June 29, 2001
"What I remember was being on my feet--all of a sudden on my feet, but I didn’t know how I got there. And everyone around me, they were on their feet, too, and I could see their hands slapping together and I could see their mouths moving, but I couldn’t hear them. Couldn’t hear anything because I was standing in this place of pure light and noise, a place like nowhere I’d ever been before. And I thought, right then: This must be what heaven is."
To TV8 producer Wendy "Jake" Jacobus, the video on the monitor in front of her looked more like hell.
But hell sure made for great TV.
A fireworks shell had just burst low over the northernmost of three barges anchored on Lake Michigan for the show. And now, as Jake watched, burning debris from the errant shell was falling into a plywood box the size of a truck bed.
Since the box in question contained all the fireworks shells that hadn't been launched yet, that seemed like a very bad thing.
"Luis!" Jake called to her camera operator on the barge. "Talk to me. What's going on?"
Confined to the TV8 production van for the duration of the broadcast, Jake had only the eight video monitors in front of her to serve as her eyes, and a radio connection to serve as her ears. Most of the time she was just as happy to be the impartial observer. All of a sudden, though, being stuck on the inside looking out was near intolerable.
On Luis Burns’ monitor, Pat Firenze--son of fireworks patriarch Pasquale Firenze, the man who had been speaking on the voiceover—was levering himself up onto the edge of the box. As Jake held her breath, Pat lunged, grabbing at the flaming cardboard and looping it up and over the side and onto the deck of the barge, before he landed hard, himself, on top of the shells.
Jake, who had been hovering about two inches above her chair, sank back down as Luis's camera followed the debris, staying with the shot until the fire burned itself harmlessly out. Then the camera slid back over to Pat, already climbing out of the box. In the background, other men scarcely missed a beat as they hustled to pull shells out and get them loaded into the cardboard mortars.
"Luis!" Jake tried the radio again.
Still nothing. She turned to her technical director. "Archie, ready Camera One."
It was Jake's job to choose which shot from the eight cameras to use and then call it out to Archie, who made it all happen. He was very good at his job.
"Take Camera One," she told Archie now, sending a wide shot from the top of the Waverly Apartments out onto the airwaves...or through the cables, more accurately these days.
On the monitor, anchor George Eagleton was deep into "happy talk": "Wow, Martha, I think we here at the Lake Days Fireworks in Liberty, Wisconsin, were just treated to one of Pasquale Firenze's very special fireworks shells."
"A very special misfire," more likely, Jake thought. But then, George loved everyone and everything, even the awful "George and Martha: The First Couple of News" ad campaign TV8 launched when George teamed up with co-anchor Martha Malone. Martha had flatly refused to wear the Martha Washington costume, but George had bounded around the station spouting, "I cannot tell a lie," for days.
As Martha had put it then, "He reminds me of an over-enthusiastic puppy in a tri-corner hat. I'm afraid he's going to piddle on my foot."
But then Jake had more to worry about than her on-air talent piddling on each other.
Like finding out if everybody was okay out there. In addition to Luis and Pat, Pasquale Firenze's best friend Tudy and the rest of his crew were on the barge, along with a thousand pounds or so of explosives. And a TV8 microwave truck. A very special TV8 microwave truck. Or at least a very expensive one.
"Luis, talk to me," Jake pleaded, all the while scanning the bank of monitors in front of her for the next shot.
One screen showed the crowd that packed Shore Park. Another, the barges on the lake. Then there was the wide shot of the fireworks Jake was taking currently. And a tight shot of same. George, still talking. Martha Malone frowning at the notes on the desk in front of her. Reporter Neal Cravens prepping for a post-fireworks interview with an unnaturally blonde family of four.
Nothing, though, from Luis's camera, and that worried Jake. Luis Burns had a tendency to be a cowboy, even under the most innocuous of circumstances.
And these weren't the most innocuous of circumstances.
"Luis!" she yelled into the radio.
Jake groaned and, with much reluctance, added: "Over."
She hadn't figured out whether Luis was a closet ham-radio operator or he had simply watched too many old war movies. Either way, his radio interaction was always sprinkled with "roger"s, "over"s and even the occasional "wilco."
"You're going to love this, Jake," Luis's voice finally crackled over the radio.
What Jake would love was to ring his disembodied neck.
"I got it all," he was saying. "This big ass fireworks shell explodes low. A mussel burst, the old guy, Tudy, said--I didn't know we had mussels in Lake Michigan, did you?" Luis was talking so fast, his words were even more tangled up in themselves than usual.
"I think he meant 'muzzle,' Luis," Jake offered, "not 'mussel.' But is everyone--"
"So, anyway, part of the burning shit fell into the box with all the unfired shells. 'Fire in the box,' they call it. The thing was so close I could have reached down and touched it. Junior--I mean, 'Pat' dove in and pulled it out before the whole mess blew. It was so cool. Over."
Jake closed her eyes and counted to three. She usually counted to five, but she was short on time today. Ten had fallen by the wayside years ago.
"Luis." She opened her eyes. "Is everyone okay?"
"In English, please." Jake ran her hand over her face. "Hold on a sec." She checked the monitors again. "Archie, ready Camera Three."
Camera Three appeared on the preview monitor. Luis's monitor was back on now, but it was showing only the dark lake, with a sprinkling of lights from the spectator boats that dotted the water.
"Listen, Luis, I want the camera pointing up, okay? Fireworks? Sky? And I used your shot of Pat and the 'fire in the box,' but we didn't understand what we were seeing."
She thought for a second, chewing on her thumbnail. "I’ll get hold of Gwen and find out if she wants it for news." Gwen Sonntag was TV8's news director and Jake's direct boss.
"That's cool, Jake, just make sure I get credit."
"Yeah, okay." She flipped off the radio and turned to the tech director. "Take Camera Three, Archie, and then let's see if we can get hold of Gwen..."
Unlike the TV8 on-air talent, Simon Aamot of the ATF understood exactly what he had just seen on his television screen.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had jurisdiction over the fireworks industry, and Simon was an explosives specialist out of the Milwaukee office, just north of Liberty.
What he didn't understand was how the camera operator--who was obviously right there--could have stood and filmed it all without doing anything.
You know, something simple like bending down and pulling the burning garbage away from the shells, so they weren't all blown to hell and back. Or just nudging it unobtrusively with his foot to Pat Firenze, so he could dispose of it. Or just getting the hell out of there, though that was one of the problems with shooting fireworks from a barge: Where do you go if something goes wrong?
Even assuming the crew had loaded the first group of shells in the mortars, there would be hundreds more in the box, waiting to be reloaded by hand as the initial ones were fired. If all of them had gone up, it would have been one hell of a mess and the end of Simon’s night off.
He looked at the beer in his hand, the Oreo cookies on his chair and the Irish setter on his couch. The dog was working at getting a cracker and peanut butter off the roof of her mouth and didn't look up.
Okay, admittedly, the night wouldn't have been a huge loss, but the Firenzes would have been.
Simon had been in charge of an investigation of an explosion at the Firenze's fireworks factory two years earlier--one that had killed Pasquale's brother, Francesco. Since then, the ATF agent had spoken at the safety seminars the Firenzes held for their guys, eaten at the Firenze dinner table with the family, and talked late into the night sipping homemade wine on the Firenze porch.
To paraphrase Dickens, it had been the best of times as well as the worst of times. For Simon, anyway.
Pasquale Firenze reached around to peel the Lake Days T-shirt away from his sweat-sticky back and gave a sniff.
His new deodorant had failed, like those TV ads warned. Not that it mattered anyway--he was alone on the barge. No one to smell him or to see him. Nobody to nag, no cameras to play to. All peaceful-like. Just a man and his fireworks, like it should be here in the first year of a new millennium.
Let his son Pat do the publicity bullcrap for Bryan Williams, who was in charge of Lake Days. Who in hell wanted to watch fireworks on the television anyway, that’s what Pasquale wanted to know.
Pasquale had been a natural showman from his birth nearly seventy years before. A show-off his mother had called him. Show-off or not, he knew instinctively what people wanted from his fireworks, and it wasn’t something they could get through a TV screen.
They wanted to be afraid.
Just a little afraid, but enough. That’s what made his fireworks different. They scared people. They were big and they were noisy and they were lighted by men with torches, not computers with wires.
So what if a shell broke low? You made it work, like Pat had just done. You made it perfect, even if it wasn't.
To Pasquale, fireworks weren’t just something you watched, they were something you felt and smelled and tasted. They thumped you hard in the chest when they went up, and rained black powder and fire when they came back down. In the shower, hours after a show, he would suck in the smell of them, taste the grit in his mouth, and be happy.
Pasquale chewed on his lip now and looked out over the water toward the boats pressing in. The fireworks barges were set in a triangle inside the breakwater, with the north and south barges forming the base of the triangle closest to the shore. Pat was on the north barge with the fireworks for the body of the show, and Pasquale's daughter Angela and her husband Ray--Tudy's son--were on the south barge with the shells for the grand finale. The center barge, Pasquale's barge, carried the big twelve- and sixteen-inchers, and formed the peak of the triangle, pointing east out across the lake.
Pasquale had done it that way so the big shells would be farthest away from the crowd on shore, just in case something went wrong. There was a crowd on the lake, too, though, and the Coast Guard had been running back and forth all night, herding the pleasure boats back a good two, three football fields away from the barges.
A muffled thud sounded just then, and a rocket went up from one of the spectator boats. Pasquale spat into the water and eyed the shell as it angled toward Angela and Ray's barge, then splashed into the lake, well short, thanks be to God.
Stonatos, he thought. We’re sitting on two, three tons of powder out here, and it’s like they’re lighting giant matches and tossing them at us.
A Coast Guard boat motored past, looking for the stonatos, as Pasquale eyed the shells now breaking again over his son's barge. Too slow, he thought. He'd told Pat a million times: It's like music, Little Pat. We're building to a "crescendo."
Shaking his head, Pasquale pulled out his radio.
Angela Firenze Guida listened, shaken, as her father gave Pat instructions over the radio. When she'd heard the explosion, she'd worried that--
Ray whistled for his wife from the mortars. "Hey, Angie. Get your gorgeous butt over here. We go in three."
She stumbled to her husband. "But did you see what happened? Fire in the box. Your father and Pat could have been killed."
"Yeah?" Ray looked up from the sandbag he was adjusting at the base of the first finale mortar. "Makes you wonder who packed the shell, doesn’t it?"
Getting no answer, Ray fished in his shirt pocket and pulled out a plastic sandwich bag. In it was a battered pack of cigarettes with a silver lighter tucked between the pack and the cellophane. "You got a flare or we going to use my lighter?"
"I have a flare, and you know you shouldn't smoke around the shells."
"You don’t want me to smoke anywhere."
It was true. Angela hated that Ray smoked cigarettes. The smell clung to everything.
She just shrugged and Ray, watching her, slipped the smudged lighter out and, with one smooth movement, flipped open the lid and flicked the wheel, sending sparks and an orange flame up into the night. "See? Fireworks? Oohh-ahh..."
He smiled at her, and she caught a glimpse of the charming clown he had been back in high school. "It’s almost time, Ray."
He blew out the flame and snapped the lighter closed, setting it down with the cigarettes before moving toward the end of the quickmatch. "You have to lighten up, Angie, you know? Things can’t always be perfect."
He was right, of course. Angela did want everything to be right. And so little in life was. She picked up the red flare, twisted off the end, and struck it on the floor of the barge like a giant match. "It’s just--"
"Don’t jump the cue now. They’ll count us down," Ray interrupted. His face looked yellow in the light from the torch.
Angela nodded and waited, flare burning at her side. Her father's voice crackled over the radio. "Finale in five, four, three, two, one."
She touched the flare to the end of the quickmatch and the flame raced down the fuse to the shells. Quickmatch was cotton string, coated in black powder and then encased in paper tubing. The tubing contained the gases from combustion, causing the fuse to burn very quickly--sixty feet per second. Without the tubing, the same fuse would burn closer to one inch per second.
The quickmatch flashed down the mortars set out on the south barge like giant explosive dominos--one row dividing into two, two into four, four into sixteen--sending up shell after shell, faster and faster, to create a spectacular tangle of light and color in the sky.
"Heaven's Fire," her father called it, and Angela treasured that verbal poetry from the man who had devoted his life to creating the visual and the aural.
To creating perfection, because nothing else would do.
As the titanium salutes started up, Angela Firenze Guida took a step away from her husband and lifted her face to the sky.
Pasquale was watching the lighted windows of the Waverly Apartments as he waited his turn, flare in hand. The white titanium salutes were thundering overhead, building momentum, and Pasquale could feel the crowd holding its collective breath, wondering whether this time, this year, the windows of that building would all come tumbling down. And they’d be here to see it.
Every year, the Monday morning after Lake Days, Mrs. Fetcher from the apartments would call and complain to Pasquale that her scrawny dog "Coco" was afraid to go out to do its business.
The way Pasquale figured it, he hadn’t done his business right if that call didn’t come.
"You ready, little dog?" Pasquale called out across the water. He waved the flare in the direction of the Waverly. His felt almost giddy now, like a young man with his whole life in front of him. "You already do your business for the night, Kooky? I sure hope so."
The salutes cut off then, and Pasquale, blocking the wind with his body, steadied his hand and touched the flare to the quickmatch. The quickmatch would light the time fuses on each sixteen-inch shell and send them up three seconds apart, just like clockwork.
The fireworks man felt good, focused, like he always did during a big show. Acutely aware of just himself and the job at hand. He heard only the whoosh of the quickmatch. Then the "whump," when the first lift charge ignited. And a whistle as the red shell rose. A sizzle now as the flame marched down the time fuse to the white shell. Pasquale stood back and counted. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand--
Whump. The white lift charge, right on time. Pasquale counted again, for the blue shell this time. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four-one thousand, five...
Something was wrong. Pasquale was already moving forward, fearing the time fuse had failed and knowing he would have to re-light the blue shell by hand. Nobody would even notice, though, if he worked fast enough. If he got there quick enough.
The hot wind died just then, without warning, and in the utter stillness, time seemed to downshift too, like slow motion.
Pasquale was almost at the blue's mortar with his flare, feeling like he was wading through water, when he heard the first shell, the red one, break overhead. He looked up--had to look even now, with time so precious--and watched the burst unfold so beautiful he just wanted to stop and savor it.
But the seconds were ticking away, and as Pasquale reached the mortar, he heard the white shell burst above him, too. The silver strobes cascading from the center--dangling, floating impossibly long in the sky--giving off just enough light for Pasquale to see the third mortar clearly.
It was just three seconds later--time enough for Pasquale to lean down to the mortar, time enough for the strobes to reach the lake, hissing as they touched--when there was yet another explosion of sound and light. A third explosion--louder and brighter than anything Pasquale had ever known. So much sound and so much light, so pure, so overpowering, that suddenly there was no sound or light at all. Just him. Pasquale.
And the sky.
The noise of the blast was deafening, followed by the stunned hush of a quarter of a million voices temporarily silenced. Then came the low whine of a small plane overhead, the light-bulb message dancing across its wings: "Thank you for coming. Drive home safely."