Gary Fincke

Sparklers

1

In late May, after baseball and the blasts of complimentary fireworks that opened nearly overhead, the pedestrian bridge to Pittsburgh, temporarily closed, compresses our crowd of late-night walkers. Someone next to my family mentions the latest terror, children and their mothers pierced by an explosion of glittering spikes after a pop star’s concert in England. Faces of young girls illuminate two nearby phones. Ahead of us a father believes his arms have invented safety, yet somewhere, he must recognize, terror dreams our bodies as it decides the exact address for delight. The river’s cruise ship passes beneath us, its decks packed with prom-goers. The water reflects a swirl of pinwheels; a vendor ignites a fistful of sparklers.

2

For seven summers, the evening of the Fourth of July, I wrote my name in the air with a sparkler. Sometimes I circled them into brief, eclipsed suns or simply threw their violent lace into an arc that spiraled sparks to our lawn. Always, July 5th, I had to find every sparkler gone out and dropped the night before. Up and back, I paced our yard along the narrow paths the mower took. If there was even a hint of leftover nub on a wire, I tried to light it, but none ever burst into sparks. I threw away those wires and never once thought to learn what a sparkler was made of.

3

A sparkler is usually made from a wire coated from one end with a mixture of metal fuel, an oxidizer, and a binder. The most commonly used wire is made of iron and is most often coated in aluminum and magnesium for a yellow/white glow. The fuel is charcoal and sulfur, as in black powder. The binder can be sugar or starch. Mixed with water, these chemicals form a slurry that can be coated on the wire. Once dried, it is a sparkler, some as large as three feet in length in order to burn for several minutes to produce a long-lasting effect. They are non-poisonous if sucked on, but poisonous if eaten, causing gastrointestinal symptoms.

4

Sitting beside my son, I once watched a videotape of the beginning of a rock show at a Rhode Island club called The Station. The room in which a crowd was packed to hear a band called Great White looked so eerily familiar, it could have been one of the clubs I’d watched my son play lead guitar in for the previous three years. I remembered only “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” the band’s biggest hit, but my son and I were paying attention to the pyrotechnics they were using, surges of sparks ascending as they began playing. “This is real bad,” my son said, just home from touring in most of the venues Great White had played in the weeks leading to this show. He sounded thoroughly spooked. “Using pyro in places like this is crazy,” he said, and watching that film, I couldn’t argue. Those white-hot sparks set the back wall on fire, the flames running up to the low ceiling and spreading rapidly. “Somebody fucked up bad,” my son added as the camera, seconds later, shut off. “Even you would know not to use it. There’s no way you can miss the danger.”

5

Typical pyrotechnics are made from flammable materials such as nitrocellulose and black powder or a mixture of fuel and oxidizer. A plug placed at one end of the container with a small orifice, called a choke, constricts the expulsion of the ignited pyrotechnic compound, increasing the size and aggressiveness of the jet.

6

When I was five years old, there was a fire in the back room of the bakery my father had purchased less than a year before. “Sparks from an electrical short in the old blue refrigerator that came with the place,” my father said. “Hot enough to catch something that burns and there you have it, the place up in smoke.” The fire was contained, but it took six weeks to make enough repairs to the back room and the roof to reopen. All of that work was done in the middle of winter. For nearly all of those six weeks the blackened refrigerator sat in the snow behind the bakery. In late January, he baked a cake for a small celebration of reopening. My mother placed one small sparkler candle in the center, and I watched until it went out, wishing for more.

7

I’ve learned that four-inch cake sparklers burn for about thirty seconds. For birthdays, some cake sparklers are shaped as numbers. Heart-shaped sparklers are sometimes offered as favors for wedding guests. To ignite those sparklers, the guests need to light them at the top where the heart creases in. Most often, the guests are given elongated sparklers to light and hold while the newlyweds pass by. Those wedding sparklers are advertised as “dazzling,” “brilliant,” and “unforgettable.”

8

Witnesses describing the bomb explosion after the pop concert in England were consistent. First, the red-orange flash, then the ear-splitting boom, then the bodies falling to the ground before a plume of smoke wafted over the crowd. More than one survivor said, “All this sort of debris and embers came floating from the roof.”

9

I ran the Great White video again, this time remembering how I watched my son play, early in his career, from the privacy of a side room filled with piles of flammable trash, a room with exactly one way in and out. Watching closely, I checked to see which member of the band first notices the flames. It looked to be the guitar player I knew was dead. As if he was following my eyes, my son said, “It makes you think.”

10

A pyrotechnic engineer usually has an undergraduate degree in chemistry or physics, followed by further training in pyrotechnics. Pyrotechnic engineers might work for firework companies or sporting arenas. Because safety is a factor in their work, some states require a licensing exam.

11

When I was eleven, Mrs. Cellander, our next-door neighbor, watched, like I did, a great sparkling puff of newspaper lift and float into her cherry tree from the burn barrel I was tending near where our back yards bordered. She screamed and swore and reminded me I was a careless idiot who deserved to be burned if that tree was damaged. Inside the burn barrel, the fire crackled and sparked as if it wanted to soar. Illuminated by the