It’s three o’clock in the morning on July 5th. A calm fills the midsummer night, punctuated by an occasional boom off in the distance; a relic of an Independence Day celebration that is up past its bed time. The scent of hot dogs, hamburgers, and beer lingers in the air, peppered with the sulfuric smell of pyrotechnic remnants. Most families have been home and slumbering for hours. Moms, dads, aunts, and uncles are sleeping off one too many cocktails while their children dream of the excusably rambunctious day gone by. The previous evening’s fireworks show is already a distant memory, just one part of this annual summer celebration full of family fun.
And yet, during the tranquil calm of that three AM hour, in isolated locations just beyond festival barriers, thousands of fireworks crews across the nation are still toiling away. Though the last shell of the show dazzled the audience hours ago, the crew is still cleaning up its mess. Trucks and trailers are being loaded with ton after ton of equipment, most of it lugged around by good old fashioned manual labor. Thousands of dollars-worth of sophisticated electronics are carefully counted, cleaned, and packed away to be put to work at the next show, only hours from now. All of the material that took hours, if not days to arrange is carefully disassembled. Heavy, cumbersome racks are carried away by hand. The area is painstakingly swept clean of every tiny scrap of paper and debris, leaving the site just as it was found. It is back breaking work.
For these crews, there is no day off to celebrate Independence Day. Sleep has been a scarce commodity for days, if not weeks. They have been handling explosives, loading trucks, moving equipment, and tearing down for what feels like an eternity. Day after day, hour after hour, show after show. There is hardly a chance to stop and eat, let alone take a break. Just today, they have been working nonstop for at least 18 hours, most of it in the stifling midday heat. The relentless race against the sun has left them exhausted. A sour mix of bug spray and sun block coats their skin. They are covered in dirt and grime. They’re tired. They’re hungry. They’re mentally spent.
One might assume that the individuals on these crews are highly compensated for such difficult and specialized work, yet this is rarely the case. While it is true that some pyrotechnicians make a good living, the vast majority are paid a fee that is only marginally higher than minimum wage. Even those that own and run the companies that provide these shows will readily tell of how tight the margins are and how expensive of a business it has become. Regulations are stringent, insurance is costly, and the risks are high.
On paper, it would seem, it is a rather foolish endeavor. Work yourself to exhaustion, risk your safety and well-being, and walk away with very little just for the opportunity to shoot some fireworks. Any rational person would walk away from such a deal in a heartbeat. It is a formula that shouldn’t work; as close to zero sum as one can get. Yet, if you ask any of these people if there is anything they would rather be doing, the response is overwhelming. There is no place they would rather be. There is nothing they would rather be doing. They have difficulty picturing a life without it. Fireworks are in their blood and in their hearts and there is nothing that can change that in their world.
I know this to be true because I am one of these fireworks people. I have dedicated the last 8 years of my life to pursuing the art and craft of fireworks. I have spent countless hours, days, weeks, and months designing fireworks displays, attending fireworks events, and even watching brief glimpses of fireworks videos on YouTube, mining them for a nugget of new information. I have spent more nights than I can remember in a remote field somewhere, loading a truck with a team of other misfits, laughing at how lucky we are to have come upon such misfortune. I’ve missed out on endless summertime fun to be in the middle of nowhere, shooting fireworks. My own brother describes me as being “married to my career.” Some would call it an obsession. Those of us who are obsessed like to call it a passion.
So the question is, why? Why do we feel this compulsion to design and shoot fireworks shows? Why do we feel the need to push the envelope and create new things? Why do we spend so much time helping others to make their ideas reality in the fireworks world that so few of us inhabit? It’s these questions that make me feel like I might be losing my mind at times, yet seem to define me more than anything.
Recently, I asked several of my fireworks colleagues that very question: Why do you shoot fireworks? The replies varied in scope and sincerity. Answers ranged from “It makes me feel like a rock star” to my personal favorite, “Psychological brain disorder reinforced by life events.” As I began to explore the replies, the word passion seemed to be a common denominator. It occurred to me that in order to try to truly understand the answer, I needed to have a deeper understanding of passion.
According to the Cambridge dictionary, passion is defined in two ways. The first definition is: a powerful emotion or its expression, esp. the emotion of love, anger, or hate. The second definition is listed as: something that you are strongly interested in and enjoy. I would argue that both definitions apply to most people in the fireworks business in that we feel very strongly about what we do and we are certainly interested in it. But where does this interest come from? It’s a question that I am asked often in conversations about work. After all, it’s not every day that your average Joe meets a pyrotechnician.
When I ask pyros about how they got into fireworks, childhood almost always comes up. The fireworks professionals of today were the children of yesterday that wreaked havoc on the neighborhood and their parents’ blood pressure. We ran around sending bottle rockets into the night sky under adult supervision and at one another’s faces when that supervision was missing. Our pockets were full of firecrackers and jumping jacks, and lighting matches put us in a hypnotic trance. They even named the common igniting device, punks, after us.
All of that makes sense when you are a child with no responsibilities other than washing the dishes and trying to come home without any major injuries each night. But it still doesn’t explain why we have grown up to play with fireworks as adults, when the stakes are so much higher. Lots of children are fascinated with fireworks, but only a select few grow up to do it for a living.
The most common responses were put into a few basic categories. First off, pyrotechnicians have a natural inclination to entertain, and fireworks provides a unique medium that allows them to entertain thousands of people at a time. As I mentioned, one colleague in particular said it makes him feel like a rock star. There are not many jobs that end with thousands of people cheering when you are done, and fireworks are particularly rewarding in that way.
The next category that stands out is the bond that is built among the community. Our obsession with fireworks is rare. The people you meet all have what one might call an unhealthy relationship with explosives. These connections are usually forged in the hardship of endless manual labor and lies to our significant others about how much that new fireworks gadget really cost. If it were up to us, we would talk fireworks all the time, and having friends that let us do that is a sacred privilege. I have said many times that the annual Pyrotechnics Guild International convention is an opportunity for fireworks enthusiasts to feel normal for a week. Fireworks friends are considered family, and it is a bond that lasts a lifetime.
Another appeal to us is the challenge. As far as I can tell, pyrotechnicians are complete gluttons for punishment. The work is detail oriented and difficult and the pay is minimal. The medium itself is as chaotic as can be. Creating artwork of any kind is a demanding pursuit. Creating artwork out of objects that are set ablaze, hurled into the sky, and designed to explode is preposterous. There are no rehearsals. There are no second chances. The thing either explodes exactly the way you wanted it too or it doesn’t. Additionally, the times when it doesn’t can turn into injury or even death in an instant. It is a science as much as it is an art and an art as much as it is an exercise in impracticality. I have yet to see a perfect show and I have certainly never been able to pull it off myself, but there is no feeling of accomplishment like that of a show that goes off nearly as planned.
The most important reason to pursue fireworks, at least for me, is that it gives me an opportunity to make people happy and to impact people’s lives. Fireworks are a part of not just American culture, but an integral part of celebrations across the globe. People love what we do. Not only do they love it, but if it is done right, with unbridled commitment to excellence and with a relentless pursuit of innovation, then it can truly change lives. It may sound exaggerated, but it’s something that I have been privileged to feel for myself.
In my mid 20’s, only a couple of years ago, I wrestled with an existential crisis over what my life was worth to the world. Here I was, pursuing this fireworks passion relentlessly and questioning it completely. I had always pictured myself as someone that would positively impact the world. I wanted to work with people. I wanted to contribute to their lives positively as much as possible. I wanted to do important work. Meanwhile, I was selling and shooting fireworks, which in my mind was as close to quite literally burning money as you could possibly get. Creativity is all well and good, but was I wasting everyone’s time? How could I let myself work in such a self-indulgent medium? How much longer was I going to let this last before I started contributing to society?
As fate would have it, a conversation with a great friend of mine profoundly changed my outlook. This friend, we can call him Mike, is a poet and an English professor at a major east coast university. Mike had at this time just begun teaching English to freshman college students and I had found myself envious of his opportunity to directly affect the lives of his students. Here was Mike, directly reaching out to his students and measurably impacting them while still being able to pursue his passion for poetry. He had seemingly laughed in the face of adversity and used his opportunity to create a better tomorrow. It was the kind of lasting difference that I had hoped to make in the world.
It was a simple insight that Mike shared with me that changed my perspective. As we started to discuss the origin of our unique obsessions, I told Mike how self-indulgent I felt for pursuing fireworks. I shared with him how it felt like a selfish pursuit and I wanted to be able to contribute the way he did. Mike broke it down into a simple anecdote.
“Do you remember when you were a little kid and went to fireworks shows?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered, slightly confused.
“Do you remember how those shows inspired you to do what you do today?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
“You are doing that for kids that see your shows today,” said Mike.
It was a simple statement, but one I have lived by ever since. Suddenly, the audiences of tens of thousands of people that had seen my shows were not just faceless beings, but people. These were real individuals. Real kids. These kids were experiencing magic the way I did when I was a child. This realization was the most profound thing I had ever heard. Perhaps it was the pandering nature of using children to justify a cause, but I once again had what seemed like good reason to continue the pursuit of my craft.
The following summer, I was at the Pyrotechnics Guild International convention in Iowa. While manning the ACE Pyro trade show booth, as if by fate, a friend of mine from a neighboring state walked by our table with his nine year old son.
“Tell Peter what your favorite fireworks show is,” he said to his son.
The child’s face lit up as he said with a smile, “Chicago Lights!”
The Chicago Lights show was one I had designed and shot at the same convention two years prior. It was a Chicago themed display that quickly became a favorite for those that saw it. I’m always extremely grateful and flattered to hear positive feedback about my shows and it was a compliment I had heard before, but never from a child.
“Aww, thank you man. I really appreciate that. Thank you,” I replied.
Then my friend said something that I’ll never forget.
“You have no idea how much that show impacted my son. I had to drag him to the convention to watch a fireworks show, and after that show, he fell in love with it. We have spent tons of time together since then enjoying the fireworks hobby together. It really gave us something in common to share.”
Instantly, my heart melted and I was left speechless. Mike was right. I had inspired a kid to pursue his passion. Not only that, but it had brought a father and son together to share a common bond. I would have never imagined such a thing was possible, and here they were, mere months after my discussion with Mike, telling me how my work had impacted their world.
I tell this tale not to stroke my ego, but as an example to my colleagues of what is possible. Why do we do it? Because once in a while, we can have an impact like this on people’s lives. I believe that fireworks are the closest thing to real magic that people get to see. Fireworks are a mystery and a wonder to the average audience. We have the opportunity to bend what is possible and touch the emotions of our crowds. Thousands of families visit Disney World every day and leave with a cherished memory of seeing an enchanting fireworks display. The 4th of July is a mythical day in the life of a child that opens the sky and fills it with wonder every year. It’s a privilege and an honor to be a part of the culture in that way.
And so, as the last of the equipment is loaded into the truck and as the shoot site is cleared of the evidence of the show, a feeling of fulfillment washes over the crew. A deep breath of relief is closely followed by an overwhelming need to smile. The job is done. the crowds have gone home, the site is cleaned, and the pyrotechnicians couldn’t be happier. Because although there is no remnant, that night, the sky was completely full of the legendary awesomeness that is a fireworks display. The raw force of fire blazing its way through the night sky, sending wave after wave of concussion through its audience, leaving them with a feeling of pure astonishment and the memory of an unforgettable experience. That is what fuels us to make it to the next show and do it all over again. That is what makes all the work worthwhile. That my friends, is why we shoot.