Aug 2, 2006 • Karen

It was a hot, hazy afternoon and Nelson's dad and I were sitting by the shooting area, watching other Crackerjackers launch stuff--mostly salutes, occasionally an impatient burst of colored stars. A man in the "baby B" (small class B fireworks) area was testing some sparkly gold stars he'd created, shooting gently like a paintstroke, then falling back to earth in a curtain of pixie dust. Nelson's dad handed me something wrapped in green yarn, about the size of a squared-off Superball. An old cherry bomb, made in India. He said that if you ever got caught with even just one of those, you'd be doing jail time. Apparently the US really doesn't like cherry bombs. I felt the glue-sealed yarn on my palm. All this fuss for what amounts to a glorified firecracker?

We blew it up. The world didn't end.

Fireworks are like wine, Nelson explained to me. The year they were made is very important. You see, the fireworks manufacturers *want* to sell things that go boom very nicely--that's what their customers want, after all--so they tend to push the legal limits on class C fireworks a little. But if the ATF catches them over the limit, then they have to produce wimpy fireworks thereafter. Thus, you can buy a firework one year and have it be the coolest firework ever, and then buy the same brand of firework the next year, in the same packaging, and have it be totally lame. Not surprisingly, like wine the older the fireworks are, the better. Nelson's dad had some stuff from 1992 that we shot--legal then, impossible now.

The libertarianism of Crackerjacks was more than clear--with t-shirts celebrating the 2nd Amendment and reviling the government. I met John Steinberg, former PGI president and current VP candidate. Nelson had worked on his presidential campaign in high school. He was an "arch-conservative," as he termed it--a Jeffersonian. And he was probably the most ideal political figure I could ever imagine--he believes in term limits and has imposed them on himself, he seeks office to get specific things done, not just for the sake of being in office, and he's honest as hell about his goals. I may not agree with him on every issue, but I'd vote for him--for the organization or for public office, were he so inclined--in a heartbeat.

The politics is present because it is inescapable. Their hobby is a crime.

We shot all sorts of stuff--rockets (stickless and regular), shells, helicopters, firecrackers, something called "Flying at Night"... I can't remember all of it. The last day the guy selling fireworks was trying to empty his stock, so he was making deals on whole boxes of stuff. Nelson and I got a whole mess of Roman candles, taped them together, put a bunch of match on top to light all the fuses, and lit it off. The resulting barrage was pretty darn cool.

We also shot bird bombs out of a handgun. You stick the bird bomb in the end of the gun, load a blank, fire, and the bird bomb comes shrieking out and explodes. Guess they're meant to scare birds. That was fun--I hadn't shot a gun since 9th grade. You had to keep your arm to one side when you shot to keep the blanks from hitting you when they flew back--they weren't dangerous (with eye protection), but they did sting a bit.

Nelson and I decided to walk around the field where people were setting up for the big show that night. Six-inchers, eights, tens, twelves... even one sixteen-inch shell. We decided to help out one team in loading shells into the guns and wrapping the electronic fuses so they wouldn't lose them when the fireworks went off. Nothing complicated, but it felt good to be useful. Then the thunderstorm hit, so we assisted in the rush to cover up the guns with Saran wrap and garbage bags and got soaked in the process. Woo!

And how was that show? Man... Shells with gorgeous colors--red, gold, real blue. Shells that blew up--and then had secondary explosions timed to go around in a circle like a clock--boom boom boom boom boom! Gigantic shells with like five normal fireworks' worth of explosions in them. The most gorgeous weeping willow-type gold sparkles I've ever seen. Dragon eggs, minnows, falling leaves, girondolas (very difficult to make them stable) name it. They spelled "Crackerjacks" in firecrackers. They had excellent choreography, with music by Boston, the Who, and Pink Floyd. They shot off rockets that went through all the colors of the rainbow before going out and landing--rockets are a lost art in commercial shows, you NEVER see them. Or most of the stuff they did, for that matter. These shoots are a labor of love. They would be WAY too expensive for anyone to afford them commercially.

And, the way things are going, such gorgeous fireworks may be completely unheard of in the future. With fireworks restrictions getting ever more stringent, fireworks clubs are finding it almost impossible to find places to shoot. There are only two hobbyist shoots left on the East Coast--Crackerjacks and some place in Vermont that does it once a year. And Crackerjacks may soon come to an end--a housing development is apparently going up across the road from the farm. If the developers complain--it's over. Even though Crackerjacks was there first.

The big PGI convention used to be on the East Coast sometimes, but now there's no place big enough for it available. It's always out west now--Fargo, Wyoming, Des Moines. It's in Appleton, WI this year--if you can get out there, you should see their public shows August 5-11. It's the best the public can find anywhere.