Thursday, March 20, 2008

Shock and aaaaahhhh

When I was 12, I went to Baja with my dad and brought back some fireworks. I was told that home at the time - Palm Desert, CA - had an average age of 58. I do not know if this is true, but I can buy it. There wasn´t much to do unless you liked golf, shuffleboard, and spending $200 on lunch. The main streets in the region were (and still are) named Bob Hope, Fred Waring, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, etc. So I quickly learned three things:

1) fireworks are really fun.
2) kids will pay well for fireworks in the desert, which were totally illegal.
3) the methods and mindset that I (now) recognize as good engineering and science paid off when applied to pyrotechnics. If you cut open a firework, and pour the gunpowder on the ground and light it, there is a lot of light and nothing. Lighting an explosive on the TOP of an anthill does very little. Only when the gunpowder is contained will it get loud and produce concussion. Proper redirection of the blast can very dramatically affect the outcome. If, for example, you are annoyed at the crabby old fogeys at Sandpiper, a local retirement community, because they will not let you cut through their backyards to get to the mall, you can detonate an M1000 on the dirt and nothing happens. But the same firework, only 20 meters away, right against a crevice in a mountain, will send a very loud concussion wave over Sandpiper. The effectiveness of this could be easily verified by cop cars coming 20 minutes later, trying ineffectively to find William Hoopes and me, who knew those mountains well. We even got in to taunting them by popping off a few more when they were looking for us. Same principle as ventriloquism.

Around the same time, our friends Chuck and Pat Milton in Colorado would have an annual fourth of July fireworks show out there. We went to Colorado each summer for other reasons, but the Milton fourth of July party was high on the list. They spent many thousands of dollars each year. Because Chuck was a cool guy, he would let the kids see the catalog and light some fireworks. Year after year. I thought I had seen it all.

How deeply humbled I have been over the last few days in Valencia for Las Fallas. Each year, these mad Spaniards spend months making huge, gorgeous paper mache effigies. There are over 300 neighborhoods, and each one gets together, forms a committee, and takes great pride in their effigies. They deserve it. Some of them have to be more than 10 meters tall. Even the feeblest mini-Fallases are maybe 6 feet tall, and flawlessly beautiful. For 4 days, people party around the effigies, and then on the last night (about 8 hours ago) they burn them.

Also, they blow up more fireworks than I thought possible.

These Valencians are mad. They definitely go through more kilotons per day than any fireworks show I have seen. Not so much large scale fireworks, set off by professionals, but small to medium ones by locals. They specifically target civilians. They light half sticks of dynamite and throw it at your head. They light bottle rockets where there are literally 15 different cables, ropes, clotheslines, etc. Why are there not more three-fingered and one-eyed Valencians? No idea.

On concussion. If you light an explosive in an alley with 2 5-story buildings on either side, where will the shockwave go? Back and forth. This is why professional pyrotechnicians arrange for detonations to occur way out in the open air. You can still feel the shockwave. Imagine the same caliber - at least - 10 feet from your head. The blast makes your hair stand on end. I still cannot hear properly. We watched some poor Chinese tourist take a direct hit, stumble, almost fall over, and then turn around to yell at the kid responsible - who was, of course, launching another one at him at the time. My friend Julien Reedhead took a piece of shrapnel in the leg. Not cardboard - metal, from a wire frame. Dude, I said, you should wear long pants to provide some flak protection. Dude, I was wearing jeans at the time, the metal went right through it.

By 2 AM I finally learned the routine that Bill Tortora followed. If you see a firework, turn your head away and open your mouth. Now I will need some time to unlearn that. This morning, I walked around the corner for a tasty breakfast of churros y chocolate. Someone in front of me accidentally dropped a piece of paper. Incoming! I turned away and opened my mouth. Pause. Pause. Nothing. Dammit, get it over with!! Pause. Pause. Guy taps me on the shoulder and says in Valencian, it´s OK, Las Fallas is over.

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