Professional fireworks shows abound on Independence Day but are not accessible to Boy Scouts attending summer camp on July 4. To remedy that misfortune one year, four bored camp counselors – Caleb, Michael, Jacob, and David – launched some stashed fireworks to entertain the campers. Cheers greeted the few sparklers and Roman Candles, though the Camp Director reprimanded the counselors for the unauthorized show.
The same Scout troops visited the camp annually during the 4th of July week, so the boys arrived the following year asking the counselors if the show would repeat.
Memories of the previous year’s tongue lashing flashing through their minds, the four counselors replied, “No.”
The next morning, the Camp Director sipped a cup of coffee while relaxing in a rocking chair, overlooking the camp from a covered porch. Bob, a long-time and well-respected Scoutmaster, settled beside him and watched as boys ambled toward their morning events. “Too bad about the fireworks show. The boys enjoyed it last year.”
The Camp Director glanced over. “We have to think about safety.”
Bob agreed. “That’s why I was so impressed with your idea last year to let a few trained counselors handle the show.”
“An excellent idea. Such great leadership. All of the other Scoutmasters agreed. And the boys liked that you did that for them.”
An hour later, the Camp Director instructed four stunned counselors to plan a second annual Independence Day fireworks show for the Scouts. Though unsure of the reason for the change in heart, they embraced the challenge. The show was better, bigger, brighter and louder.
In the third year, they added elaborate choreography timed to music – mix tapes of patriotic songs – and the legend grew. Older, veteran campers bragged to the newcomers about previous years, a mix of fact and fantasy. Expectations expanded and the four staffers found it difficult to satisfy.
The fourth year, July 4 fell on a Thursday – the weekly family night. Parents, grandparents, and siblings would travel to the camp for dinner with their young Scouts and an evening of pageant in the amphitheater – a tradition dating back decades. Would the evening’s long-standing tradition triumph over fireworks? Or would fireworks join the tradition? The camp buzzed with questions until the Camp Director, with a little rocking chair coaching from Scoutmaster Bob, approved a plan – the evening’s traditional events would culminate in a new explosive finale.
With the audience expanded beyond Scouts and Scoutmasters, the show had to be spectacular, much bigger than the meager budget scraped together in years past. The fifty-member strong camp staff dropped money in a can, donations to support the effort. Two days before the fateful show, the four ringleaders sat at a table counting the pile of money. Coins clattered. Crumpled dollar bills were straightened.
Cup of coffee in hand, Bob approached. “Poker game?”
“No, sir, fireworks money,” Caleb said. “We are going tomorrow night to buy them. Just mapping out what we can afford.”
“A little more than last year.”
“Not the same as entertaining a bunch of eleven and twelve-year-olds. Their parents will expect more.” Bob looked at the dejected group of staffers. “Tell you what, boys. I’ll find you at lunch. I have a plan.”
Bob marched off into the camp as the staffers scrambled to teach their classes and entertain Boy Scouts for the morning.
Three times a day, the large dining hall filled with the din of 500 boys, their leaders, and staff. Over lunch, everyone discussed the upcoming fireworks. Expectations were high.
Bob found Caleb in the crowd and invited him to the porch. “Caleb, we expect a great show.”
Bob thrust a bulging envelope into Caleb’s hands. “Every leader in the camp contributed. We wanted to help.”
Caleb opened the flap and stared at the stack of money. “Wow. Sir. This is incredible.”
“Remember. We expect a great show. The best. Don’t disappoint us.”
That evening, flush with cash and challenged by a respected Scouter, the four staffers piled into a van and drove to a giant fireworks store across the state line. North Carolina, with stricter fireworks laws, did not allow the same pyrotechnics that South Carolina sold – a fact every teen in North Carolina knew well.
Donnie, the charismatic store owner spotted them as they entered. “Ah, my Boy Scouts here for their annual show.”
“Assuming you want your usual volume discount.”
“No, sir. We were hoping for better.” Caleb displayed the wad of cash.
Donnie’s eyes widened. “Let’s do business, boys.” He scrambled around the store, selecting the biggest and best boxes and describing each as it hit the counter. “Higher.” “Brighter.” “More colorful.” “Louder.”
At last Donnie paused and stared at the pile. “Boys, we need a finale. Something that will knock their socks off. Do you agree?”
The foursome nodded.
“Come with me.” Donnie disappeared through a door into a dark storeroom. Caleb glanced at the others, shrugged, and followed.
Deep in the shadows, Donnie pointed to a large wooden crate. “This is what you need. You build a frame and then wire the fuses together, so you only light it at one end. It ignites one after the other, sending everything up a rhythmic pattern. But here’s the deal. Once lit, you can’t stop it. And you don’t want to be anywhere near it when it goes off. So you light it, get the hell out of the way, and watch the best finale ever.”
Michael ran his hands lovingly along the crate. “Sounds perfect.”
Donnie eyed the boys. “The most important thing. You didn’t get this here. I’m not allowed to sell it and you ain’t allowed to buy it. Don’t tell no one, you hear me?”
In unison, “Yes sir.”
“Pull your van around back. Don’t want no one seeing us load this up.”
On the drive back, Michael skipped the seats in the van and sat on the wooden crate instead. “This will be awesome, boys,” he said as he patted the crate walls.
Long wooden benches carved into the side of the hill formed the seating for the amphitheater. The stage was a soft, even floor of grass framed by a curving stone wall. On either side of the stage stood tall wooden structures – dressing rooms and prop storage. To convert the amphitheater into a chapel, a large wooden cross was attached to a cable strung between the two buildings and cranked into view. The narrow strip of ground between the stone walls and the lake was several feet lower than the stage, allowing people to pass “backstage” without being seen by the audience.
After Thursday lunch, Caleb backed the van along the edge of the lake to the backstage where David and Jacob waited. “Where’s Michael?” he asked.
“Don’t worry, I am here.” Michael appeared from an outbuilding, sweating in his volunteer firefighter gear. His head was covered in a helmet, safety glass covering his face and ear flaps down his neck. A turnout coat hung open revealing the suspenders holding his pants. Heavy boots shod his feets and thick gloves covered his hands. “What do you think?”
David replied, “Looks like you expect a disaster.”
“Nah, man, I got burned last year. Not going to do that again.” Michael caressed the wooden crate. “We will need all the protection we can get.”
They lifted the heavy box out of the van, all four straining with its weight, and placed it on the ground. Caleb slid a crowbar under one corner, popping nails with the leverage. The lid creaked open revealing a mass of explosives and fuses.
“Awesome,” whispered Jacob.
Caleb picked up a thick instruction booklet, leafed through it, and removed a schematic. He spread the blueprints over one table set up along the lake shore for the smaller fireworks. Piece by piece, they measured, cut, and hammered lumber – a frame taking shape on the ground. One at a time, ordnance was lifted from the crate and mounted per the instructions. They stretched and stapled fuses to the wooden frame.
After completing the last of the to-do list, they stepped back and admired their handiwork. The frame extended half the width of the stage, an impressive array of tubes aiming their contents over the lake.
Caleb pointed to the single strand of fuse sticking out one corner, “That’s where we light it. All of the fuses connect to there.”
“Who gets to do it?” David asked in awe as they stared at the mass of explosives.
“Michael will. He’s got the firefighter gear, so it would be safer for him.” The boys nodded agreement and Caleb continued, “That thing is so big, we will be crowded shooting off the smaller stuff. So pack the tables in tight on either side and set up the fireworks on them. Michael and I will fire everything on this side and Jacob and David will do that side. Once all of your fireworks from the tables are fired, you two head way off to that side of the stage and I will head to the other side. When we are safely out of the way, Michael will light the big guy. As soon as you hear it firing, you two crank the American flag up.” Caleb pointed to the now empty overhead cable that held the cross for chapel services. “With all of those explosions and the American flag, the crowd will cheer their heads off. A finale they will never forget.”
Everybody grinned at the thought. “No one will ever forget this show,” said Jacob.
Caleb replied, “Well, they will if we don’t get everything else set up. We only have four hours until showtime. Let’s hustle and get the rest of those fireworks on those tables.”
Four firing tables were set up along the edge of the lake, two on each side of the massive frame. A few feet closer to the stone wall, more tables were stacked with the purchased fireworks. During the show, the four staffers would stand between the sets of tables, moving fireworks from the storage area to the firing table before igniting the fuse – reducing the risk of a flash fire among the unfired pieces.
Because the frame for the finale was so large, space was much more limited than previous years. The closest storage tables were placed at the edge of the frame on either side. Jacob eyed the setup and motioned Caleb over for a quick conference. “Too close?”
Caleb pointed at the tubes aimed at the sky from the framework. “Nope, see. These should shoot out past the table.” He studied it for a moment. “But to be sure, when the storage tables are empty, we will push them over on the ground and out of the way long before Michael lights it up.”
Jacob nodded. “Good idea. Better safe than sorry. Especially since you are trapped between them and Michael, and I am trapped on the other side by David.”
“True, but Michael won’t light it until we are clear. No danger, right?”
Jacob glanced at Michael, who was sitting and staring at the mass of explosives. “Sure. No danger.”
Once all of the smaller fireworks were unpacked and spread across the storage tables, they huddled over scribbled notes. The goal was to match the pace with the music that would play over the amphitheater speakers, so they calculated how fast they needed to shoot, when to slow down and when to accelerate. The timing was critical so that all of the smaller fireworks were exhausted before the large finale erupted with the music. Several times, they rearranged the smaller fireworks on the tables to maximize the planned impact of the show.
As they worked, Scouts wandered to the edge of the amphitheater trying to glimpse the prepared fireworks. Yellow tape stretched from the outbuildings to the lake shore creating a no entry zone, for both safety and surprise. Despite the precautions, rumors swirled around camp. Expectations ramped higher.
As dusk settled, 500 Boy Scouts led their parents and siblings into the giant amphitheater. The restless crowd buzzed with excitement through the traditional show, its appeal dimmed in anticipation of what was to come. As it drew to its conclusion, the crowd roared approval. The lights went out. Music started over the loud speakers.
In the darkness, Caleb looked at Michael. “Ready?”
Michael grinned. “Oh, yeah.”
Caleb lit his flare, excited over the improvement from the long lighters they had used in years past. Michael lit his own flare, clumsily handling it through his thick firefighter gloves. Glancing across the backstage, Caleb could see Jacob and David lit up in the red glare of their own flares.
Michael fumbled his flare to the ground and worked to wrap his hand back around it.
“You going to be ok with those gloves?” Caleb asked.
Michael nodded his helmeted head, the glare reflecting off his safety glass. “I am not getting burned again this year.”
The crowd sat in the darkness with music for nearly thirty seconds, a planned prolonging of the expectations. Waiting, wondering, anticipation building. As the music grew, Caleb lowered his flare, lit a fuse, and the first firework arced into the sky, exploding in brilliant red, white and blue sparkles. The crowd cheered as the others followed with a concussion of shells, echoes rattling off of the far lake shore. Bright sparkles of light drifted harmlessly to the lake surface.
The humid summer evening and intense activity made all of them sweat, but none as much as Michael inside his gear. His eye safety shield fogged as he struggled handling fireworks and the flare with his gloved hands. The show was scripted to the music and he was falling behind, unable to keep pace with his ungloved compatriots.
Caleb’s work was smooth and quick. Grab an object from the storage table. Place it on the firing table or inside one of their fabricated firing tubes. Light the fuse. Turn to grab the next object as the first was firing. Sparks flew around his boots, safely extinguishing in the damp grass.
Michael fumbled and bumbled, dropping fireworks to the ground or knocking them over on the table. One lit Roman Candle fell on its side before launch, shooting across the lake surface rather than high into the air.
Cursing, Michael turned and grabbed another Roman Candle. In his haste, he lit the fuse while still moving toward the firing table. He slapped the firework onto its plastic feet and pivoted back toward the storage table. Its fuse burning, the candle wobbled and tilted before falling on its side. The fuse ended its short run and the candle launched. The rocket hit Michael in the middle of his back, deflected off of his turnout coat, and bounced high into the air. Furiously shooting sparks, it spun out of control and landed in the middle of Caleb’s storage table.
Successfully launching his own rocket. Caleb turned toward his storage table and spied the sparks shooting out underneath dozens of unfired rockets. “Wild child,” he shouted, the code they used to communicate an errant firework. To his left was the giant wooden frame built on the ground. Behind him were the firing table and lake. In front of him, the storage table. And to his right was Michael, wedged between his own tables. His exit path blocked, Caleb had no choice but to dive underneath the storage table.
Multiple rockets fired inches above his head, sparks rolling over the sides of the table. Defensively, he curled into a ball, kicking the table legs and jostling the table. A rocket fell to the ground inches in front of him, fuse lit. He covered his face with his arms as the rocket launched, ricocheting off of the side of the outbuilding and harmlessly exploding over the lake.
“Whew, that was close,” Michael said, crouched in his firefighter gear under his own table.
Caleb laughed and shook his head. “We got lucky.” He crawled from underneath the table and stood to light the next firework. In horror, he watched a lit rocket roll across the table and over the edge. It fired just as it dropped, landing amongst the twisted fuses of the finale frame and exploding. The fuses ignited and burned in multiple directions, racing toward the loaded tubes. “Fire,” he shouted and backed away, tripping and falling over the still prone Michael.
They lay on their backs as the ground shook, multiple unplanned launches simultaneously thundering. The tubes closest to the storage tables showered sparks over the unfired rockets, igniting their fuses. Flames spread rapidly down the table as fireworks exploded into the air. The sky lit up as shell after shell threw their sparkling decorations into complex layers in the sky. The boys crawled on the ground, trying to escape the cacophony of sound and smoke.
A rack of Roman Candles fell to their side, launching into skipping flames across the lake surface. Another rocket bounced off the stone wall, landed beside Jacob, and exploded. Clutching his face, he rolled down the grassy hill and into the lake.
On the far side of the show, David was unaware of what caused the finale to be early, but raced for the crank and hoisted the American flag over the center of the stage. The wavering light from the smoldering tables silhouetted it as every last unfired launch arced toward the heavens.
Flames streaked into the air. Smoke curled. The ground shook. Shadows danced across the stone wall as shells exploded in the sky. Sparks drifted to the ground.
And then it was over.
Silence. Deafening silence.
And darkness. The only light came from small flames flickering on the now emptied tables.
“You alive?” Michael asked.
“Yeah, I think so,” Caleb answered.
They fought their way through the smoke and found Jacob dripping lake water from his drenched clothes. He touched his scorched cheek, “Did I blow my face off?”
David joined the group, “Don’t worry. It’s an improvement.”
The boys huddled against the stone wall, coughing in the smoke and haze and surveying the damage. “How mad do you think they are?” Michael asked.
“We blew up all of their money. Bob will be furious.” David said.
Jason touched his smoking cheek again. “Do you think we hurt anybody? Did any land in the crowd?”
The boys exchanged horrified glances. How much damage had they done? Were parents dragging their injured Scouts to their cars, screaming, “Never again!” Frantic, they stumbled around the stone wall and onto the grassy stage. Screams from the audience greeted them.
Screams of delight.
As the foursome stumbled into the now lit stage lights, the crowd cheered in appreciation. Confused and stunned, they could only bow.
“Uh-oh.” David pointed. “Here comes Bob.”
The stern Scoutmaster strode out of the crowd and towards the scorched staffers. Inches away, he halted and stared into their eyes. “Boys,” Bob said as a smile broke across his face, “That was the best damn fireworks show I have ever seen.”
“It was incredible. That finale. Unbelievable. I don’t know how you pulled that off.”
“Uh, yes, sir. It was a real challenge.”
“Just one thing.”
Caleb gulped. “Sir?”
“I expect even bigger next year.”
They exchanged glances with each other, grins breaking out across their soot-stained faces. “Yes, sir. You bet!”