Loose Canons

Confessions of a Pyro-Dad

One day a year, my sons think I'm "totally awesome."

By 7.3.08

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Nine cases of fireworks? Check. Six 24-tube angled mortar racks? Check. Four hundred feet of fuse? Check. Lumber, glue, wood screws, zip ties, duct tape, flashlights, igniter torches? Check.

Yep, looks like another typical Fourth of July for me.

By the time you read this, I'll be sweating in the Alabama sun, cussing up a storm as I assemble yet another of my fabulous family fireworks displays.

Cussing is an essential skill for an amateur pyrotechnician. There never seems to be enough time to set up a show, and I've got less than 48 hours to get ready for that moment -- 9:30 p.m. CDT Friday -- when I cue the music and signal my sons that it's time to light the fuses.

Pyrotechnics comes from a Greek word that, loosely translated, means "blow stuff up," but when the object is to put on a really impressive show, it[s a little more complicated than that.

My finale this year will conclude with 144 gold willow breaks, shot at angles from three separate firing stations to fill the sky and elicit the "ooh-ahh" crowd reaction that is every pyrotechnican's ultimate reward.

"Better than Disneyworld," they said in 2005. That was the year when, with the able assistance of my twin sons, I produced a 10-minute Fourth of July spectacular featuring nearly $3,000 worth of consumer fireworks.

That's $3,000 wholesale, by the way. When a man goes crazy for fireworks, he sooner or later figures out it's cheaper to buy the stuff by the case.

HOW DID I BECOME so addicted to fireworks? The basic motives were love and pride. As the liberals might say, I did it for the children.

Growing up near Atlanta, I was no more into cherry-bomb hooliganism than any other normal red-blooded American boy. My older brother Kirby was more of the fireworks buff in the family. He always had a supply of roman candles and rockets every Fourth of July and New Year's Eve, and I usually just watched.

Then, in 1997, I got a job in Washington and came north with my wife, our 8-year-old daughter and our twin sons. The boys were then 5 and learning to read, and as we headed rolled northward through Tennessee, the little geniuses quickly deciphered the word "fireworks" beckoning from billboards alongside I-81.

"Daddy! Daddy! Fireworks!" they'd howl from their car seats, begging me to obey the signs that commanded: "Exit Here!"

I resisted the temptation, but with each subsequent trip down home as the boys grew older, the pleadings became more insistent. A couple of years later, returning from a Christmas visit to Georgia, I finally gave in and got about $25 worth of roman candles and rockets.

Our first family New Year's Eve "show" -- shivering in suburban Maryland's midnight cold to ring in 1999 -- was a spectacular success in my boys' eyes, and that was when the addiction began.

Shooting fireworks with my sons was one of the finest fatherly experiences you could imagine. My wife didn't exactly approve, and so these occasional pyrotechnical excursions with the boys became sort of a male-bonding conspiracy, a manly defiance of womanly worries about safety and breaking the law.

Ah, yes -- the law. Although perfectly legal in Tennessee, the fireworks that provided our little nighttime amusements were prohibited in Maryland. This merely added to the delicious frisson of danger: "Hurry up, Dad, before somebody calls the cops!"

Outlaw pyro-Dad, boldly defying both the law and Mom -- I was a mighty hero to my boys every New Year's and Fourth of July.

THEN CAME THE infamous debacle of 2004. We had moved farther out into the countryside by then and, as Independence Day approached that year, I decided the boys and I were ready to put on a real show.

Acquiring a $200 stash of fireworks, I planned a three-minute sequence of effects. More than a dozen guests responded to our invitation. Burgers were grilled while my sons helped me set up the firing stations at the nearby site we'd chosen for the performance.

Darkness came, and we were just about ready to start shooting when the thunderstorm hit. Our fuses got soaked and the sequence I'd planned turned in a desperate quest merely to get the stuff to ignite.

My boys were in tears from the disappointment and embarrassment -- they'd invited their friends, too -- and my humiliation was extreme.

Vindication of the family honor was required, and there was only one way to do it. For 2005, my sons and I would have to stage the biggest amateur fireworks display anyone had ever seen.

On the Internet, I discovered online forums where fireworks fanatics gathered to discuss their hobby -- the latest products, special effects, fusing, show-production techniques and so forth. That's where I learned the joy of buying wholesale, and soon I joined a buying group with my online buddies to order cases and cases of fireworks.

By the time July 2005 arrived, I'd accumulated a stockpile worth nearly $3,000, and built special racks to hold our roman candles and fire our mortar shells -- miniature consumer versions of the shells professionals use in their displays.

I took a week of vacation to complete final preparations for the big show, my sons helping me measure fuses to the precise lengths required to time everything just right. I edited a special tape of patriotic music, bought butane torches for ignition and even got hardhats and goggles for myself and my two-boy crew, so we'd be safe from the sparks and falling debris.

More than 100 spectators were on hand as night fell and we finished connecting the final fuses. We'd borrowed a 500-watt sound system for the music. The video camera was on its tripod, ready to capture the aerial extravaganza. I asked our pastor to say a few words of prayer, and then -- showtime!

Opening with a roman-candle display to the majestic fanfare of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," we proceeded through the "Armed Forces Medley" (featuring different-colored effects to salute each branch of the service) and then into a one-minute finale of more than 400 aerial bursts to the tune of "America the Beautiful."

The song ended, the final shells exploded and the spectators applauded, not realizing they'd been fooled by the pyrotechnician's favorite trick -- the fake finale.

My boys and I had already lit the fuses for the real finale and were scampering off the field when the crowd heard the opening strains of "God Bless America," signaling that the show wasn't over yet. The video camera caught the rest:

The ending was a bit ragged because I'd mismeasured some fuses, but my sons didn't mind. After lighting the finale fuses, the boys had raced back to the spectator area to sit with their friends who raved that they'd never seen anything so awesome in their lives.

The cheers and applause ended, and I was chatting with my buddy who had operated the video camera when I turned in surprise to see my sons running toward me. They bowled me over in a sort of half-hug, half-tackle, and we tumbled together to the ground in a triumphant embrace.

Vindication was complete.

SINCE THEN, our fireworks shows have been scaled down a good bit, and in response to legal concerns, we've relocated the annual event to Alabama, where it's all perfectly legit.

So now I'm spending two days sweating and cussing in the Alabama sun, putting together the lakeside show that will light the night this Fourth of July.

My wife complains about the expense, but I look at this way: Nine cases of fireworks? About $600. Four hundred feet of fuse? About $60.

One day of being the most awesome Dad in the world? Priceless.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.