By Larry Bischof
The big, white-sided Budget Rent-A-Truck pulled into the backstage parking area between the bull fighting ring and the oval race track at the Perris Fairgrounds the day before the Fourth of July. Signs on its front, back and sides announced, "Explosives."
Idyllwild pyrotechnic specialist Tom Visel climbed out of the cab. Grizzled could describe Tom at that moment; man who's just been on the 215 for a couple of hours, driving south from Rialto through day-before-the-Fourth, rush-hour traffic, with the outside temperature hovering near 100 degrees. Tom's cargo included nearly 300 pounds of fireworks and everything needed to make one really, really big and colorful fireworks show.
The next night, after the Pledge Of Allegiance and prior to the show, the mayor of Perris would tell the packed bleachers of eclectic race fans that the Perris City fathers had unanimously approved $20,000 expenditure for the “big boom.”
Tom's wise old, owl eyes scanned the fence line, then up to the sky. Big fluffy white cumulus clouds were drifting east. It was good. No rain in sight. Barely a breeze. If these conditions continued through the show, the fallout would fall just right.
Tom smiled, though it was hard to detect through his scruffy, unkempt, gray trademark beard. He imagined the steams of many vibrant colors that would explode, filling the night sky in a little more than 24 hours. Bombs "bursting in air." The oohs and aahs from the crowd.
Several decades ago, Tom was an arson investigator with the Forest Service. He got bored with it, but was always fascinated with explosives. For the past 25 years he's been orchestrating fireworks shows locally and around our nation, not only for the Fourth of July, but weddings, Chinese New Year’s, marketing events and anything that requires fireworks.
Like most folk across America, the Fourth of July means family and friends, barbecues and a fireworks show somewhere. The Visel family is not much different than most, only they don't go to see fireworks shows, they put them on.
Soon Tom's wife, Karen, who most know as a librarian at Idyllwild School, arrived, Subaru packed wall to wall with food, drinks, T-shirts and assorted, last-minute gear.
A short while later, daughter Kelly, who waits on us at the bank, joined her parents, ready to work. While hard to imagine when she's handing or taking your money, Kelly has participated in the family fireworks shows since she was 5 years old, according to Karen. She started by raking up spent debris after the shows.
The atmosphere was a lot like Christmas Eve, filled with expectation as the Visels’ friends gathered, Jack, Tom's foreman for many years, John, soft spoken, but to the point, is the one chosen to "fire" this year's show. Robert’s U-Tube video is worth the watch. These three and a half-dozen others are the team in the Visels’ company name, Idyllwild Pyrotechnics Team.
They have two slogans, both apropos: "We never play at home" and on the back of the bright red T-shirts worn the team wears, "If I'm running, keep up!! Explosive."
Family and friends gather around Tom, those who share a common passion, setting up, then watching as the fireworks light up the night sky. Tom's sermon is on safety:. It's hot; drink lots of water. Keep hydrated. Wear protective gear. The most adamant of Tom's instruction, "Never lean over a tube with a shell in it. EVER!"
And then, to work. The back roll-up door on the truck opens. The first thing to be unloaded are the wooden racks, holding black, ABS pipe tubes in varying lengths and ranging in diameter from 5 inches down to 1-1/2 inches. Tom places the first few racks, starting the layout, then shares with Jack how he envisions it.
Hammers bang away, cleating the racks together for stability. Groups of four and five racks stretch for about 100 feet toward the bull ring. Wooden ignition circuitry is unfolded and laid along the four rows stretching over a large corner of the parking lot.
Next, 450 shells — each one numbered, and packed with gun powder, flash powder and the POW ingredient that make crowds, oohh and aahh — are unloaded. They bore names like Crackling Thunder, Blue Stained Glass, White Strobing Cascades, Dahlias, Short Cakes, lots of Roman Candles and even more Comets.
As the sun begins to set, each shell is placed on top of a corresponding sized tube, in preparation for wiring. Tedious work. The maze of wires grows as each shell is connected to the ignition terminals. Tom sets to work wiring the complex finale, the largest array of tubes topped with shells.
At the end of a very long day, with most of the preparation complete, the team disperses after Tom's instruction, "Be back tomorrow about 5." Soon he, too, is snuggled in his mummy bag, gazing out at the set-up, then to the night sky and the dimly lit stars. "Tomorrow night, for 17 minutes, it will be a whole lot different."
On the Fourth of July, the day is filled with fussing and fidgeting. Friends and families arrive. The barbecue is fired up. The sprint cars are lapping the oval, making a hellacious roar round corners and gunning their engines into the straight-aways. Time seems to slow to a crawl. With nothing left to be accomplished, "make work" sets in as Tom, Jack, John and the rest of the team work to keep busy.
Finally, show time. The walkie-talkie crackles the countdown, “10, nine, eight …” The team is tense, stationed at look-out locations for errant embers or a mass of flaming fall-out. John sits with igniter poised over the electrode of the first cue. Tom is at his side, his eye on the beam of flashlight that shines on the board, then "Fire!"
John makes contact. The first round of Comets streak into the dark, night sky, whistling as they soar. Boom, boom, boom! The sky fills with showers of colorful light. Only a few more cues and a giant happy face fills the heaven, looking down on the crowd. Applause is heard over the explosions. Tom smiles, gently patting John on the back.
For 17 minutes the night sky lights with an incredible array of patterned colors all orchestrated to music that blares to the race fans in the stands. The finale is a fantastic display ending with the "Star Spangle Banner" as rockets red blare, bombs burst in air.
As the remnant smoke drifted away, cautiously Tom and John move up and down the four rows, shinning flashlight beams into the smoldering tubes, checking to be certain there are no unexploded shells. Team members scramble to see the results. Tom cautions, "Stay back." Then, the report, "100 successful." High fives are exchanged while hearts still pound, an adrenaline high.
Cleanup begins, the final act to the three-act show. Wiring is removed from the tubes, racks uncleated, everything returned to the truck. The trash picked up, the asphalt raked and swept clean of errant nails, wire and debris, in a couple of hours it was all just a wonderful memory, a Fourth of July party beyond compare for a novice; a Fourth of July never to be forgotten.
Thank you, Idyllwild Pyrotechnics Team members, Kelly, Karen, and most of all the master, maestro firework conductor, Tom Visel, for an unforgettable Independence Day.