And The Rockets’ Red Glare…
Seldom do great things happen in a paragraph or three; thus it is with the Comanche fireworks show that has grown and grown until literally thousands attend each year. Its story is, however, interesting enough to warrant drinking another cup of coffee, putting your feet up, and settling in for a little longer than usual as we discover just how the event began.
Of course, that was my question….how did it all begin…? Recently I sat down with Russell Reynolds and asked just that. By the time I had my answer…well let’s just say that I am smart enough to know that I am not smart enough to have accomplished what the Comanche KIWANIS Club has done…not even close.
Like all good things, the fireworks extravaganza began with an idea and not a lot more than that except a passion to do something great for the town of Comanche while honoring the veterans who have served this country so selflessly. At the time, we were embroiled in the Gulf War, and Russell Reynolds wanted a way to express the gratitude of an entire community.
“It started with fact that it was the fourth of July and there was no fireworks show anywhere around our area. We were new to the community and when we asked about fireworks, we were told to go out to the lake. We did that and found just a few kids shooting off their fireworks.”
Then the Gulf War came to a close, and again Russell thought that there should be some way to have something bigger for the 4th that would at the same time honor our veterans.
“I talked to our KIWANIS club, and the members were receptive so I went to a city council meeting and presented the idea of the club doing a fireworks show. They turned me down.”
Russell returned to the club, telling members that their idea had been refused. Attorney Chris Till was a member of the club at that time, and he began asking questions and looking into things like insurance. What he found was that the club already had everything in place that it would need and that there was no real reason for the city to have refused their request.
So….Russell returned to the city council once again, this time with Chris, who could answer any legal questions, in tow. The council was reluctant, but permission was finally granted. The first hurdle was behind them!
“After we were granted permission, Chris and I started the process of becoming licensed to actually launch the fireworks. We were determined to put on the first show that year so that we could begin the same year that our troops left the Gulf.”
Chris received his license first, and he was the one who actually “shot” the fireworks that first year.
And what a year that was! None of us knew it, of course, but behind the scenes those men had taken on a monumental job and believe it or not, Chris Till was actually lighting fireworks by hand the first year the show was held!
“You know how hot it is here in Texas. We carried buckets of water until we had the ground soft enough to dig. Then, using posthole diggers we dug 18-24 inch holes to hold 3, 4, and 5 inch mortars. We actually kept our shells in ice chests to keep them cool and safe!”
And from the first, safety has been the number one concern of the folks who actually bring us the fireworks.
“We put the mortars in the holes for safety reasons, of course. Then we would drop a shell into the hole and hand-light them. We were actually carrying live shells back and forth for those first two years…pretty dangerous for us but not for the crowd who came to watch.”
According to his wife, Sherry, after those first two shows Russell arrived home wearing shirts that looked as if they had been in a war!
“During the second show, we had a shell that went off really low, covering us with sparks. It was after that show that we had a heart to heart and decided that we had to do things differently if we were going to continue with the shows.”
So what did they do? Well, here is where it gets a little dicey from my point of view since I am so challenged when it comes to knowing how to build and design these kinds of things. Thankfully, however, Jimmy Pate is not.
“Jimmy Pate came up with a concept of how we could use a system that was wired by building a panel made up of pegboard and pop rivets. Because we were using phone cables with four wires, we sautered each wire to the pop rivet so we had lines running out to the trailer.
“This had to be built every year and as we grew, that meant more and more building, screwing boards together, etc…plus the wiring, all connected to a nail stuck to a block of wood to a cable that went to car battery….that caused the thing to light.
“Every year we also had to do what we called sanding. This just means that we built the boxes, placed the mortar tubes in each box, and then every July 3, we would have someone deliver a load of sand that we shoveled into each box, packing it around the tubes. Of course, we had to keep the sand out of the tubes while we made sure that we packed enough sand around them in case a shell exploded inside a tube. The sand would contain the explosion and keep it from blowing the boxes apart.
“That first cable put us about 50 feet from the trailer…but we didn’t have a magazine so we actually had to load physically on the day of the event. Of course, we had the potential to accidentally set one off by doing it that way, plus it took hours to hand load these. We had to take each wire and wire together and each shell had to be done this same way. Most of our fingers were bleeding by the time we were finished.”
Today, well let’s just say that the men have come a long, long way. Members of the firing team, Jimmy Pate and Russell Reynolds (who have to keep a current license to do the firing), Harry Dudley, Rex Plumlee, Kenneth Hagood, Larry McKnight, Travis McKenney, and Cory Criswell, sit on the pitcher’s mound of the baseball field with their trailer about 100 feet away behind third base. Gone is the hand lighting, the nail on a board, and the car batteries of shows long gone.
“Now we use the firing system that we started three years ago. This new system is electronic with 24 volts instead of 12; we also now have a smaller controller that has a digi-display and 15 toggle switches labeled with a system that would mean that 01 goes to # 1, etc.”
They are also inspected every year by the ATF, and the men themselves have to submit to personal background checks. And have I remembered to stress that everyone involved with the fireworks show is a VOLUNTEER? Russell is quick to continually point out that this show and its amazing success is a club effort and that it takes all of them working together to get to the point each year where the firing team can actually take over and fire.
Here at United we salute the following members of the Comanche KIWANIS Club and their unbelievable efforts that continue to draw visitors by the thousands each year as their show continues to grow…from a finale of 45 shells in the early days to 2013 and a finale of about 1,000 shells. Great Job!!
Billy Joe Works
The next time you see these folks, stop and say thank you. Better yet, stop and hand them a donation!