Diary of a Pyro

Copyright © 1988 - 2005 John H. DuBois III

Chapter Eleven

The night before the next fourth, we gathered at Luke's house to make a few items. Luke's desk was covered with the pyrotechnic matériel that went into our homemade devices, and he had a large coffee can full of blasting powder sitting on it. There was another person there named Graham who must have been getting bored. He took a spoonfull of the powder, set it on the table next to the can, and lit it. It flared up with sparks shooting over the open can. Luckily the can did not ignite. It wouldn't have exploded, but would have produced an immense roaring flame and filled the room with so much smoke that it would be pouring out the windows. We reprimanded Graham severely.

We had an order in, but as usual had gotten it off too late so it did not arrive in time. Since we would not have much “commercial” stuff, the next day everyone gathered at Scott's for some last-minute manufacturing. It was a bizarre scene. He had a couch and a chair with his chest set between them for use as a table. It and the floor were covered with propane and Dust-Off cans, CO2 cylinders, cans of powder, rocket nose cones, Silver Salutes (a commercial M80-like device), sticks for rockets, a drill for fuse holes, rolls of fuse, duct tape for assembly, and fireworks that we used in rockets like Ground Bloom Flowers, firecrackers, and Camellia Flowers. Gathered 'round were Scott, Luke, Laurence, Matthew, Graham, and others, most industriously producing variegated pyrotechnic devices. Scott put his rockets in a suitcase to prevent the sticks from being broken. When open it looked like something a terrorist might carry.

I had a small amount of commercial fireworks and a bunch of rockets. That year I finally gave up making finned rockets for the Fourth, as my friends had been urging me to do for years. The large tubes that can be used with finned rockets allow a more varied payload, but they also need a launch rod and the fins are inevitably damaged in transit. I made rockets by taping a stick onto an engine like everyone else. Packs of firecrackers, jumping jacks, etc. could be stuck around the top with tape or rubber bands, and some sort of louder device could be taped on the end.

We had heard that the previous year Del Monte Beach had become a substitute for Carmel Beach. Undoubtedly the word had spread and it would be even more so this year, so we went there in Luke's van. Laurence and his friends had bought a keg of beer. We leaned a seven-foot (two meter) PVC pipe up against it to launch rockets out of. This was a much more effective scheme than launching them out of bottles or some such as we had done previously. Del Monte Beach turned out to be pretty good; it was littered with bonfires, rockets shot about, explosions echoed across the dunes, etc. The display put on by Fort Ord lit up the distant sky.

However, Laurence's friends, who had paid for part of the beer, were partying in Marina. Some of them came by and asked why the keg was with us. Laurence insisted that we move so that he could satisfy them and still be near the beer. Since Luke's van was our sole transportation, we all had to go. As we prepared to pile into the van, Laurence and Matthew got in an argument. Matthew threw his cup of beer at Laurence and succeeded in splashing my camera, which didn't put me in the best of moods. But, it was the Fourth, so I cleaned my camera as best I could and resolved to enjoy myself. We ended up on a private stretch of beach owned by the father of a friend of Laurence's. After what seemed like an interminable trek across the sand, we reached the site of an abandoned sand plant. It was dark and I had no idea where we were. I could barely see the sand plant but it seemed rather dilapidated. There was a bonfire there with people gathered around it.

Once we had everything set up, the scene was rather humorous, with Laurence, Luke, Scott, Graham, a fellow we called Sasquatch, and many others gathered around the keg and launch tube drinking beer and watching the best of our creations fly. I tried taking some pictures of rockets departing the tube, but it was particularly difficult in the dark and all I got even with a flash was the silvery duct tape that was wrapped around them.

My good stuff ran out quickly and I was reduced to trying to have fun with simple stuff like Jumping Jacks. These are like Ground Bloom Flowers but much smaller, the size of firecrackers. They come in a pack of twelve that is intended to be set on the ground and lit. The individual flares separate and spin around. A dozen of them humming about in a blur of flame looked like a family of fire creatures. They made an even more interesting display when tossed in the air, but had to be thrown just an instant before they went off so that they would not be on the ground by the time they began jetting about. I had gloves on in case I should hold on a bit too long, but when it happened the gloves did not protect my hand in the least. The angry flames of a dozen JJ's lanced through my glove and burned me painfully. For the rest of the night I was periodically dipping my hand in a cup of beer.

Someone fired off a Ground Illumination flare, which glowed balefully in the foggy sky. I got a better look at the sand plant. It was indeed a wreck, and looked terribly spooky in the eerie light radiating from the haze above. People wandered aimlessly about the site like the creatures in Night of the Living Dead; I had the feeling that their intoxicated minds were having some difficulty comprehending why it was light out in the wee hours of the morning.

During the night, there were attempts at setting part of the plant on fire. There wasn't much wood in it so it was not going to get out of control, and the owner wanted to tear it down to build something profitable in its place anyway. The would-be torchers didn't seem to have much luck in getting it to take a flame however. But, as we left, a diagonal structure made of tarred wood caught and began burning, sending clouds of thick smoke into the night sky. I looked back and saw the fog and smoke lit by the diagonal flame, which looked something like an escalator to hell.

We drove home almost without further event. By this time it was about 3 in the morning, I was dead tired from the day's activities, and I wanted nothing other than to climb into bed. But, when we were almost there Luke ran out of gas. At least we were close enough for me to walk home. Just as I left, some police stopped to see what was going on. They shined their flashlights in the van, but the only thing we had brought back was a launch tube, and a large section of PVC pipe didn't mean anything to the police. I tried to get a picture of them harassing Luke, but my flash wasn't bright enough to do anything more than draw their attention. I heard them say something like “Guess he likes us” and headed home.

The order finally arrived at Luke's house a little over a week later in a large box. It was loaded with packages of Two-Stage Silver Jets (the best of the spin-and-ascend type of firework), Sunflowers, Saturn Missile Batteries, grosses of bottle rockets and skyrockets, bricks of firecrackers and Jumping Jacks, and lots of single-shot mortars. It also had a nice type of reloadable mortar called Festival Balls where each package contains a tube and six shells. We had found a tube and ball many years before at Carmel Beach and succeeded in setting it off, and had finally decided to buy some.

Of course the problem was that the Fourth had passed and we needed someplace to set the stuff off. On the Fourteenth of July, they decided to go to a little used part of Carmel Beach. It sounded risky to me, but I didn't have anything so I didn't worry. We parked in an out-of-the-way place and made our way up the beach, trying to find a place where they felt safe. As we walked, we were surprised to see fireworks already going off ahead. We found a group partying on the beach, setting off their own 'works. They turned out to be students (Russian language majors) from the Defense Language Institute. Since it seemed that they had been enjoying themselves for some time without harassment, we decided to set up shop nearby.

The Festival Balls were great. The propelling charge made a huge flame, and shells burst overhead and lit the fog in bright pastel colors… red, yellow, green, or white. One of the single-shot ones, called a #100 Mortar, was also interesting. The burst itself was fairly average, but the muzzle flame took the form of dozens of brilliant spikes reaching up into the air.

The spinning things like Two Stage Silver Jets needed a large hard flat surface to launch from. We didn't have one and tried starting them from an inadequate pad. Many of them ended up in the sand, where their spinning motion made them shoot along like self-propelled wheels with clouds of sparks tracing their paths. The skyrockets were nice too. We embedded a tube deep in the sand to launch them from. This, unfortunately, made it difficult to retrieve dud rockets. I watched nervously as various people reached their arms down the tube to try to recover one, with it perhaps still smouldering inside.

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