Saturday, July 04, 2009

Fountains of Flame; Wheels of Fire

A July Fourth reminiscence.

I have great memories of fireworks.
When was a kid, like many my age, I was a budding pyrotechnist. But I'd spend my free time Saturdays at the New Haven Public Library, researching old manuals and "The History of Pyrotechnics". Our basement was a semi-clandestine workshop and lab for my small firework creations.

Once, in the late 1950's, at the North Haven, CT County Fair, we viewed a bucolic or rustic sort of display. It was notable in that two stout posts were sunk into the ground about 100 feet apart. When the Catherine wheels on the posts went off, reciprocating pulses of colorful fire were sent shooting along a wire strung between the two posts.

There were also especially entertaining, "helicopter" type aerial spinners that would spiral up and explode. There were special Japanese mortar shells that after rising to a considerable height, would splinter into thousands of sizzling red scintillating embers, briefly fracturing the night sky.

The Hayseed Rube climax was unforgettable. Over at the right post, there suddenly appeared a firework donkey, outlined in blue fire. It lazily moseyed towards the left post. About midway, it halted, and emitted a forceful stream of golden fire as if it were peeing. The crowd, as it were, ate it up.

After that bit of rural jocularity came the obligatory American Flag set piece; one of the few times when it's o.k. the burn the Flag in public.

I also remember the food concessions area and the huge kettle of lard in which rough dough balls were fried into greasy snacks, covered with powdered sugar and sold still semi raw in the center. I loved it all!

Another Fourth of July, another, more professionally choreographed and spectacular display was at Lighthouse Point, on Long Island Sound, New Haven, CT.

A huge crowd gathered along the shore to watch the elaborate and lengthy show. No money was spared to make it awesome. It was marred only a little by the igniting of the marsh grasses at the time of the stupendous, sky-slashing, thundering finale. Of course the New Haven Fire Department was already present.

I remember the overall excellence of the pieces, and the pacing was superb, but unlike the funky, rural North Haven Fair show, nothing specific stands out in my mind.

A few years later, my family moved to Saint Louis County, MO. As the Independence Day holday approached, I discovered that the neighborhood Unitarian Church was going to have a fireworks display. I ingratiated myself with the amateur team chosen to fire the show. They must have been impressed by my dubious "credentials"; and I was in! Oh, Joy!

That night, the show proceeded well, considering what amateurs we were. We'd drop the pasteboard mortar bombs into the inclined iron pipes, sunk into the ground, pull off the protective end cover from the fuse, light it with a fusee flare and scuttle to the dubious shelter of a low, earthern berm. Whooshh!! BANG!!
It was fun! It was exciting!

When the moment came for the show finale, we opened the large cardboard carton that contained perhaps 6 heavy pasteboard mortars, all intricately fused.

Then, stupidly, we lifted them out of the box and placed them on the ground. When the fuse was lit, Newton's Third Law of Motion came into play. The group of mortars now pointed in nearly every direction, firing unpredictably, more at ground level than up in the air. It was exciting! It was fun! VoooooP! BANG!

We looked forward to a rest with the set piece American Flag. Whomever had set it up had not sunk its posts securely into the ground. When we fired the flag, the framework wobbled, and we were obliged to grasp the posts with our arms to keep it from falling. There were sparks...but actually no significant burns resulted.

The bad part was the next day, when I finally discovered what "chiggers" were. (slightly gross pic behind that link) The grass into which we dove the night before was a chigger haven.

And now, at last, this post's Mexican finale:

Our experiences with Mexican fireworks had been limited. We did watch the burning of a castillo in a parroquia of Colima, Colima, during the 90s. It was fired as a 20 meter tall "castillo" tower of bamboo and whatever. There also were "toritos" or devil chasers, kids and men, wearing leather capes over their shoulders ran about with sparks shooting out of their bull horned heads.

One of the climactic moments was a fire portrait of he founding priest of the church. But he was outranked by a firework portrait of the Virgen de Guadalupe. (This was a long way from North Haven.) It was a nice time, especially the free musical concert and the comida casera for sale of las Señoras de la parroquia.

We once made a nightime visit to a small pueblo between Cuernavaca and Tepoztlán, Morelos, we looked in on the pirotecnos in a bodega of an ancient church, tying the tubes of powder to willow withes, painstakingly constructing the wheels of fire in the traditional way.

Below, a video showing similar methods.

But the last fireworks show came when we moved to Pátzcuaro, September 28, 2005. It was the multi-centennial, 300 years plus anniversary of the founding of the city. It was also my birthday, and our first night living (in a hotel) in Pátzcuaro. So it was that we took a late nap, and wandered down to the Plaza Quiroga (Plaza Grande), and placed ourselves into the midst of the firing range. No one objected, There were no barriers, no police nor fire department tape lines. You could be stupid as you wished if you wished to risk your hair, skin, eyes. No one bothered you. (Try THAT in the U.S.)

Above, the castillo.
Suddenly, the Plaza ignited into a frenetic and noisy illumination. Mortars were firing less than 12 feet from us. Thirty feet away, a castillo was burning, burning, spinning, showering and spitting sparks. Booms, flashes, smoke and cheers.

It was a great welcome to the Ciudad y Municipio de Pátzcuaro.

Below, a Rilly Big Shew of Mexican Fireworks, a very professional one by Eventos Brillantes. (I re-replaced the previous video with the original, for the appreciation of of the true aficionados de la pirotecnia, and because it has better editing and production values.)