We had the day off for Thanksgiving so we went out to explore the souks. I got to like Dubai a bit more after that trip. There is an original culture here underneath the artificial one the Sheiks have been creating the last 42 years. Tomorrow they celebrate National Day, the day the UAE was created. Apparently, Sheik Zayad was a visionary whose vision of unity is carried on by his son. This is the place to be in the Middle East. I know they love fireworks.
OK. They said this building was big but – my God – they really meant it. It towers over every other huge building here, and there are a lot of them. Buildings are everywhere, and from above it looks like they just planted them randomly as if they fought over spots. "I'm putting mine here." "No, mine's bigger, I want mine here. You move over there." "Well mine's the biggest and I'm going to put fireworks all over it and…"
No little fireworks show could do this thing justice. It's an enourmous undertaking and the Grucci's thrive on this kind of challenge. So does the crew. We've got miles of wire to run up and down the three faces of this engineering marvel and we're working a night shift. In the end this should be a tremendous show of pyrotechnics.
Never in a million years did I think I would be working on a Grucci show, let alone a really big one like this. But since I am officially a "Freelance Fireworks and Pyrotechnics Expert," I guess I'll get the chance to do more things like this. I wonder if I'll ever use my skills at making fireworks again, to feel the coolness of mixed powders, or soft finish paper? I think so, some day, but for now I'm doing this. I arrived in Dubai yesterday afternoon. After a long but comfortable flight I looked out the window for the first time as we approached our landing and saw the World Islands from above and the Palm Jumeirah. They both looked unreal and small from the plane. We'll see when I get there. For my first time in an Arab country I felt comfortable. There's the word of the day. Riding from the airport to the hotel, meeting the Grucci Guys, settling into the room – comfortable, and even flying halfway across the world with strangers and trying to sleep upright in a tight economy seat in the back of a Boeing 777.
Tomorrow we head to the Burj Khalifa to get started on an amazing project and I'm feeling pretty…well…comfortable.
I had plenty of opportunities growing up to indulge my boyish interest in pyrotechnics; my grandfather built a fireworks factory. I tagged along with my dad to the factory on many a Sunday morning mostly in silence. The few words spoken, "don't touch that," "get away from there," broke through his meditative silence at random intervals – enough to keep me on edge. The musky smells of chemicals, papers and dirt, combined to fill the office with the well recognized odor of my dad's job. You could say it stunk but it smelled like incense to me.
His office desk, shelves and floor were scattered with paper tubes, paper disks, stars and bits of green and black fuse. I stuffed them into my pockets as he focused on the newspaper, cigarette smoke rising from his fingertips. That office was as close to the factory as I could get, besides an occasional walk to the "smoke room" for a snack and a coke from the machines. it was just what it was called, a place for workers to smoke, and they all did – a lot. It smelled of cigarettes, urine and burnt fireworks.
The only other soul at the factory on a Sunday morning was the watchman. There was always a watchman. I thought he lived in the smoke room. He always talked to me, and showed his bad teeth and wrinkled face when he smiled. He usually smelled too, with that factory smell and BO. I liked him.
I remember my first attempt at making my own firework. I tried to reload a parachute into a new tube. I took the lift powder from some other firework, loaded it carefully and then refolded and stuffed the parachute in my tube like a piece of wadding into the barrel of a musket. I lit the fuse and sent the fireball into the bushes of our back yard. As usual, dad pulled up just as I was putting out the last embers. "What the hell ya doin'?" he yelled. "Uhhhh…nothin'." That's all he said, but I'm sure I could see him smile as he went into the house.
Cones Oddly, one of most prestigious jobs in our factory had to be the finisher on the cone production line. Always a woman, she was the one to spin the final label around the cone before sending it down the line to be packaged. She was so important because her speed determined when she and her coworkers would meet their quota and leave for the day. Their day started with a new bundle of 500 sheets of paper labels and ended after fourteen bundles were neatly wrapped around a truckload of cones.
We touch a lot of paper in fireworks making. We roll a finish wrap on gerbs and shells or we form fuse cases from paper spun on metal rods and shell cases around wooden formers. Then we glue the wraps down. Paper can be stiff and strong, silky or mushy. A life in fireworks is as much an affair with paper as it is with fire. Paper has grain, it comes in different thickness and weights, it rolls, twists and folds. If you can’t tell which way its grain runs, you’ll know as soon as you struggle to roll up a roman candle or nose a Niagara Falls stick.
A shipment of brown Kraft paper was heralded like the arrival of a new wine vintage; a load of bad paper could affect the mood of the factory for weeks whereas a fine vintage of soft, workable paper was intoxicating and no doubt led to a most content and highly productive workforce. I’ve seen my father and other masters rub paper grocery bags between their fingers and squint their eyes as if they were connoisseurs assessing the delicate aromas of a new red.
To prepare paper for most work in a fireworks factory, one would take a bundle of paper, stacked neatly, and spread it enough to expose an edge of each sheet, akin to fanning a deck of cards. This is so you could paint a brushstroke of paste along each edge at once. That’s it.
I can’t remember the first time I ever saw someone spread paper but I was mesmerized. Of all my skills as a fireworks maker, it is one of those that fascinates my admirers the most. In his book entitled Pyrotechnics, George Weingart describes spreading paper this way, “Take a bundle of approximately one or two dozen sheets and lay them squarely before you on the rolling board. Holding them down tightly with the left hand, rub them gently toward you with the thumb-nail of the right hand so that each one will slide about a quarter inch below and to the left of the one under it.” He was describing rolling lance tubes and I would just add that you can use a blunt object, like a stick, if you care about keeping your thumbnail. A simple, gentle rub pulls each leaf slightly, equally and miraculously away from the next.
I believe the reason this skill so fascinated me as a boy was that it was one of the most difficult skills to teach a new person. No matter how you taught them, they would still want to place one sheet on the table, wipe on some paste, roll it up, and do it again. Maybe it seemed just too simple and therefore unnecessary. To become a cone finisher though you had to master the skill. The head cone finisher at the factory was named Jane Sturgill. No one was ever better or faster. In all my years learning the art and craft of fireworks making, sitting across a production line from her – a simple cone finisher – learning how to simply spread and wrap, taught me perhaps one of my most cherished skills. Thanks Jane.