All eyes open wide as bombs burst in air

RBC — While giving instructions prior to the start of Friday’s Meeker fireworks show, Todd Morris, who is in charge of the event, reminded the volunteers to wear goggles, along with their fireman’s jackets and helmets and, of course, ear plugs.
That should have been my first clue.
I was a late addition to the fireworks crew. Actually, I wasn’t part of the crew. I just tried to stay out of the way and, hopefully, not get blown up.
Todd was gracious enough to allow me to be an observer. I had met him earlier in the day when I ventured up to Highland Cemetery — which is a beautiful setting, by the way, overlooking the valley — and introduced myself. Todd was there by himself, making sure the fireworks were covered with tarps, since the clouds in the late afternoon sky appeared threatening. While we were standing on the cemetery hill, it started to rain, just a little, and the wind suddenly kicked up.
The fireworks show had never been rained out, Todd said. At least not in the 14 years he’s been doing this, including the last eight as the team leader.
And this wasn’t going to be the first.
The rain never materialized, except for those few sprinkles. The fireworks show went off without a hitch.
Before the first bang, I received a quick lesson in fireworks shooting from RD Clare, who’s been doing this for 23 years. RD now lives in Loma, but every year, he returns to help with the fireworks show. He and his children were also part of the cast in the Meeker Massacre Pageant the night before.
RD explained the various “positions” on the 12-member fireworks team. Each member has a specific assignment. There are four can-tenders (they tend to the metal garage cans that are filled with various sizes of shells), six loaders and two shooters. The two shooters are Morris and Butch Smith. They are the only two who do the shooting.
Like with any fireworks show, you first wait to make sure the sky is solid black. Plus, people needed time to file out after the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band concert. From the perch on cemetery hill, the fireworks volunteers could watch the stream of lights as vehicles made the way from the fairgrounds, site of the concert, to city park, an ideal spot for watching the fireworks show.
After setting off some small fireworks — a signal to the crowd below to get ready — the show got started a little before 10 o’clock.
“OK, Butch, light ‘em up,” Todd said.
With those words, the show was under way.
From my vantage point Friday, there’s a certain synchronicity to the the show, a rhythm, if you will. And Todd is the orchestra conductor.
This year’s fireworks show lasted about 45 minutes and, of course, ended with the grand finale. This year’s show, people said afterward, was bigger and better than ever. Community sponsors donate money — about $12,500 this year — to put on the fireworks show. Todd said that was the same amount spent last year, but the order of this year’s show was different.
“It takes people donating money to do this,” Todd said. “The town appreciates it.”
The show has come a long way in the past 23 years that RD has been involved.
The first year, there were just four guys. He’s the last of the original crew still involved.
“We didn’t have a clue what we were doing,” he said.
Despite the lack of experience when they started out, there have been no mishaps. But members of the fire department and ambulance service are on hand, just in case.
“Nobody has ever got hurt in 22 years,” RD said before Friday’s show. “We’re very careful.”
There are two banks of tubes for shooting off fireworks. The tubes, which are buried about a foot in the ground, come in different sizes, for shooting off different sizes of shells. There are three-, four-, five- and six-inch tubes. The finale includes eight- and 10-inch tubes.
“It’s the same principle as a mortar,” RD said.
Let me tell you, when those shells blast out of their tubes, and you are standing just a short distance away, it feels — and sounds — like a bomb going off. The natural reflex is to flinch or turn away.
Early on in Friday’s show, one of the shells went off inside a tube, called a low break. Everyone turned and ducked. No damage was done. A low break means there wasn’t enough charge for the shell to lift, Todd explained.
Other than that one small incident, everything went smoothly Friday. In fact, at one point during the show, Todd shouted to the guys, “Hey, there’s a smoke ring. Did you see it? That’s good luck.”
I had hoped to snap some behind-the-scenes photos of the fireworks crew, but I didn’t end up taking very many. I got caught up in the excitement. I spent most of my time looking up, watching as fireworks exploded overhead. This is one of those I-can’t-wait-to-tell-my-friends-about-it-experiences, I remember thinking.
About that time, I felt something in my left eye, and it was hot. My immediate reaction was to get this object, whatever it was, out of my eye. I looked for something, anything, I could use to wash the burning object out of my eye. I noticed a cooler nearby. I opened the lid, but it was too dark to see what was inside. I stuck my hand in — the liquid, whatever it was — was cold and wet. I quickly splashed some in my eye.
The burning stopped, but it still felt like I had something in my eye. The show was still going on, so I snapped a few more pictures, but it was hard to concentrate. Something was irritating my eye. All kinds of ridiculous thoughts go through your mind at a time like that. Did I permanently damage my eye? Am I going to be blind? Like I said, crazy stuff.
Afterward, as I was leaving, my eye continued to bother me. I decided to stop at the ambulance that was parked at the cemetery and ask the two men who were working if they had anything they could use to flush out my eye. So, while one of them pried open my eyelids, the other one used some kind of solution to flush out my eye. There I am, having my eye flushed out, and who walks up but Todd.
“What happened to you?” he asked.
“He just got some ash in his eye,” one of the nice ambulance attendants said.
“At least you were wearing your glasses,” Todd said.
I couldn’t bring myself to tell him I usually don’t wear my glasses when I’m taking pictures.
After the fireworks were over, I had heard Todd congratulate the men on putting on a good show.
“Good job, guys,” he said. “You can be proud.”
Somehow, I don’t think he was talking about me.