Everybody looks up to Mike Baskin on the Fourth of July.
And yes, we're going to say it – his job is a blast.
“You never find a hobby where you can blow stuff up and get paid for it,” he says. “I'm never going to let go of it.”
Baskin, 35, is a card-carrying, nationally certified pyrotechnician.
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It's not a full-time job – little boys everywhere will heave sighs of regret – but around July 4, plus a few other times like fancy weddings, Baskin gets paid to set up and set off fireworks.
He's doing his second show at Carowinds tonight for his employer, Melrose South Pyrotechnics of Catawba, S.C.
The rest of the time, Baskin works for a company that makes ink for printing presses.
July 4 is the busy season for pyrotechnicians, so he takes the week off. On Tuesday, he was driving loads of fireworks to towns from Augusta, Ga., to Savannah.
Baskin has been a pyrotechnician for 17 years. He started as a high school football player. Hang on, maybe we should explain:
Fireworks take a lot of handling. When they're placed on a truck for delivery, someone has to stay with them all the time. The truck has to be specially equipped, with the driver's compartment protected and the cargo area lined with wood so there's no risk of equipment coming in contact with metal and causing a spark.
At the display site, it takes several people to unload everything and set it up. And the technician needs a crew to keep an eye on the skies during the show.
When Baskin was a center on the Rock Hill High School football team, his coach, Tom Weaver, had a side job working for a fireworks company. Weaver asked Baskin and the team quarterback if they wanted to make a little money helping out in the summer.
Baskin helped for several years, until he was 21.
“At that age in South Carolina, you can be certified to be a lead technician. I guess if you can drink, you can shoot fireworks.”
He's never had an accident, he says. And, yes – he has all his fingers and toes. (He gets asked that a lot.)
Light fuse and get away
The company Baskin works for, Melrose, added more training after a worker was killed and several buildings were leveled after an explosion in July 2001. The company was fined, but admitted no wrongdoing.
Baskin attends national and state certification classes every couple of years to keep up.
What kind of things do you learn in fireworks class – light fuse and get away?
“That's one of them,” he says, laughing. “No, they give you distances, regulations, who you need to contact. There's a lot with distances – how far you have to be from crowds, from pyrotechnical storage areas, from prisons, from schools.”
Times do change in the fireworks world. “When I first started, a lot of shows were hand-fire shows. You had a road flare that you lit the fuse with. It really was ‘light fuse and get away.' Now, it's electronic. You have a panel and it sends a charge.”
There are digital fireworks shows and choreographed ones, called “pyromusicals.” Those are arranged in advance by technicians who set everything by the length of time it takes for a shell to go up and explode. The crowd hears music, but Baskin wears headphones. The only thing he hears is the order of the buttons: “1, 2, 3.”
For a big show like the Carowinds Fourth of July display, he and his helpers start setting up the day before, in a big field. The shells are set off from mortars – long tubes, like cannons – that are placed in racks. Each mortar holds a specific size of shell, usually 3 to 5 inches across.
Pressure building up from behind is what propels the shell to 500 to 800 feet in the air. If you put a 4-inch shell in a 5-inch mortar, it wouldn't go up as high.
At big shows like Carowinds, each mortar is used only once because there's no time to reload. At smaller shows, they can put a new shell in the tube, but they have to wait for it to cool off.
Baskin can't give you much advice on how to watch a fireworks show. He never has time to watch his own handiwork.
But he does have advice for neighborhood pyromaniacs who set off their own.
Be careful, be aware of your surroundings and remember that what goes up will come down – sometimes still hot.
“Don't get too confident around them,” he says. “You have to treat them with respect.”