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Fireworks and all of that

Even short handed and with the weather no cooperating we managed to pull off 4 perfect shows in 2 days. An added monkey wrench was thrown in early Saturday when the town of Vermont decided to cancel their show for rain and go instead with the rain date of Sunday, giving us three shows to do on Sunday instead of just two which was bad enough as it was.

It was a stupid move on their part because despite the 4 inches of rain in an hour we did get Saturday morning, it cleared off just before dark and made for some really great fireworks because of the residual humidity in the air.

Friday night was spent getting things together. Getting the racks and tubes out of the barn and making sure all the supplies were in the goody box. Rob and I had to run over to Astoria to pick up a couple more 3" racks for the finale and see if Bill had a new bit made for the auger. Of course he didn't but he vowed to bring one over before we left at 7:30 am the next day to go do the set up in Mt. Sterling. we got back before dark and went over to the fairgrounds to drill the holes and drop the tubes for Sunday's show at Rushville. The we went back to the house for awhile to just do some planning while Rob and I made another auger bit from a piece of 1/4" carbon steel I had laying around. It actually turned out better than the original bit after we got the edge ground down.

Saturday I was up by 6 am getting everything loaded in my truck and then heading into town to buy ice and donuts at the bakery, before heading over to Rob and Gwen's. Brenda and Lynn met us there and we all headed out in a light rain to Mt. Sterling. Man was that a muddy mess but we decided to use fiberglass mortars instead of steel which was a good move. First of all, even in drought years it's a bitch hauling everything across the spillway of the levee because it's always covered in slippery, green algae slime. Plus the levee is only about 8 feet wide so it makes for very close quarters on setup and especially on firing the show. With all the rain we had this Spring and the stuff we were getting that morning, the spillway was flowing about 6 inches deep making it that much more treacherous. So we elected to use the four wheeler to haul everything across including people. Then when we got to drilling the holes for the mortars, we hit ground water because the lake was so high on the levee.

So Lynn and I took off to town to find a lumber yard and get some scrap pieces of lumber to put in the holes. I should explain the reason we wanted to do this. When you load mortars multiple times during a show, the recoil of the shell being fired will force to mortar down into the soil. On long shows, we've had 6 inch steel mortars sink 8-12 inches into even very hard and rocky ground. That kind of force should tell you why you should never get your hands or head over a live mortar. Fiber glass mortars are not so bad about it as they don't already have the weight of steel but in wet ground like this, even fiberglass will sink. The idea we had was to put some pieces of wood into the holes, to slow the progress of the mortars in the saturated ground. Well of course the lumber yard was closed so Lynn called a cousin in town and we found some old 2 x 4's in her garage and I hand cut 3 dozen pieces or so for the holes. Turns out we had just enough when we got back.

The other characteristic of putting mortars in the ground is as they get forced down, they tend to pull the surrounding soil in around them, creating a suction that makes it very hard to pull them back out of the ground. So we usually wrap the mortar in a large trash bag before burying it. Saturday we decided to double bag the tubes because of the wet ground. Kind of like big condoms for the mortars though in the end it didn't make a huge difference.

Right as we were leaving the sky opened up and we got an additional 4 inches of rain in an hour. Luckily everything was covered with foil, plastic and tape to protect it. We got back home and everyone went home to rest awhile for the evening. That's when I got the call from Devin to tell me Vermont had been cancelled. Well it helped Saturday's shows because we would have more hands at Mt. Sterling but it was going to make Sunday a real bitch.

Finally time came to head out for the show. Robbie and Deb both called out for health reasons so it was good we had the extra hands from the Vermont show. Our friend from work, Jonathan was visiting for the weekend so he helped out as well. It turned out to be a really good show, The stuff we'd done in the morning helped immensely. We got everyone and everything out on the levee in good time and decided on a game plan. Bill was to load the 6 inch shells with Lynette running the bucket for him. Rob, Gwen and I were doing the five inch shells with each of us taking turns firing and loading. Devin, Lynn and Laura were alternating on the 4 inch shells which we had the most of. Rob was going to light the first pass of shells then hand off to Gwen who would light 4 passes and then hand off to me. I would light 7 passes and then hand off to Rob to light the last one and then light the finale. The reason we alternate like that is because on the levee, we are so close to the mortars firing that it forces your body to take a lot of the concussion shock from the shells as they go off. The next day you hurt as if you have just run a marathon. Alternating the firing person makes the shock a little less on everyone.

The humidity was causing the shells to bark so loud that a couple of them knocked my earplugs out of my ears and left me with a ringing sounds like I'd been to a rock concert. We had an interesting little accident take place that like to scared the hell out of me. Part of the lit fuse from one of the 4 inch shells flew off and landed in the next mortar. Instead of igniting the fuse right away, it ignited the whistling tail on top of the shell and flames shot out of the tube. Everyone hit the deck expecting the shell to blow in the mortar but it did come out in a few seconds. Only it broke low and showered everyone with fire. It only went up about 30 feet. Luckily it was just a color shell and not a salute or we'd all be deaf by now. We recovered quickly and kept on with the show. The finale was one of the best we've ever done. We had a perfect pause between the last finale shell and the 8 inch shell that we all signed our names to. It went up nice and slow and then covered the sky in a slowly dying palm pattern with gold crossettes.

We cleaned up in record time them drove back to Rushville to celebrate a little while and make plans for the next day before going to bed.

We were up by 9 am Sunday with skies again threatening. Rob, David and I went out the fairgrounds to set more mortars and put up the flag. We had to drive around the racetrack as the tractor pull trucks were lining up so we had to go through about 6 inches of mud to get around them. My little S-10 did an admirable job of acting like a 4 WD even though it's only 2 WD. We got everything set up by 1 pm and then went back to rest again. The sky cleared off by 3 pm and Bill and Devin came to get the shells for Astoria and Vermont, the other two shows we were doing that day. By 5 pm we were again all saddled up and headed to the fairgrounds to get ready. We had to replace a couple tubes that had soaked up a bunch of ground water and then Jonathan and I started wiring the ground effect cakes that we were going to shoot electronically.

You see those fireworks documentaries on Discovery Channel and they usually show the Zambelli Fireworks Family doing the bridge show in Louisville for the opening of the Kentucky Derby in May. The Zambelli's are the CSI of the fireworks world. When you have hundreds of thousands of dollars to play with, you can afford to do everything electronically. But we are the McGuyver's of the fireworks world. We do everything by hand with a little bailing wire and duct tape when we have to. It was like that with stringing the electronics. I had to splice a couple lines after we squibbed all the cakes and mostly I was using my pocket knife and a roll of electrical tape.

9:30 came and we were ready. Deb and Jonathan were handling the electronics. Grampy was over at the fairgrounds ready to light the flag. David was loading 6 inch shells and running his own bucket just as I was doing on the 5's. Tanya and Gwen were helping each other on the 3's and 4's and Rob was firing the whole thing. The Mt Sterling show had gone 40 minutes on their request, a nice slow pace. Rushville wanted only 30 minutes but had twice the shells and effects. So Rob established a killer pace that we were all hard put to keep up with. On a couple of occasions he was lighting the shell I had just placed as I was placing he next one. If I'd stopped, he would have run me down. We did five passes and then signaled Deb to light all the ground effects. I'd done the electronics perfectly (as only McGuyver could) an all 7 cakes went up exactly as they should including the last 3 fan cakes in unison crossing over each other as they fired. Then we were back into our killer pace of lighting 5 more passes. I was keeping time as well as radioing Grampy to get ready to light the flag. We timed it perfectly just as the National Anthem started. Then as it was dying out and "rockets red glare" came up in the song, Rob lit the first of three cakes in the finale, 300 red rockets lit up the sky. Followed by a 200 shot Z cake and then a 100 shot Thunder King. Then he lit the finale. 36 -3 inch shells, then a 6 inch and an 8 inch, followed by 36 more 3 inch shells, 10 4 inch sells and another 6 and 8. It was damned beautiful and plenty loud.

Afterwards we all stripped down. Wearing two layers of clothing when it's 94 degrees and 90% humidity is no fun when you don't have to. Needless to say I probably lost 10 pounds. But it was well worth it. People said they could see the Astoria show in the distance and we all watched the Vermont show after ours went. So 4 shows went off wit barely a hitch. I'd call that a perfect weekend.

I got video of both our shows and when I have it digitized, I'm going to make it available on DVD if anyone wants to see what we do.




( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 7th, 2004 11:16 am (UTC)
sound like it was a blast, and I can't wait to see the DVD(s). But I did have a question...

...one of the "new" things we saw this year (well, new to us) was a shell that produced a near-perfect ring effect, such that one or two shells in the Cary, NC show looked like atoms or ringed planets. We were wondering how they did that (my father and FiL are engineers and had some interesting theories).
Jul. 7th, 2004 12:21 pm (UTC)
Those are called Saturn Ring shells and if you want the specific elements of the shell, I can get that for you. The plant we work for has it's own factory in China that produces special effects for us. Not surprisingly, we hardly ever get to see much of our own shows because looking up is a good way to get a face full of fire under your helmet shield. I'll find out about those shells for you though.

Jul. 7th, 2004 12:34 pm (UTC)
I should have known...
...that the name of the shell would be obvious. ;)

From a "how does that work" standpoint, I'd love to know. I'll owe you one if you do find out.

Thinking of owing you one, when's your next trip down?
Jul. 7th, 2004 01:08 pm (UTC)
Re: I should have known...
I should be out either in the fall or around Christmas again. I'll let you know. OK, all aerial shells are construced basically the same way. The shells are either a round ball or a long cylinder. The cylinder shells usually have multiple effects like a big palm effect with ends that then explode in different directions, or the little floating bees that seem to fly on their own or the whistling chasers we call screamin' semen.

The balls have this cupped shape thing on the bottom. I have pics of all this if you need them. The cup is what houses the lift charge. The main fuse, which is about 3 feet long goes into the lift charge. It also is held to the top of the shell with a little string so the shell stays upright and can be lowered into the mortar with the fuse. The lift charge is just a bunch of black powder. You can vary the amount to get more or less height.

The lift charge of course lifts the shell out of the mortar but it also ignites a time fuse that burns slowly as the shell goes up. when the shell reaches the height where it momentarily hangs, the time fuse hits the burst charge which blows the shell apart and causes the effect.

The effect is made of marble to golf ball sized "stars", little balls of black powder and specific chemicals that when they burn give off colors.

For the ring effects, the stars are spaced exactly as they would be in miniature as when you see them in the sky and usually laid in symetrical order. That way as the shell spins when it rises, it doesn't matter the position when it blows up because you will still get perpendicular rings.

see here:


and here at the bottm:


If you need to know chemical compositions of the stars I can get that for you too.

That's actually a simple one to do. The harder ones are happy faces, bow ties and dollar signs.

Jul. 7th, 2004 01:40 pm (UTC)
Re: I should have known...
Green is produced by using barite
Red is made with Strontium
Blue is made with copper
Yellow is halite
White is Magnesite, zircon and rutile.
Aluminum, magnesium and titatium add to the brightness of the effects as well.
Barium chloride is used to give green luminescence
Jul. 7th, 2004 11:16 am (UTC)
I heard about a few fires and assorted fireworks-related accident on the news for the 4th of July celebrations. But I knew it wasn't your group since you all seem extremely competent.
Jul. 7th, 2004 12:24 pm (UTC)
We all still have our fingers and toes. Though I've been burned more than once. I did get burned Saturday night, when Rob handed me a newly lit fusee ( the road flares that we use to ligh the shells with). The burning chemicals dripped down on my hand causing a series of little white blisters to appear by Sunday morning. A few years ago, a fiber glass tube exploded because a shell went off inside and Devin got fiberglass shrapnel in the leg that had to be removed by a doctor but other than that, we've been extremely fortunate.

Jul. 7th, 2004 12:26 pm (UTC)
... looks like I spoke too soon... ;P
Jul. 7th, 2004 03:47 pm (UTC)
I'd love to see one of your shows :-) I was wondering about the saturn thing too. We saw them at the show in the plaza Sunday. They are pretty. I liked the hearts they did too.
Jul. 7th, 2004 04:14 pm (UTC)
Hey, I'd like to see one of our shows sometime as well. That's why the video is so fun to watch. Of course you are just getting what goes on on the ine and notthe sky but it's still exciting.

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )


Wander aka StoneBear
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