Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Fourth of Fireworks

fireworks3I hope you had a delightful Fourth of July.

If it was a good one, I bet you didn’t have to work. Perhaps you caught up on some sleep. Cooked a real breakfast for once. Who has time to cook bacon and sausage and then cook your scrambled eggs in the pan still glittering with bacon-sausage residue? On the Fourth of July, you do.

Maybe you watched some television that you’d never allot time for: Law & Order reruns, History Channel specials on how states were formed, that new buddy-lawyer show starring Zach Morris and a short guy, a sporting event. Crazy contract fights have left baseball and hockey as the only popular American sports not locked out – and they don’t play hockey in this heat. Oh, the Women’s World Cup, you say? Yeah. Have fun with that.

By about mid-afternoon you were likely planning for a get-together. You were throwing one, your friend was throwing one – it doesn’t matter. You found a shirt that looks good and won’t make you sweat too much. Picked up the beer/soda/BBQ chicken/deep-fried-whatever. Grilled, tossed the old pigskin, and socialized in ways not afforded by office cubes or retail counters or telephone lines.

Then night started to fall. Lazily, as summer nights tend to do. What better way to cap off the day than with some fireworks?

[Author’s Note: There’s an outside chance your Fourth of July was not this delightful – you had to work, you hate freedom, or you aren’t from the United States and couldn’t care less. You can still hit the jump and read about fireworks. Just pretend you had a patriotic day filled with safe drinking, relaxation, and brightly colored explosions.]

Fireworks and I didn’t have the best weekend. I spent Saturday evening at a wonderful party at a friend’s apartment. His balcony has a decent view of the Delaware River, and Philadelphia promised a fireworks display from the riverside performance venue, Penn’s Landing. Right on schedule, we paused our poker tournament and crammed some fifteen or twenty people onto an ten-foot by four-foot balcony. The fireworks were great – from what I could see.

A similar story happened yesterday, on the Fourth of July proper. My mother, sister, and I parked ourselves at a nearby elementary school in hopes of catching the township firework display. A logistical error on our part (we thought they’d be in a different park) put us quite a ways away from the show. Flowers of light peered just over treetops at us, their corresponding booms reaching us with a noticeable latency.

Why am I complaining about fireworks? Because they can be magical. Because more often than not they inspire in us some kind of primal awe. A subconscious pride in Man’s accomplishment: he tamed fire, he dyed it red, white and blue, and he shot it into the air.

Here are two displays I would’ve liked to see this weekend instead.

The World’s Largest Catherine Wheel

A Catherine wheel is a firework consisting of a powder-filled tube or an angled rocket with a pin through its center. Lighting it causes it to spin and shoot sparks in a number of directions. Some Catherine wheels have wheels-upon-wheels, and their contained explosions resemble gears and out-of-control fiery pendulums.

The firework got its name from the “breaking wheel,” a medieval torture device upon which St. Catherine was said to have been martyred. I’m sure she’d appreciate having her name lent to a spinning wheel of fire.

Two weeks ago, a fireworks company in Malta broke the Guinness World Record for the largest functioning Catherine wheel. “Irdeiden,” as they’re called, are sort of a thing in Malta, as weird as that is. So much so, that the Lilly Fireworks Company in Mqabba decided to go for the world record during town’s annual Our Lady of the Lillies Festival.

The record-breaking wheel measures 105 feet in diameter. To put that in perspective, go out and find a ten-story office building. Imagine that atop a tower, spinning and spewing flame. Still having trouble picturing it? Just watch the video.

That looks like a portal to another dimension.

The World Pyro Olympics

The name tells you (almost) everything you need to know. Unfortunately, it’s no longer called the World Pyro Olympics. Perhaps the connotations surrounding the word “pyro” sullied the marketing. The annual event is now called the Philippine International PyroMusical Competition. A little showier, a little less “LET’S BURN STUFF!” I can see why they changed it.

The PIPC started in 2005, as the WPO. Ten countries, including the Philippines as host, compete over five evenings. The event actually takes five weeks, presumably because setting up an award-winning pyrotechnics display requires just a bit of planning.

There’s something surreal about ten countries gathering in competition, armed with explosives – and then trying to make the Prettiest Thing Possible. It’s the blissed-out, peaceful “warfare” we’ve all been waiting for. If only the Philippines would invite the entire world at once.

China’s Jinsheng Fireworks Inc. won the 2011 competition this past March. I dare you to watch their show (first half below) and not immediately book a trip to next year’s competition.

China, calm down.

I could keep finding these to share with you. There’s something preposterous about them that’s so enjoyable. How the hell do you practice something like that? I would love to watch footage of the people scurrying around lighting all the fuses. I imagine it’s like a dance – a pyromaniacal ballet.

I’m still not sure why fireworks are so widely adored. It could be the surprise of bright lights at night. It could be a chemical or instinctive reaction to the pummeling waves of sound. It could be childhood feelings of wonder and naivetĂ© and genuine patriotism wrapped up with the universal pleasure of watching controlled destruction. Whatever it is, I can’t wait for the next Fourth of July.