Bang Ganger

The explosive lives of pyrotechnical professionals
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  June 16, 2010

Leah Spivey sits atop the racks into which fireworks are inserted before being set off.

Fireworks in summer — gazing to a blazing sky, mouth wide, sparkle-eyed, the "ahh"s and "oh man"s passing your lips unbidden. The hiss and boom, the night lit up, the anticipation of the next explosion. It inspires kid-like awe, whether you're splayed on the Esplanade for Boston's bonanza, or settled in the sand for some small-town rockets' red glare.

It's one thing to watch. It's another thing entirely to be the one lighting the match. But what draws someone to risk singed eyebrows (or much worse)? What pulls a person from relaxed spectator to in-harm's-way participant? And how does someone for whom the booms toll get involved in pyrotechnics in the first place?

"You call up a company in the area, one that's licensed by the state," says Leah Spivey, who helps run the office of American Thunder Fireworks based in North Reading. "You say, 'Hi, I love fireworks, I want to get involved.' You come in, have a quick interview, fill out some important paperwork, and we'll find you shows."

Crewing -- which you have to do for a state-mandated five years before you can apply to be a "shooter" -- involves unloading and reloading mortars and racks, nailing or staking or sandbagging the racks, angling them, and laying the shells out in the right pattern, in the right place. The right place is important, taking into account the wind, the audience, trees, and buildings. "That's why you have to do it for five years," says Spivey. "You have to learn how to read the clouds."

There's a rock-star aspect to blowing up 50-pound, colored-flame explosives for thousands of spectators, as well as a certain performance anxiety, too. In the moments before the show, notes Spivey, "everyone's shaking like little leaves. You can't figure out if you're more excited or more scared. You just want it to go." And after it's all done, she explains, "Everyone is jumping around, hugging and hugging." If only there were groupies . . .

Of course, blowing up shit isn't for everyone. Spivey says that there are one of two reactions to your first show: "I loved it, I loved it, I loved it, or never again. You either love every stinking, sweaty moment of it, or you're turned off by the shells, because they are loud and they are scary."

Because there's risk involved, no question, and stress is high. "Honestly, there are a hundred different ways that something could go wrong," says Spivey. "That's why we have such a long apprenticeship." And also, she adds, that's why some people choose to stick with crewing, as opposed to moving on to the "lead shooter" role.

Danger and all, it might be said that Spivey's life was saved -- or certainly changed -- by fireworks. She was going through quite a tough time, and was being counseled by a Bay State–based woman she'd met online.

"My marriage was tanking fast," recalls the then-resident of Maryland. "I realized I couldn't stay in it a second longer. This woman says, 'Look, I own a fireworks company; I need someone to help. Move up here, stay with me, help me run my business.' "

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Massachusetts Institute of Technology, CULTURE, Fireworks,  More more >
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