Fireworks artist will paint the sky

July 04, 2001 12:00 am
John Schwendemann stands surrounded by mortars. Each of the tubes will be loaded with a firework rocket, also known as shells, that will be lit during tonights show near the Haines Rodeo grounds. The display begins around 10 p.m. (Baker City Herald photograph by Jayson Jacoby).
John Schwendemann stands surrounded by mortars. Each of the tubes will be loaded with a firework rocket, also known as shells, that will be lit during tonights show near the Haines Rodeo grounds. The display begins around 10 p.m. (Baker City Herald photograph by Jayson Jacoby).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

John Schwendemann is an artist of sorts, but not one of his pieces ever survived for more than a few seconds.

They dazzle then disappear, gone in a puff of smoke, leaving in their wake only wide eyes and echoing eardrums.

Schwendemanns canvas is the night sky.

His palette is a trailer filled with fireworks.

His brushes are red chrysanthemums and silver spirals and blue willows, some capable of climbing to almost 1,000 feet before detonating in fiery brilliance.

Then there are salutes, also known as attention-getters rockets that carry their 2-ounce payload of flash powder into the sky at 300 mph before cleaving the air with a concussive shudder you feel right down there in the intestines.

On Monday afternoon Schwendemann and Tom Carroll, who owns Tom Carroll Fabulous Fireworks, were sweating in a sea of sagebrush just northeast of the Haines Rodeo grounds.

They were setting up that trailer, which carries about 420 mortars neatly arrayed in long rows like an eccentrics homemade pipe organ.

Mortars are the circular tubes from which each firework will zoom skyward starting at 10 oclock tonight. Schwendemann calls fireworks shells mortar isnt the only word his business borrows from the artilleryman.

He and Carroll will spend several hours preparing for tonights show, but theyll need just 24 minutes to fire those hundreds of shells in celebration of Americas independence.

Were going to burn the sky up, Schwendemann said Monday.

Hes been burning up the sky for a decade now, but he still needs many hours to fine-tune each display.

The first step, and probably the most important, is listening to the music that will accompany the fireworks, Schwendemann said.

Hell choreograph the show when to fire off a flurry of shells, when to ignite just a few to the rhythm of the songs.

The music will be broadcast on KUBQ, at 95.3 on the FM dial.

At all times Schwendemann, like any professional performer, will be thinking about what his audience would like to see.

Ive got some ideas about how to really get the crowd into it, he said. Thats what were here for, is to make the crowd happy.

Schwendemann and Carrolls trailer certainly can accommodate enough firepower to satisfy most any connoisseur of pyrotechnics.

They built the trailer not long ago, and this is its inaugural Independence Day display.

The trailer holds a series of steel racks in which the mortars stand, side-by-side.

There are four diameters 3-, 4-, 5- and 6-inch.

The arrangement of the mortars depends, of course, on how many shells are available for each show, Schwendemann said.

For tonights performance he and Carroll have assembled about 200 3-inch mortars, 144 4-inch, 48 5-inch and 20 of the 6-inchers, which hold shells weighing about 10 pounds.

Shells generally fly 140 feet for each inch of diameter, Schwendemann said, so the smallest of the projectiles in tonights show will hit a height of about 420 feet, the largest about 840.

To allow for simultaneous firing, Schwendemann uses fast-burning fuses; he lights them with highway flares rather than with a lighter or (the ultimate example of amateurism) matches.

Most of the mortars are made of HDPE High Density PolyEthylene pipe.

Its similar to the PVC pipe plumbers often use, but is less brittle and thus lasts longer forever, if its used properly, Carroll said.

The pair also uses some cardboard mortars.

Those arent as well suited to fireworks shows, Schwendemann said, because they can be damaged by rain. Theyre also heavier, being plugged with concrete rather than wood as the plastic mortars are.

Schwendemann wouldnt reveal any details of tonights show in advance.

But he intends that none of the hundreds of fireworks watchers scattered across Baker Valley will be disappointed with the finale.

That show-ending bombardment will include a minimum of about 50 shells, he said, including several of the 5- and 6-inchers.

I think theyll like it, he said.