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Sky High

Among the Pyros at One of the Biggest Fireworks Competitions in the World

ISSUE:  Summer 2015

The 2012 L’International des Feux. Montreal, Canada.

On a warm July night in 2012, I watched the launching of a fireworks display I’d helped to build, and which our team of nine had spent a week installing as a competitive entry in L’International des Feux in Montreal, the most prestigious fireworks competition in the world. Conditions were nearly perfect: The sliver of moon had long since set and high clouds blocked the stars. At showtime, the Ferris wheel at La Ronde amusement park, gaily lit, snuffed itself out one spoke at a time in a countdown for the spectators. When the wheel extinguished entirely, the scene became very dark along the water.

First a series of red flares lit up in succession along the waterfront, then the first round of white candles fanned out into the middle sky, and soon large shells with dense centers like chrysanthemums filled the air above, all of it precisely choreographed to an unusual post-pop soundtrack and not the usual military marches and grand symphonies. 

Five of us from Team Canada stood in the control booth, with the other four sitting in the stands a dozen rows below us. We had come together less than a week before: a bodybuilder and fireworks tech-whiz named Zach; Carter, a helicopter pilot from Saskatchewan; a couple of theatrical and production professionals, Daniel and Julie; Sean, so enamored of the pyrotechnic life that he owned a pyro-themed bar back in the Canadian Niagara Falls; Luis, a journeyman pyro from Valencia, Spain, who’d helped design the show; and our two bosses from Sirius Pyrotechnics, Kelly and Patrick. Kelly, a partner in the company, was the field general on the site, keeping tabs on everything. He had spiky hair and the intelligent, slightly menacing affect of a rogue lemur and had once made money organizing raves in Winnipeg. Patrick was the big boss, a bearish, prematurely gray man in his late forties who had spent much of the week holed up in our trailer putting the finishing touches on the design and fielding interview requests, like some mad, sequestered genius. I was a recent graduate of the Fantastic Fireworks school in Pepperstock, England, and a former Marine artillery officer, credentials that made me something of a curiosity. I did the easy stuff.

Just as the display began, Luis stood in the left front corner of the booth and slid open one of the large windows. Though we were a hundred meters away, we could hear the whip-crack of the salutes and feel the shells thumping in our chests. As the fireworks went off, Luis pointed his thick arms into the air and jabbed his fingers at the sky. He knew what was coming. He’d seen it simulated in the ShowSim design software, fiddled with syncing the time code dozens of times during the six months it took to design the display, and now was surrounded by all the accoutrements of twenty-first-century command and control: the FireOne controllers, the networked computers, the nine-pin serial cables. His arms pumped like they were connected to the explosions, punching the sky to make falling, twinkling willows appear out of the dark. He appeared to be conducting the fireworks, but in a very particular way: not into the sky, but out of the sky, ex nihilo, out of a blackness more pure now that our pupils had constricted. Out of nothing he pulled great blossoming orange shells, crossing red candles, and slow-rising girandolas arcing into the sky like parts of the Northern Lights striking out on their own, freestyle, before reaching their final states and winking out forever.

We had spent five days unloading five tons of pyrotechnic product from the truck trailer, putting fuses to it all, carrying it across the several acres of the river sand and dirt that constituted the firing site, then setting it in place. We headed out on those hot mornings strapped with belts festooned with connector pliers, scissors, cutters, permanent markers, masking tape, and vinyl bags filled with hundreds of electrical connectors. We were the anonymous artificiers, the craftsmen, the laborers who, in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century golden age of fireworks, had been insulted and disregarded by the fancy architects, artists, and allegorists who seized credit for the shows fired for kings and popes.

That night we’d arrived at the booth unnoticed by most of the crowd, exactly fifteen minutes before the display was supposed to go off. The setup reminded me of the bridge of warships I’d been on at night during my time in the Marine Corps, only without the helm: mostly dark except for rows of dimly glowing screens lighting up our faces. The windows angled out a little over the stands. A voice came over a speaker in the booth, telling us in French that the sound system was ready. Zach and Patrick spoke to each other in a technical language, something about firepower tests. The red countdown clock edged toward 0:00.

I had thought there would be shouting and barking of orders, possibly some urgent pleadings once the show started. Instead the booth was quiet. Five days of direct, tactile control over the explosives had given way to a basic deference to the fireworks themselves and what they might do once lit. We had spent the week treating pyrotechnics as craft. Now we stood and watched, as if it were not merely craft but some kind of life over which we had no control.

On the computers in the booth the time code scrolled by, pinned to a waveform representing the soundtrack. The Lac des Dauphins, a dirty pond that separated the audience from the firing position, was all at once a lake of fire, covered with hundreds of effects that submerged and then surfaced again to burn and spin on the water. At that moment it seemed not entirely out of the question that they would crawl out upon the beach and sprout legs. All of this had been written into the code, and from the standpoint of chemistry there was nothing impossible about fireworks that contain their own oxidizers, usually perchlorates, burning under and upon the water. But most people in the stands didn’t know that. They hollered and oohed.

There was a false ending in the show. The crowd grew silent as the deception wound down. Then came the shattering crack of a salute, and a great shell filled the sky. Relieved, the crowd shouted out again. More fireworks fired off—the big climax was coming—but in the booth you could tell it was over. We’d made it, it was made, it existed, and soon it would finish. Everyone stepped back from their computers and shrugged. They’d all been through these endings before. 

I was bereft, and wanted it to start all over. Much had changed, and it seemed a long time since the night back home twelve months before when, watching fireworks culminate in the air over our rural river, I had decided to learn to fire them off for myself. Back then I had bellowed and whooped. My small daughter had edged away from me to the other side of the bridge. In between effects she seemed to disappear in the dark only to reappear slightly changed when the next one lit the old rocky river, as if she were part of the show. It was magic. I can still see her like that, vividly.

Bueno,” Luis said, and out the door he went to get a beer.

Team Canada sets up mortars in preparation for the big show.

For much of the seventeenth century, it was assumed that fireworks were not merely imitations of the heavens, but were made of the same material and acted in accordance with divine law. In order to come to an understanding of meteors, lightning, auroras, ball lights, and comets, one studied fireworks. The difference between a rocket fired from a cathedral on Saint Joseph’s Day and a real comet streaking across the sky was merely that the first was made by man and therefore artificial. The French still call fireworks feux des artifices, the etymology tracing back to this period. “Surely a main reason why the Ancients were so imperfect in the doctrine of Meteors,” the essayist and physician Sir Thomas Browne wrote in Pseudodoxia epidemica (1650), “was their ignorance of Gunpowder and Fire-works, which best discover the causes of many thereof.”

Further, if man had been made in the image of God, and God acted in his heavens through “Gunpowder and Fire-works,” it was only a small step to what some historians now call the gunpowder theory of life. This was current in the seventeenth century, and is one of those early concepts in science that seems ridiculously overstated but which nevertheless articulates a fundamental question and offers an explanation for the mysterious. For instance: What was it that distinguished a corpse from a living being? A widespread belief in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was that the difference was a matter of pyrotechnics, and that man was powered by explosions. Some 23,000 times a day a human breathed in air containing nitrous particles that, combined with latent sulfurs in the human body and the fire of the heart (or, alternately, the sparks of nerves), created the small explosions that moved the body. When God breathed into the clay nostrils of the first human, he initiated the first animating explosion and created the flamma vitalis—the vital flame, the spark of life. 

The gunpowder theory concerned not only physical life but the life of the mind, too, which, like the heavens, was occasionally disturbed by pyrotechnic objects. The passions of a human creature, said the alchemist and physician Joseph Du Chesne in 1603, are as meteors within, sometimes arcing gracefully through predictable geometries and sometimes erupting in violence and chaos.

What a viewer might have understood about fireworks in the seventeenth century, therefore, was that they were a demonstration of power, usually that of a king or a pope, over life itself, a power that was of the same kind wielded by God, though not of the same magnitude. These were only artificial fireworks; the real fireworks had been sent aloft by him as celestial bodies and powered the bodies of God’s beloved children. But all three—meteors, humanity, feux d’artifices—were considered to be animated by combustion and dependent on oxidation, respiration, and decay.

That early understanding of fireworks, along with the gunpowder theory of life, was eventually overcome by science, by electricity, by the abstractions of color, by the democratization of states and the diminishing of monarchs, by the Great War. But I confess that I still wonder, as Virginia Woolf had Jinny wonder in The Waves: “I cried as I ran, faster and faster: What moved the leaves? What moves my heart, my legs?”

During my training at Pepperstock’s Fantastic Fireworks, I often heard references to the wow factor, that ineffable quality that separated mediocre fire from great fire. In class they taught us advanced pyro chemistry, fusing, firing, and safety. We studied cross sections of shells, double-break shells, comets, Roman candles, fountains and gerbs, rockets and wheels. We practiced running electrical wire between electric igniters called squibs, laying them out in the parking lot like a giant wiring diagram, and rigging that wire to a central box from which we could send an electrical signal to the squibs, making them pop and spark. (If these squibs had been inserted into real fireworks, they would have sparked a black-powder lifting charge and sent the shell/comet/candle into the sky to explode.) They scared us straight by showing us photographs of hands, arms, torsos, and heads blown to pieces by effects employed carelessly. Over pints at the Plough, a pub in nearby Slip End, they conveyed to us the rich lore of pyrotechnics, and through them I came to understand that the community of world-class pyros is small and collegial. My fellow students and I treated one another as colleagues: There was the one man who used to set off pyro for England’s The X Factor; a gem hunter from Yorkshire who hoped to learn enough to avoid burning down his cricket club during its annual display; one insurance adjuster; two Scottish hardware-store owners looking to get in on the big weddings-at-castles fireworks business back home; a rock-show designer with a brand-new Iron Maiden tattoo on his forearm; and a young man expert in the theatrical flight systems that carry Peter Pan across stages worldwide. They were all, to a person, professionally or personally obsessed with spectacle and the means by which humans dazzle and mystify one another, even the one who was, categorically, the coolest insurance adjuster in the world. A final exam, and a practical firing test, and I was officially certified to join display-fireworks teams all over the world.

In Montreal, each morning the van driver took us over a series of bridges to Saint Helen’s Island, through the back of the amusement park to a collection of portable trailers, shipping containers, and a small warehouse laid out on the banks of the river and in the shadow of a roller coaster called Le Vampire. A screen of trees—oaks, sycamores, and maples—ringed the site. Long concrete bunkers housing the permanent mortars for the biggest shells backed up against the river. Every day, several times a day, a three-masted antique sailing ship passed close by the site, for reasons unknown, reminding me of the old legend that bodies could be raised from the bottom of rivers and lakes by firing cannons over them. Each day we met and conducted our briefings in a trailer marked Roulotte des Artificiers Invités.

On one of the first mornings waiting for the van, I stood next to Luis while we both smoked our cigarettes. Luis was short and stocky, had thick and wavy black hair he constantly combed with his fingers, and wore a puckish expression. He was an unusually relaxed pyro, as if nothing could ever startle him. I came to think of him as a pyro savant. Luis spoke fluent Spanish, of course, but also French, English, and probably some other languages encountered by a boy raised in an extended family of famous, globe-trotting pyrotechnicians, the Brunchùs. Patrick had met Luis in Valencia back in 1988 in the Brunchù family fireworks factory. Luis was still young but obviously talented, and over the years they became collaborators. Patrick brought Luis in to help design the display for the competition in Montreal because he wanted a big finale in the style the Spanish are famous for creating.

A steep hill led away from the hotel entrance, up through a park and toward a cathedral. Above it: pale-blue sky. I asked Luis to explain some of the principles of fireworks design and how he divided the sky.

He held up one finger. “First,” he said, “no empty sky. Second: Do not repeat the sequence, repetition is no good. It is boring.” Then he wiped his hands across the sky like he were clearing it off. The sky, he said, has three parts: lower, middle, and high. Plus, it has depth. Some fireworks operate in the low sky, some in the middle, some in the high sky above. Some appear to come very close to the audience, some culminate at a distance. Everything works together so that what is introduced in the lower sky gets its answer in the middle and upper sky. They are part of a set, a tableau. “But,” he said, “the big thing is no empty sky. That is very bad.”

In Luis’s Valencia, an ancient festival of fireworks occurs in March around Saint Joseph’s Day, and this includes the mascletà, a huge daylight firing of crackers strung in long lines called tracas, punctuated by overhead salutes and colored smoke. Sound and rhythm are as important in the mascletà as fire itself. The weeklong celebration concludes in the sacrifice of the falles, the ritual burning of elaborate wood-and-paper figures called ninots, some of them allegorical but many plainly satirical and absurd. They are usually several stories tall and sometimes require months to build.

“Did you do the falles growing up?” I asked.

“Oh yeah, sure. Many times.”

“I think I’d be pissed if I spent all that time building something just to watch it burn.”

“The falles burn and up go the burdens. Your troubles, you know. So there is happiness also, they say. I guess.” He looked at me skeptically.

“Does it really work?” I asked, by which I meant, Would it remove sin?

“Yeah. Good enough. Maybe.” 

He seemed neither convinced nor particularly curious about the moral implications of fireworks on Saint Joseph’s Day. I would have appreciated it if Luis had given me a little of that old-time sign-of-the-gods talk, but he wasn’t much interested in it to begin with. The heavens, the immortal reward, were not what excited him about fireworks. For him it was craft, family tradition, sound, light, spectacle, but not the ineffable. We were craftspeople first.

One day about midway through the course in Pepperstock, we were given a few hours of free time, and so I drove over to the Cathedral of Saint Alban, a few towns over. In the cathedral stands the red-draped reliquary of Alban, a Roman who became the first Christian martyr of Britain. Outside, the dead abbots lay side by side in neat grassy rows.

I sat in a pew just past the faded paintings of Saint Thomas More and Saint Christopher, now restored from under the whitewash. The quiet calmed me, or perhaps it was the presence of the saints’ bones, or the discreet, humble throat-clearing of the parish choir sitting far in the distance near the altar, readying for rehearsal.

Everything about a cathedral induces the penitent to look up—every column and post, every window, every vaulting arch. The architecture and ornament, culminating in the ceiling and windows, is a text: This is where the illiterate pilgrim would have found his instruction in the Christian mysteries and in the lives of the apostles and martyrs. But even more, the mere gesture of looking up induces a slight softening, a surmounting of the body and its attendant worries and rules, and produces in the mind a momentary feeling of wonder. Tracing the elaborate intersections of the arches above me, I breathed easier.

In his book Météors, René Descartes wrote, “It is our nature to have more admiration for the things above us than for those that are on our level, or below.” Clouds, because one must look up to see them, become God’s throne in the works of poets and painters. The blinding lightning cast down roaring upon the Earth must be his doing, evidence of some divine anger or whimsy. Descartes’s contemporary, Francis Malthus, in Récréations mathématiques, noted that “the Beasts have for their object only the surface of the earth,” and wrote that the hope of the pyrotechnician was that “thy spirit which followeth the motion of fire, will abandon the lower elements and cause thee to lift up thine eyes to spare in higher contemplation,” which was to say, a contemplation of God. In the centuries-old history of fireworks prior to Descartes, the common understanding of them, especially from the point of view of the church and its pyrotechnics-loving popes, was that it inspired something like the fear of the God who would come someday to judge humanity by fire. 

But that kind of awe, which I also felt there in Saint Alban Cathedral, didn’t interest Descartes so much as the idea of what secrets might be unlocked if you could know, and possibly control, the objects of that upward gaze. If a cloud or other firmamental phenomenon (lightning, comets, meteors) were properly explained, “so that we will no longer have occasion to wonder at anything that can be seen of them or anything that descends from them, we will easily believe that it is possible to find the causes of everything that is most admirable above the earth.” And this might include understanding God, whatever that was, the ineffable power that set the comets and meteors and clouds in motion, the source that imbued humanity with consciousness.

Descartes had thought that this increase of scientific knowledge would dissipate the wonder humans feel at the marvels of the sky. I had embarked on a similar knowledge quest and now understood fuses and lifting charges, the chemical composition of black powder, what metals make which colors when burning, and the interior ballistics of a shell in flight. That afternoon, back on the grounds at Pepperstock, we set up our final exam in an empty sheep pasture, and I spent the better part of an hour driving stakes into the loamy ground and strapping down candle tubes and other effects with baling wire. This was manual labor, of the earth in Malthus’s system of hierarchies. And yet my eye still rose up to the sky in something like awe, if awe is what you mean to indicate when you shout “Fuck yes!” at the presentation of four-inch shells sparking in the afternoon sky, only a puff of smoke and pale stars in the sunlight.

Some of these, unfortunately, drifted and descended among the sheep in the next field over. The beasts of the earth were not terribly disturbed, possibly for being used to the things of man constantly overwhelming the trenches and the hedgerows.

Carter once said to me, “All of us who get addicted to fire, we need that risk, it’s an internal soul cleansing. Burning up by fire. You need that release.” He was another of my smoking buddies on the site. Every break we walked to the bench and the trailer, well outside the explosive zone. Back then he had a big beard and a variety of five-pointed stars scarred onto his chest, his arms, and his back. He used words like “satori” without irony. He was tall and skinny and looked as if he had just stepped out of the woods in his brimmed black leather hat and big boots. As a child in Saskatchewan he’d been afraid of fireworks and firecrackers, but he had always loved fire. On the campsites of his childhood he always took care of the fire and tended the coals through the night. 

The first time he helped set up a fireworks display he was still a teenager who had developed a talent for fire spinning, sometimes known as fire dancing. He performed in sideshows and street fairs. This was long after he’d left Saskatchewan on his own for Vancouver, where he slept outside and lived on the streets. He rode his skateboard everywhere. After one fire-spinning street performance, a pyrotechnician approached him, having made the logical conclusion that Carter might like fireworks and ought to get on the crew for the big fireworks competition. And so Carter joined the team of Vancouver’s huge Celebration of Light. The first two years, he looked forward to working on the fireworks barges because the food was good and plentiful. None of the other pyros knew that the kid with the mohawk skateboarding to the firing site was sleeping outdoors more or less permanently.

For technical reasons, some pyros are often stationed relatively close to the fireworks when they’re going off. It was unusual in Montreal that we had so much cable that we could fire the show from a distance behind the audience. Keeping close means less cable, and it allows pyros to fix last-minute problems, even to the point of hand-firing effects that, for one reason or another, failed to go off when signaled by the computer. This is the rational reason for standing near the site as the fireworks go off. But I sensed from Carter that the irrational reasons were the more powerful ones. There was wildness in fireworks, and down on the site—not comfortably seated in the stands—was the place to be.

“When the fireworks went off,” Carter said, recalling those first days, “the barge would rock, and the air pressure was like a flick to the face. You’re smelling the smoke of it all, too. You can’t see the show in the sky properly, but there’s a different show on the barge. It’s chaotic down there. It seems like all hell is breaking loose, but in a designed fashion. You see the squibs lighting the quickmatch, and that’s violent. You see short, fast flashes all the way up the rack you’ve set up, and the slow fuses burning, and the mortars firing, and the plastic ripping off, all the giant explosions. And every time you feel the air pressure. It’s so loud, but I never want to wear the earplugs because I want to get the full effect. I don’t want to take away from the experience. It’s not a continuous noise until the barrage is coming close to the finale, but by that time you can’t hear anything you’re howling so loudly. Like at the moon, but better.”

In the nineteenth century, science overcame superstition and alchemy. Increased understanding of chemistry allowed the use of a wider variety of colors. Color abstracted the firework, dominated the eye, and transformed the romantic sublime art into the merely wonderful; it was dazzling and amusing to behold but no longer fearsome. James Whistler shows this in his 1875 painting Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket, which depicts smudges of fire and bursts of color in the sky, languidly and intermittently drifting to the ground, all sky and color and dazzle. John Ruskin hated it, calling it “Cockney impudence,” but by then the world (and art) was beginning to pass Ruskin by.

The nineteenth century also marked the transformation of governments and nations, and the subsiding of absolute monarchical power through much of the West. At the beginning of the century, fireworks embroidered and reinforced the power of rulers. By the end of the century, fireworks had become a commercial business, something to be set off each night in amusement parks and dance gardens in London and Paris, something purely colorful and surprising and delightful, but decoupled from meaning and from the heaviness of conquering, war-making monarchy.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century and continuing to this moment, fireworks finished this transformation and became pure nature, color and light and sound. The viewer might shout and howl, but few now mistake the fireworks for anything other than bright chemical reactions. There is no instruction in them, no wisdom. Humans may guide, but the works are subject to the basic laws, laws not of man but of a nature which can’t be changed, and which will eventually take all of us by another process of oxidation and disappearance. This became poignantly clear after World War I.

“They that sat in the light,” wrote an anonymous essayist in London’s Saturday Review in 1927, “have seen a great darkness. We have no heart to pierce that darkness, to pretend it is not there, with artificial illuminations. There is no need to bring toy stars crashing about our ears; the real heavens have fallen.”

In the trenches on the western front, the infantryman spent his days and nights in hiding from the munitions launched into the air to arc over no man’s land and ignite in the warrens of tunnels and ditches and hidey-holes. This kind of firework could symbolize nothing: It was purely physical, a bringer of fire and blood and shit and vomit, heralding only explosions and gas.

Is it strange that, as a former artilleryman several generations removed from the western front, I still feel complicit? I never said anything about this to my teammates, but every day on the firing site in Montreal reminded me of my time in the artillery—the hot days, the sand, the caution, the ever-present threat of explosion. Artillerymen had been the first pyrotechnicians, fireworks in the West had been an offshoot of the artilleryman’s trade, and I had sought out a reconnection to that firing line. After nearly twenty years I missed it, even though I had come to understand that an artillery shell had one purpose and left nothing much to think about except some metrics of war: geographical coordinates, timing, fuse choice, casualty counts. Perhaps in fireworks I thought I had found a way to resist this, to give my old craft meaning and even beauty. But the moral weight of just one artillery shell crushes its own history, rendering moot any suggestion that the spinning bullet on its ballistic arc embodies a kind of elegance or perfection. Every incoming round resists metaphor and suggests only the end, the very last point, the extinguishing. An artillery shell had nothing to do with these fireworks, it didn’t qualify. Some things are too heavy and too dangerous to be the object of idle daydreaming, which is what makes them so basicially uncivilized. There is little allegory in that black powder.

At this point fireworks are just about reduced to one allegory. There is the moment in James Joyce’s Ulysses when, in the act of coitus, two lovers spot a firework in the sky, “up like a rocket and down like a stick.” Ernest Hemingway described screwing to the sound of the Valencian mascletà in For Whom the Bell Tolls. And in the movie To Catch a Thief, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant confront each other in a hotel room while fireworks explode in a sky spied through the French doors of the balcony, a moment long interpreted as a censor-friendly prefigurement of the enthusiastic sex act about to take place. And it is this memory of the sexually charged fireworks between Kelly and Grant that seems alluded to in later photographs of Kelly’s wedding to Rainier III, Prince of Monaco, in which Princess Grace has stepped through the French doors and into the transforming light of the royal fireworks, not accompanied by the actor but by the prince, who stands beside her on the balcony, both of them lit in fireworks, their fief stretched out at their feet.

But none of these erotics are sublime. They are at best enchanting, a word one associates with Grace Kelly, Disney, and the evening fireworks at Cinderella’s Castle, especially the sight of Tinkerbell streaking overhead on a zip wire and lit in the prismatic muddle of spotlight and fireworks. What one feels at these moments is amusement, not awe. The Valencian falles, remnant of ancient Spanish ritual practices probably begun to commemorate Corpus Christi, now are mostly a carnival-like spectacle, a civic party. Fireworks are too commodified now to carry the allegorical, contritional weight they once did, before they were generally available for sale alongside the boiled peanuts in revival-size tents across the border in South Carolina.

But the craft remains, and it is the craft that Luis was talking about when he described the sky as a canvas, with its highs and middle and lows. The allegorical potential, as Luis had made clear that first day, was entirely beside the point.

In the last days of preparing the show we moved like ants, back and forth, across expanses of sand and underneath the outer reaches of the roller coasters. Everyone knew their tasks. When we worked together, we communicated in silent gestures. Everywhere I looked, the team was busy—some of them unspooling large rolls of wire up and down and across the site, others bent over rows of mortar tubes like tobacco pickers. I wrote the names of my daughters on a girandola when no one was looking. 

As the very last day wore on, the firing position achieved its ultimate complexity: Fuses begat wires begat cables. There was always another explosive to strap in somewhere. We began to run out of duct tape, aluminum foil, and space.

Zach spent a great deal of time that last day in the cramped room below the platform, crammed between massive piles of cable and stacked firing controllers, working out the electrical setup. The final thing we did as a crew was watch Zach emerge from that relay room and swim a firing cable out to the last of the floating platforms. He stripped down to his shorts and plunged in, holding the end of the cable—the part that wasn’t waterproof—above his head. On the bottom lay deep mud, and sometimes he nearly slipped under the poisoned water full of metals and gunpowder residue. We stood in the shade of the platform watching him make the final connection by force. When it was over, I helped Zach out of the water, and then we gathered our tool belts and headed back to the trailer, then to the hotel to wash up before the show.

I know now that, in the booth during the show, Kelly was looking for errors. When he told me this later, I took the knowledge personally, as a rebuke. Now I realize that with every strap Zach and I wrapped around the one-shots, we laid upon them only the suggestion of control. And when Julie showed me how to set a pan angle for deflected effects, giving the show depth and breadth, our measuring was mostly just guesswork.

I myself have seen the errors, but only after repeatedly watching a grainy video of our show on my computer until finally the repetition revealed them, the refusal of some effects to conform to the plan. The more I watched, the more dissatisfied and let down I became, but not because of the errors. It was the repetition of peering into my computer screen and watching the surprising become predictable. The saddest thing was knowing with certainty what would come next. Luis had warned me about repetition in our very first conversation in front of the hotel, when he wiped the sky clean and described it as a blank canvas. 

In Virginia Woolf’s essay “The Death of the Moth,” it’s the repetition of the day moth’s fluttering from side to side in his compartment in the window—“that was all he could do”—that at first renders the creature so pathetic. By the time it sinks to the windowsill, I’m praying for it to die. The shells come screaming over the trenches, over and over, from one side to the other, and the trick of war becomes not courage but a kind of terrible endurance. The moth plunk-plunk-plunks against the window, the howitzers fire at a sustained rate, gas seeps into the trenches again and again, the moth flutters right and then left. This life is not error, but it is still imperfect: predictable, relentless, repetitive, barely endurable.

It’s easy to remember Woolf’s moth as a pathetic creature, and easy to forget what she later says about it. “It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zigzagging to show us the true nature of life… . One is apt to forget all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity.”

When the moth, finally dying and having fallen on its back, makes one last and successful attempt to right itself on its feet before dying, Woolf called this a protest against the great power outside the window, the one that came for the moth. She called this a superb protest; it “moved one strangely.” It wasn’t so much that the moth had resisted death, but that the act itself had been so unexpected, so unnecessary, and so triumphantly futile. It was only by coincidence that there had been anyone there to watch the moth fight nature, and surely the moth had some sense it would die whether it flipped over or not. But still it flipped itself over, a momentary error in the plan, and Woolf was surprised. The surprise was the thing that might save us from the body counts, the tyranny of command and control.

It has been two years since our display, and in that time I’ve tried to retain what I saw. I’ve listened to the soundtrack hundreds of times and may have listened to Mark Mothersbaugh’s “Ping Island” and Psapp’s “Cosy in the Rocket” more often than any other person should. But memory slips, and video is lossy and flat, and I have to admit that I don’t much recognize the booth as I first remembered it.

The German philosopher and critic Theodor Adorno once said of fireworks that they were “an empirical appearance free of the burden of empirical being in general, which is that it has duration; they are a sign of heaven and yet artifactual; they are both a writing on the wall, rising and fading away in short order, and yet not a writing that has any meaning we can make sense of.” Walking back to the shack on one of the last days, I asked Zach why anyone would go to so much technical trouble to put on a fireworks display when it would only last a short time and most of the audience wouldn’t appreciate or even recognize the nuances.

“I’ve always realized that’s the means to an end,” Zach said. “The memories you create are the lasting effect. The audience won’t remember it forever, but the memory lasts a little while. Being ephemeral is part of the appeal. Everything else is a statue in the park getting crapped on by pigeons.” 

The essential realization about the others on the team, about Zach, Kelly, Carter, Sean, Julie, Dan, Luis, and Patrick, was that they didn’t care that their work would destroy itself and disappear forever. Their art embraced its own subsidence. Whether they did so consciously, they had committed radical acts: the sensible embracing of the temporary, the seeking of the ephemeral, the commitment of a grand spectacle no one would ever see again or even remember for long, the imitation of a moth flipping to its feet at its moment of disappearance, the burning of money 4,381 pieces at a time, the acceptance of their anonymity. Here, among these eight crafty and resourceful people, I recognized the acceptance of transience and their pleasure in it. They were transients themselves, tossing matches at the moon.

There was nothing to do but look up through the windows at the sky. It is impossible not to look at what you know will never come back. A fireworks show is like a book that erases itself behind the reader, sentence by sentence. I leaned out through the window again. My eye drifted down from the heavens to the people below and the structures—the bleachers, the amusement park—that contained them. Below me, the faces upturned to the sky were changed: colored, flashing, strangely flickering and shadowed, as if glimpsed out of some other dimension to which they were momentarily returning. They sat transfixed, alternately gaping and cheering, but at what?

It’s gone, not even preserved in memory. In my memory, they have put down their beer bottles. The show is enchanting, pretty, loud, and smells of smoke. It transforms the world for the briefest moment. The crowd seems heavy, weighed down, a collection of accreted conventions, humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered, potentials never realized. But then they see their opposite in the distance, climbing into the sky across the Lac des Dauphins, and they are rapt. They are all, to my eye, changed. The old familiar world is changed.

I now recognize my daughter’s face from that night on the river a year before. I see it in Whistler’s painting that transformed the London skyline in bursts of color caught in the moment just before they snuffed out. I recognize the glowing transformation of my daughter’s face looking into the sky above the Haw River, back home, on the Fourth of July, in the light of homemade fireworks. I see the shells flashing and painting her little pale face until she seems not of this world but more intense and unknowable, defined by the different lines of a different artist. She is red and green and stroboscopic silver in turn, no longer as familiar to me and therefore more full of potential. I wonder what she is thinking and know that I don’t and won’t ever know. I see an old woman in her, in the sharp nose and shadowed cheeks, in the way her eyes show she is unafraid of what she sees out there, over the trees. She is Grace Kelly on the balcony beside Prince Rainier, lit as if she glows from within, levitating above the crowd, while behind her somewhere Cary Grant becomes silver-haired and hunched.

This is the firework’s true meaning: not as evidence of humanity’s triumph over the world and its elements, but of humanity’s audacity and insouciance in the face of nature and our inevitable return to it. Fireworks are evidence of a mind divided, that of a cowering beast frightened of loud sounds, but also of a symbolic creature, self-created, shouting as the fireworks go up, laughing at the devil that will get us all someday but not now.

Dante, in the last canto of the Commedia, reports that he has finally seen the underlying structure of the universe. It appears to him so brightly it blinds him, before transforming into a celestial display:

In the deep transparent essence of the lofty light
there appeared to me three circles
having three colors but the same extent,
and each one seemed reflected by the other
as rainbow is by rainbow, while the third seemed
equally breathed north by one and by the other.

And within these circles of light, color, and fire, Dante saw a human, our likeness. But this is only the memory of a memory. The vision itself, the understanding, was forgotten by Dante as quickly as it appeared, wiping itself away at the moment of its revelation.

This is the whole comedy, the sublime effrontery. We see and forget, appear and disappear, and all the saints approve.



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