Cone of Concussion
The ten minutes before showtime were surreal: Seven of us stood between the double line of mortar tubes, lost in our own thoughts, trying not to stare at each other. Everyone was decked out in safety goggles, blast helmets and flame-retardant Nomex. After sweating all day in the hot sun, we had finally erected a fearsome arsenal of rack-mounted guns, designed to hurl fireworks shells hundreds of feet into the sky. Our audience members were safely ensconced two football fields away, sitting more-or-less comfortably in wooden bleachers and listening to a group of Beach Boys imitators. But we were locked inside a no-man's-land behind two separate sets of chain-link fence, patrolled by a squad of police and firefighters.
For me, this was a dream come true. I was finally getting a chance to step up to the big time of professional pyrotechnics, from the sparklers, roman candles and cherry bombs of my youth.
For Anikó, it was something else entirely, and I was still not sure I completely understood why my new Hungarian wife was standing there between the racks, gazing off into space through her industrial safety glasses. Many years ago, a pressure cooker exploded in Anikó's kitchen, and she was nearly killed by the detonation. After spending several weeks in the hospital, her arms were still scarred…a testament to her reflex for protecting the eyes from such a powerful blast. However, her instinctive efforts had not been completely successful, and for several days the doctors were unable to determine if she would ever see again. Today, more than a decade later, she still cannot bear the pain of going outdoors—even in cloudy weather—unless her eyes are protected by dark glasses.
Suddenly, that surfing music stopped, and the distant crowd began a countdown. Our lead operator lit his road flare, preparing to send up the opening barrage of product. His spotter stood close behind, lightly resting a hand on his shoulder. The first three-inch shells were almost deafening, even though we all wore earplugs. I glanced skyward distractedly and thought, "Wow. I've never seen these babies explode directly overhead."
To gear up for tonight's performance, we had watched several homemade videos of previous years' shows. The process of hand-lighting fireworks looks fairly innocuous on tape, but the cameraman had been restricted to a safe distance. We were completely unprepared for the enormous amounts of flaming debris which now rained down on our lead operator and his spotter. When engaged in the disorienting task of shooting up aerial bombs, the spotter's job is crucial: he brushes you (and himself) off after each shell, and reminds you, by pushing down on your shoulder, to stay below the cone of concussion, which can easily knock you flat onto the ground.
Okay, the first three racks of three-inchers and four-inchers were spent, and our lead operator passed the flare to his spotter, like a flaming baton. Anikó raced over to take her place as the new spotter, and she was forced to brush off embers even more energetically, as the first five-inchers went up. Things became pretty darn loud for a while, but by the time Anikó received the baton, some smaller three-inch guns were next in the firing line. During our runthrough, she had asked me to be her spotter, just in case those old memories of the pressure cooker proved to be too overwhelming. So I gently placed my hand on her shoulder, ready to accept the baton at the first sign of skittishness.
After her first shell whumped out of its gun and the hot wave of backwash hit our faces, I could feel a bit of shaking through her Nomex jacket. I quickly brushed the embers off both of us and squeezed her shoulder encouragingly. To my surprise, she stepped right back in and lit the second round. What a trouper. By the time we reached the end of the rack, eight shells later, she seemed almost at home in this living hell of thunderous explosions and burning rain.
But when I looked over my shoulder at the next rack, three huge mortar barrels stared back at me. Six-inchers. Holy cow. Anikó was unknowingly scheduled to ignite half of our team's largest shells.
She obviously hadn't planned on this, and I could see the fear behind her safety goggles as she glanced at me. I patted her shoulder, and prepared to take the baton. But then she stepped right back in, to light the next quickmatch. When that huge shell went up, its heavily-braced wooden rack jumped clean off the ground. I was busier than ever, brushing away a veritable blizzard of flaming embers. One of them burned through my sneaker and seared the back of my foot, but I was too busy watching Anikó. She looked around, hesitated…and stepped in again. Nothing was gonna stop this lady now.
Later, she was given the honor of lighting off our set piece: an American flag in the form of fireworks. Piece of cake.
During the drive home, I asked why she had agreed to participate. After all, I was the crazy guy who wanted to fulfill his childhood dream of "blowing things up," while she was just a nervous woman who often jumped at the distant backfire of a car.
She replied, "A wife should share her husband's experiences, no?"
Copyright © 2003 Alan C. Baird.