Tenx9 newcomer Davey Shephard recounts a firework mishap and wonders whether it truly was a catastrophe.
In hindsight yes, I should’ve never picked up that mortar tube, but you know, in hindsight, twenty year old me should have never been put in charge of a fireworks display. It was the summer after my sophomore year of college and as I had done for the last five years, I spent three weeks of my summer at a camp in Gore, West Virginia. I had grown up at this camp, and had made the fabled transition from immature camper, running around scaring staff members, to immature staff member running around scaring campers. It was my favorite part of summer and this particular week had an added bonus. For the first time since I had begun working there, the Fourth of July was going to fall during a week of camp.
At our normal pre-camp staff meeting I heard our Director discussing how the night would unfold. The sports team (which I was a part of) would be responsible for putting on the fireworks show, while all other staff members stood with the campers across the large sports field in the designated safe area. Following the meeting I was handed a couple hundred dollars cash that had been budgeted for the show. I was on cloud nine. Not only was I getting paid to put on a fireworks display, but I was in the middle of possibly the best place in America to buy fireworks, Wild and Wonderful West Virginia. Myself, the Sports Director and the Head of Security piled in a pickup and took off down the dirt road headed for the Holy Land. Our discussion was focused on the pageantry that we would present to the Campers. There was talk of choreographed explosions, a separate light show, and whether or not any of the kids would know Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. A few hours later we returned with the goods and packed them away safely until the big night had finally arrived.
The first few days of camp went by slow. It was our last week there, so some sleep deprived hysteria had set in, but it felt like the entire staff was in a lull just waiting for the fourth to get there. And it wasn’t just waiting on a day to arrive…there was a palpable anticipation that something was going to happen. Jokes were tossed around about someone blowing their hand off, or burning the gym down, or the camp getting sued, but despite the naysayers, the fourth arrived and the show went on as scheduled. Myself and my teammates had everything in place. Our stockpile of explosives set off to the right, some sheets of quarter inch plywood to make a nice balanced launch site, and we had even placed all of the mortar tubes inside of cinderblocks to make sure that they didn’t fall over. We had crossed our T’s and dotted our lower case J’s. We were going to put on a show that would make the founding fathers proud.
As the campers made their way down the hill to the sports field, we had the kiddie stuff out. A few bottle rockets twisted together, some roman candles, a box of Saturn missiles, your basic backyard fireworks. The idea was to slow play them into thinking we didn’t have anything good, and then as soon as the music kicked in, fire up the big guns. As the students arrived into place, a small crowd of staff members had formed around us. It is important to note, that they were not in the pre-approved safe areas that they were supposed to be in.
This is also probably a good time to mention that as much as I hate to admit it, I’m a bit of a showman. I do this thing where I get a mental image in my head of how something should play out, and then spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to make that happen. That being the case, things got off to a terrible start. The first song that came out of the sound system was Lee Greenwoods “proud to be an American” instead of James Browns “Living in America”. No disrespect meant to Mr. Greenwood, his song just lacked the excitement level we were going for that night. To make matters worse, we were forced to face a harsh reality: Every one of us lacked the mental capacity to time fireworks to music. This is an extremely difficult job, and I am still impressed every time I see it successfully done. So, my well timed fireworks show, that I had planned on being similar to Apollo Creed’s ring introduction before his fight with Drago, had turned into alternating mortars exploding while Lee Greenwood passionately sang in the background. I was soon pushed to the brink. One of the guys accidentally loaded a mortar upside down, exploding two tubes, the cinder block and almost his leg. He escaped physical injury, but I knew something greater was at risk, we were about to lose the audience.
Down to two tubes, and with more than half of our fireworks still awaiting their destiny I knew something had to be done. I opened a package that was marketed to me by the salesman as “The baddest thing we got”. He assured me that it would be bigger, brighter and louder than anything else in the store. I picked the tube up and placed the mortar inside. However instead of sitting it back on the ground, I held it out in front of me at an angle of about 55 degrees. The idea was simple, I’ll shoot the best mortar we have, a little bit closer to them, so that it’s even bigger, even brighter and even louder than it would’ve been. I could hear the gasps and groans of “no Davey!” behind me, but it was too late. I was married to this idea. I lit the fuse, and awaited the results.
It was at this precise moment where everything turned to slow motion. I watched as the fuse burnt to the halfway point and decided to place a second hand on the tube for more stability. This was my downfall. The sparks from the fuse got in my arm hair, and I immediately dropped the tube in what was surely the least masculine way possible. I watched the mortar tube tip and tilt for what seemed like an eternity. Would it point directly at me? Behind me at all of the staffers? Harmlessly over the hill? The answer is none of the above. It pointed directly at our stockpile of fireworks. A second later our biggest, brightest and loudest mortar screamed 15 feet directly into several hundred dollars’ worth of live fireworks. Carnage ensued.
The next two minutes were a blur. Booms and bangs, hisses and screams, flashes of every color, and the smoke, so much smoke you could hardly breathe. I saw grown men scream and sprint down the hill. I saw four people dive out of a golf cart like they were cartoon characters. And without being melodramatic, I think I saw my own life flash before my eyes. As the last of the fireworks went off and the smoke started to clear people began to get back on their feet. All eyes were on me. But before anyone could start yelling, what can only be described as a deafening roar came from across the field, culminating in a classic chant of “USA, USA, USA”. We checked all of the staff members to see if there were any injuries, and somehow there were none. The field was cleared, and I was lectured for over an hour for my stunt. But despite the cries from the administration there was only one topic of discussion for the rest of the week: the fireworks show. In hindsight, yes I could’ve killed someone, or myself. But I didn’t. To this day, on the fourth of July I still get texts or Facebook posts bring up that night. So, I’m gonna go on the record and say I did a pretty damn good job, even in hindsight.