm Tree, Double Ring or just the very load boom of a Report.  My job was going to be to work the bomb box with David. We where the new kids.

As the barge crew set the anchors and fixed our position  in the  middle of the river I had a chance to relax and  contemplate what  I had gotten myself into. There on the near shore were the backs of houses on Wheeling Island, yards full of revelers including our respective wives and children. On the far shore was the downtown skyline and the river front amphitheater.  Thousands of people lined the shore. The river itself was full of pleasure boats.  The slight breeze brought the sound of the symphony orchestra and the realization that the crowd also included the Governor, since his wife (our First Lady) is Maestra of the or­chestra. This was a BIG show.

     Then it hit me. For weeks the newspaper, the TV news, even rock and roll radio stations had warned of the dangers of fire­works.  "The use of these illegal objects could result in your arrest, but more importantly, thousands of injuries  occur  each year, so  be smart and be safe. Go to your municipal fireworks display and LET THE PROFESSIONALS SET OFF THE FIREWORKS."

Well, it seemed that the warnings had gotten it right.  Here I was, a lawyer, in the middle of the Ohio River with two den­tists, an optometrist, a teacher and a tree farmer. The nicest bunch of professionals you ever wanted to meet and we were going to set off all of these wonderful fireworks. The fact is, full time "professional" pyrotechnicians are few and far between.  It's a  job  where you don't do much 364 days a year  (except  at the theme  parks)  so, of course, these guys do other  things  for  a living.  Ron, one of the dentists, has been doing this for over twenty years.  The fireworks company belongs to his father and uncle. From my point of view it was still a scary thought.

As daylight faded we made our final preparations. Loading the finale tubes and joining the fuses. Loading the first sets of flights for the opening. Setting up the bomb box and assigning the jobs for the show. As the new guys, Dave and I would work the bomb box. This was actually the cardboard boxes of bombs stacked on the floor of the barge, in order from 3 inch to 6 inch, and covered with a heavy tarp. Our job was to kneel behind the boxes, facing the mortars, and hand out the bombs to the runners.  The runners would either ask for a specific size to fill an empty tube, or we would give them a bomb of our choice and tell them the size.

Our instructions were simple. (1) Hand out the bombs as fast as they were needed. The idea of a good show is to never have a break in the action. Thus, the runners would be loading tubes that had just fired, as tubes next to them were firing. (2)  Keep the bomb box covered by the tarp at all times.  We were told simply, if a spark lands on the tarp shake or brush it off, but if a spark lands in a box of bombs, WE WOULD BE THE FIRST TO DIE!

With that comforting thought in mind we made our final preparations.  Long sleeve shirts replaced or covered summertime t-shirts.  Some of the guys covered their heads with tied banda­nas, while I choose to turn my ball cap backwards to keep the sparks off the back of my neck. As I pushed foam earplugs into my ears the sound of the orchestra faded. We awaited the signal to shoot. Eye protection goggles in place, David and I knelt behind the bomb box with our hands under the tarp. I held a 5 inch round ball of explosive in each hand, ready to be passed to a  runner after the first volley. Sweat trickled down my back as I flashed for just an instant back to Cal's back yard.  The feeling of excitement, of anticipation, of fear, was the same.  The two minute signal was given and the shooters lit their flares.

The opening flight from the middle of the barge went THUMP, six times and was away. I looked up as the trails went straight up a very long way, then stopped. For just an instant there was silence, then the shells exploded right over our heads.  Six colored stars appeared, one after the other, each accompanied  by a  loud BOOM. That was the signal for Ron to start lighting the bombs in the main mortars, twenty feet in front of us.

By the light of his flare I could see Ron first pull a  fuse from  a  3 inch tube out straight, then touch the  end  with  the flare. In less than a second the mortar fired, WHUMP, as a shower of sparks fountained into the sky. In the time it took to realize that shell was away Ron had lit two others, a 4 inch and a 5. Two more WHUMPS, each bigger than the one before and two more foun­tains of fire leapt to the sky in front of me. Then the first shell went off high above with a boom and Jeff, one of the run­ners yelled, "Give me a 3 and a 4." At least I think that's  what he said because just then the first of the 6 inch bombs went  off and  I felt rather then heard a giant WHUMP and a geyser of fire erupted right in front of me. The show was under way.

On and on it went. WHUMP, WHUMP, BOOM, BOOM, WHUMP.  Some­times the BOOMS were followed by smaller booms or even the siz­zle-boom of a special effects round. The smell of gunpowder was overwhelming as we passed bomb after bomb after bomb. "Give me a 6 and a 5." yelled Greg. "I need two 4s and a 6." for 20  minutes my  world  was reduced to the feel of the round bombs  under  the covering  tarp,  the WHUMP/BOOM of the mortars  firing  and  the shells  exploding and the huge plumes of sparks leaping into  the air. Then Murphy's Law took over.

I had just shouted to David that he had the last box of bombs in front of him and had shifted over to be able to help him pass bombs when a 6 inch shell misfired. It left the tube but only went high enough to fall back behind the sand bagged row of mortars. The first charge went off showering sparks up and to the sides. Ron yelled "Look out!" as he and the others headed for our side of the barge as the next charge, and the next, and the  next after  that  went off in the space between the  mortars  and  the steel wall  of the barge. Somewhere in there I  pulled  the  now fairly  loose  tarp up over my head and ducked down as low  as  I could get. Since I was now on top of David, this wasn't very low, but I guess it was low enough. In less than 5 seconds it was over and Ron, the professional that he is, yelled for us to "Keep Shooting!"  That's when we heard a WHUMP from the far end of the barge.

The misfired shell had set off the finale!  And, to make matters even worse, it had started in the middle rather than from an end so the tubes were firing two and three at a time.  The finale would be a little short at that rate.  With nothing to lose, we started to pass bombs and shoot as fast as possible.  If this was now the end of the show we would make it an ending to remember. David and I handed out bombs with both hands, no longer concerned with telling the runners what they had. Let them figure out the size in the five steps from the box to the mortars.  Ron and Wayne flashed their flares back and forth like swordsmen in a pirate movie, slashing at the fuses before them. And then, it was over.

As the last finale bomb burst over the barge, the boat horns started and the applause built. We heard whistles and screams and shouting and realized that we had just launched the biggest fireworks finale Wheeling had ever seen.

What was it like? It was that perfect ski run. It was a hole in one. It was that perfect Christmas. It was beautiful! I wish Cal had been there to see it.

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