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Confessions Of An Explosive Woman

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Forgive me, reader, for I have sinned. I have omitted details about my life, which could forever change how you view me.

I am a dangerous woman. I run with scissors. I play with bombs.

It all began several years ago when my friends asked if I'd like to make a little extra money helping them on a project. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I agreed anyway. Little did I know I'd end up wearing as little as possible, rolling around in the dirt, getting sweaty with a group of people – some of whom were complete strangers – and becoming absolutely hooked on playing with explosives.

Please don't look at me with fear or disapproval. I mean you no harm. Honestly. I do these things for the greater good. Willingly.

Oh, sure, the activities to which I've confessed are easily explained. I'm sure you'll find me less threatening when you allow me to explain.

May I be frank with you? Yes? Good.

Barring incapacitating injuries, I'm a nurse, which solves the running with scissors. And, to help you understand about the bombs: I'm part of a pyrotechnics crew. I help create the fireworks displays seen on the 4th of July.

I must confess, I love fireworks. I love the bright, dazzling, ever-changing display of lights in the night sky, I love the oohs and aahs of the crowd, and more than anything, I've come to love the process of creating an explosive spectacular in unbearably difficult conditions. I am a pyrotechnics junkie.

I've had many people ask why I enjoy doing fireworks.

"Isn't it dangerous? Aren't you afraid? What if something terrible happens?"

Yes, it can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing or fail to pay attention. I also live in Southern California where the heat can be quite intense. It's not unusual for our crew to work under the blazing sun, with the mercury in the thermometer reaching over 100 degrees. We're hot, the bombs are hot, we're exhausted, and the dirt and sweat often blur our vision and leave our hands slick.

I could be afraid, I probably should be afraid, but that's nearly impossible when you work with such consummate professionals and are having so much fun. Yes, fun. Lots and lots of fun! Big fun, even. So much fun, in fact, that I recruit some of my "always play it safe", non-pyro friends to come join us.

The leader of the crew is my friend, Jim. He's a licensed pyrotechnician as well as a firefighter and paramedic. My other friend – Jim's girlfriend, Sandi – is a former cop who now works as a flight attendant. In the beginning, we also had a young man who grew up in the fireworks business. That's what his family did. He'd been around fireworks all his life and was very knowledgeable in pyrotechnology. These three people had been working together long enough to establish extremely safe habits in a potentially dangerous environment. By the time I came along, it was obvious they knew what they were doing and I heeded their instructions and warnings without question.

Trust among crew members must be absolute. Of course, that trust comes with a heavy dose of responsibility, not just for yourself, but for everyone with whom you work. Each person is responsible for the safety of himself and the entire team. One mistake and everyone could be in harm's way. Because of the concentration and care necessary when handling explosives, you can't very well watch the others like a hawk. No, you must believe – BELIEVE – everyone is exercising extreme caution as they work.

"Yeah, yeah. You sound like brochure for some fireworks school," you say. Maybe so. Still, the simple fact is that a crew such as this becomes a very special group, wherein faith and focus and great care become as much a part of the team as anything else.

Our trust becomes a common bond, which is essentcatch up on each other, and quite possibly nap. We make the most of our downtime because we'll need the energy to clean up after the show.

Show time arrives and we spread our crew out with fire extinguishers, flashlights, and orders to keep all lookie-loos at bay. Plenty of people love trying to get in close to the action. They never make it.

Once the show is over, we on the fringes wait for the all clear from our boss as he checks for hangfires and other potentially dangerous shells. With the all clear, we begin our walk back to ground zero. Along the way, we check for debris (yes, we clean up after ourselves!) and any shells which may have launched but not exploded. If you've ever looked for a needle in a haystack, you have a sense of what we do with our sweep. We scan the ground for duds and debris, eyes constantly darting to the left and then to the right. Usually, you get about 30 yards of clean sweeping before you find anything. Then, you find tubing and shell fragments. You pick them up as you go along, as much as you can carry. You stuff them in your pockets so you can gather up more, eliminating the need to go back and pick up the pieces later. And, don't forget, this is all done in the dark.

I can't stress the importance of our post-show sweeps. We're like a hybrid CSI/bomb squad out there. Have you ever watched how police canvas a crime scene? That's what it looks like. We work as a team, walking up and down, back and forth across the area, up to the edge of the fallout zone and then doubling back about an inch to the left or right each time. What we don't see going in one direction, we may see on the return walk. Meanwhile, there's usually someone combing the area from side to side. He covers the same exact area that I'm covering, but from a different angle. This other perspective means we're not going to be missing anything. We hope. The last thing we want is to miss a an unexploded shell. Once it's been launched, there's every possibility it may go off unless we neutralize it. Over time, sitting in out in the elements, it becomes more unstable, more likely to explode. Since we're frequently set up on construction sites in the middle of the suburbs, and construction sites attract kids and machines, we cannot risk overlooking a single square inch of ground.

We're still not done, though. Not even close. We must recheck every mortar for shells, break down the racks, clean ground zero, and load everything into the truck. What was easy in the morning is now quite difficult to do. Nobody's "throwing" racks anymore. We work as quickly as possible, but everyone is dead dog tired. Somehow, we manage to finish everything on site. It's often after midnight by the time we leave a site and we still need to drop off the truck and get home. We ache for days after, our muscles reminding us of all we managed to accomplish in one day.

In the end, I don't mind the hard work, the heat, the dust, or the fact that I'll be blowing gunpowder out of my nose for the next month. For me, it's a nice way to be a part of something hundreds or thousands of people are going to enjoy. Of course, there's an element of danger involved, but that's easily overlooked when you have someone in charge who is mindful of those things and takes extra care to protect the crew.

We always have our share of troubles during the day. Getting stung by a bee, falling down a hillside, fatigue, heat stroke, shells exploding at the wrong time – none of that matters. What matters is we're together and we're doing something to give back to our community. The good always wins out.

Right about here is where you jump in and ask why I do this each year. And it's right about here when I think of the sounds I hear coming from the crowd on the hill, or that group of people down below us. I'm always gratified by the oohs and aahs I hear from the crowd. The strains of music that inevitably waft our way seem perfect and stir something deep within me. From "The Star Spangled Banner" to "R.O.C.K In The USA", I readily envision the men and women who have bravely fought to keep us safe and free. I can feel the spirit of America all around me.

The Fourth of July isn't really about the bright, pretty colors filling up the night sky. It's not just about people gathering together in one place to celebrate. It's not about eating hot dogs or waving a flag. Or rather, it's not just those things, it's more than that. The Fourth of July is about being alive and free to do as the spirit moves you. It's in recognizing and celebrating each and every "thing" that allows us to be who were.

I feel privileged to be able to get together with a group of people every year and set up, shoot, and clean up after a brilliant display of lights — a modest symbol of our freedom, an opportunity to celebrate America. Whether or not you believe the same things I do about this country doesn't matter. What matters is that we are free to think what we want and say what we like, and to do so without fear of repercussions.

For me, it's worth the bee sting, the aching muscles, crowds that ignore our warnings, the gunpowder up the nose, and clothes that need more than one run through the washing machine. That's the Spirit of America and that's why I end up happily playing with bombs every year. I'm an explosive woman and I like it.

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About Joan Hunt

  • Thanks for this vivid glimpse into the world of a fireworks crew. It’s a world full of details most of us can only guess at, and you’ve brought some of those details into a focus and context rarely seen.

    In addition to “explosive woman,” I’d say “talented writer” is another label you can carry with pride.

  • Thanks, Victor.

    I can’t tell you how much I missed working a show this year. It gnawed at my soul and my gut all day long. I wanted to be out there so badly. Next year. Next. Year.

  • Great article, Joan. I too love fireworks but as a spectator only so far. Didn’t realise there was so much work to do, what a heroine!

  • No heroine, Cabana Boy. Merely a bit insane.
    I never knew how much work went into a pyro show until I became involved myself. And, remember, the show I’m discussing here is one of the smaller ones.

    I’ve also worked on loading the barges for bigger shows viewed from the shores of San Diego. That’s a few days worth of work and a lot of wiring.

    Then there’s the show I set up with just one other person — Jim. It was a lot of fun, but we had a couple of major concerns to plan around. 1) We were in a neighborhood known for gang activity and the police kept a bit of a lookout during the day. 2) We had to have the fire department with us because the construction company had deposited a fuel tank on the site. D’oh!

    No heroics here, I’m afraid, only fun.