Things that go boom
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