Things that go boom

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - FRONT PAGE - Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Media’s At­lantic re­gional colum­nist. You can reach him at rus­sell.wanger­

Up close and per­sonal with “trig­ger­man” Sheldon Han­ra­han.

In­side the bouncy castle, they’re work­ing up a sweat. Kids with curls pasted to their fore­heads in the 24 C Sun­day heat, many wear­ing that dazed look of small peo­ple who’ll top­ple into sleep in their car seats be­fore they even get home. Kids who’ll want to see Sheldon Han­ra­han at work, but might not get the chance.

Not only will they want to see his work, they’d prob­a­bly want to be do­ing it.

Be­cause he’s the trig­ger­man, the guy at the Cobra py­rotech­nics board who will press the but­tons that will make the big bang.

Ten p.m. is still a long way off - by then, per­haps the bouncy castle ex­haus­tion will have been slept off and ev­ery­one will be awake for the Mon­tague Sum­mer Days fes­ti­val fire­works.

Ten p.m. is still a long way off for Han­ra­han and the four other guys in his Fire in the Sky P.E.I. crew. They’ve been work­ing since the morn­ing set­ting up ranks of mor­tars and ranges of other fire­works - they started long enough ago that some of the mor­tars are still cov­ered in plas­tic bags to keep the longsince-past morn­ing’s light rain away.

There’s 60 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence on the crew, but that doesn’t make it easy: they’ve built a dis­play on a raft to tow into the har­bour - it’s not just fire­works but fram­ing, brac­ing, plan­ning, and the list goes on.

“It’s ex­act­ing and ex­haust­ing. It’s a hard day’s work,” Han­ra­han says.

While they are work­ing, many peo­ple from town have been watch­ing mu­sic at the bandstand or en­joy­ing the river raft race — the win­ner of the “ul­ti­mate fail” prize, the crew of “Float too heavy.” By six, a home­town band is singing about leav­ing your doors un­locked, and I watch a kid on a bike - hands­free - roll through two stop signs in a row.

The crew has been pre­par­ing the launch tubes for 188 sep­a­rate ma­jor shells, plus some 500 smaller shells, loaded into can­is­ters called “kegs,” that will fire in se­quence.

“Time is of the essence; ev­ery­thing is in or­der, and it has to be done in or­der,” Han­ra­han says.

Ev­ery charged mor­tar wired with an in­di­vid­ual elec­tric line, piece af­ter piece. There are charged mor­tars on a lo­cal trail. They’re in front of my ho­tel room, and they’re on a barge made out of two float­ing docks, a spe­cial pro­ject that is caus­ing its own set of nerves among the crew. There are too many vari­ables. But by eight, the wa­ter is glassy-still, the barge an­gled per­fectly down the bay, the crew calmer. They’re catch­ing cu­ri­ous kids try­ing to sneak onto the site along the beach­front.

“You got to pick and choose who you take on,” Han­ra­han says, say­ing peo­ple some­times dis­cover how jar­ring the work is right in the mid­dle of shows. These are se­ri­ous ex­plo­sives: a six-inch mor­tar fires its pay­load up to 600 feet in the air, and de­bris can easily fall an equal dis­tance down­wind. They are large enough parcels of ex­plo­sive that they can take off your hand - or your head. In Calais, Maine, last week­end, an or­di­nary store­bought fire­work mor­tar killed a 22-year-old man who tried fir­ing it off the top of his head on the fourth of July.

It’s clearly not a job for ev­ery­one.

One of his crew, walk­ing by, puts it suc­cinctly: “It will ei­ther like you or hate you.”

In this heat, it prob­a­bly hates ev­ery­one.

Back at the bandstand, there’s gospel mu­sic. The fire­works crew may still be work­ing when Miss Mon­tague gets cho­sen, but there’s no chang­ing the 10 p.m. start, un­less the wind comes up.

Han­ra­han lives and works in Mon­tague, and not just at fire­works. His day job is a lit­tle more mun­dane.

He says kids come by his work and say, “You’re the fire­works guy - and the bar­ber.”

Bar­ber on week­days, he’s work­ing most hol­i­days, set­ting up one job or another - 16 ma­jor dis­plays this year.

Mon­tague means five guys for a min­i­mum of nine hours each, let alone the pre-plan­ning.

“I can see the show be­fore it’s even done,” Han­ra­han says. Like many busi­ness­men, he’s plan­ning for big­ger things.

“One of my ma­jor goals is I’d like to have Char­lot­te­town.”

But here on his home turf, he wants to re­ally make a mark. His sup­plier is bring­ing in un­spec­i­fied “ex­tras” to help seal the deal: “Watch the fi­nale,” Han­ra­han says.

At four p.m. they close the site, kick me off, and start putting in the ac­tual charges and plac­ing the detonators. From now on, it’s a re­stricted site: only his crew and fire of­fi­cials. At 8:15, they’re still tin­ker­ing with the last rows of mor­tars. At 8:45, another rack of mor­tars ar­rives. At nine, they’re dig­ging new mor­tar pits, the show inch­ing larger with each minute. 9:20, and they’re fin­ish­ing wiring.

I’ll have a front-row seat for the show - by chance, I’m three floors above one of the main launch sites. But I won’t get to sit at the fir­ing board, which can be up to 1,000 feet from the mor­tars. Fif­teen years af­ter he started, Han­ra­han will still be get­ting a huge charge out of fir­ing the fire­works and hear­ing the re­ac­tion from the crowd. “I hope to rock this place.” “Get him to let you fire the first one,” one of the crew says.

I tell them I don’t think he will; he’s too much of a kid. In a good way.


Chil­dren en­joy the slides and fun at­trac­tions in the bouncy castle dur­ing Mon­tague Sum­mer Days over the week­end.

Rus­sell Wanger­sky Eastern Pas­sages

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