This July 4th, Globe-Miami will be treated once again to a spectacular fireworks display, courtesy of Phelps Dodge Corporation, and Jim Grider, our very own Fire Master; a man who has been lighting up the skies for fifty years. Rivaling fireworks shows in the Valley, the local show involves over 600 aerial bombs. It kicks off at 8:45pm on July 4th as Bill Taylor and his 101.9 FM station broadcast the National Anthem, and Jim prepares to fire off the first aerial bomb just as the song belts out “…when rockets red glare….”
The history of fireworks, traces back 2000 years when a Chinese cook accidentally discovered fireworks as he mixed three common kitchen ingredients: sulphur, charcoal and potassium nitrate, or salt peter and got an explosion of colorful flames. It is believed Marco Polo brought this invention back with him from China, and it was the Englishman, scholar, Roger Bacon, in the 1200’s, who first wrote “…if you light it, you will get thunder and lightening if you know the trick…” Later, it was the Courts of Europe who latched on to the invention and it became a favorite of Kings and Queens. In fact, Queen Elizabeth I so enjoyed fireworks that she created a fire master of England.
The man who knows the tricks and is our own, un-disputed fire master is Jim Grider, a big man, with a passion for fireworks, clay targets and wife Jenny. Spend 10 minutes with the man and you are sure to hear something about each of them which makes him smile. He was preparing to take off the next day to compete in a Trapshooting tournament, where he is ranked in the top 10% in the State, but took time out to “talk fireworks” and explain the preparation which goes into putting on the Greatest Show of the season!
“I usually take one day off a year from thinking about fireworks, “he says. By July 6th, I’m beginning to review the show and ask myself questions like “Did you do a good job? Was the pacing just right? Could we have used more shells? What could we have done better?”
Jim’s show involves nearly 600 aerial bombs shot out of a series tubes imbedded into a field on top the tailings dam. Thanks to Phelps Dodge, the fireworks show has its own permanent “firing field” high atop the tailings dam. It is a perfect location providing both safety and visibility for the show. Plus, it offers un-encumbered land to lay out a grid of 130 firing tubes. Each year, Jim tinkers with the field and adds a few tubes. Last year, he installed an electronic firing-system which is hooked into 90 of the largest aerial bombs. His wife Jenny, who has been shooting off fireworks with Jim since she married him 20 years ago, is now in charge of firing off the Big Boys with the use of a computerized firing pad. The balance of the tubes – over 40 of them – are neatly aligned in a long row, dead-center of the field. These are set off by hand and re-loaded throughout the 30 minutes of the fireworks display. The row of 4” tubes seem almost forlorn sitting out in a big open field on a bright sunny afternoon. But on the 4th, it is critical to have the extra room to move. And room for debris to fall. And room to stage the other fireworks awaiting their time.
The show comes packaged each year for Jim and Phelps Dodge by Fireworks Production International, out of Phoenix. You may think that FPI provides Jim with a crystal-clear blueprint of just when, and what to shoot up in the air to create the show.
Not true. In fact, all Jim knows when he unpacks the show is that he’s got so many 4” bombs, and 8” bombs etc. Even when they come with names like 6” Green Pony or 4” Chinese Fancies, Jim pays little attention to the paperwork. He arranges the show according to shell-size. He has no clue what they will look like until he shoots them off the night of the show. And even then, he mostly misses the entire show because of his concentration on the ground with pacing the show and keeping his crew members safe.
With one exception. “See that number 12 tube sitting over there in the corner? That’s for Jenny, and when that one goes off… I stop and look up.”
Grider has been with Phelps Dodge for 33 years and has been handling the fireworks display for the community since the mid-1970’s. In the mid-80’s money got tight and there was talk of discontinuing the fireworks. KIKO, one of the local radio stations, set up collection points around town and the effort raised about $2000. The next year, in 1988, Bill Taylor launched his new FM station; KQSSFM, and agreed to pick up the entire tab for the show. A tab he bumped up to $5,000, giving Jim a lot more Zsssis, Boom, Bah…to work with that year. Bill worked up a program of patriotic songs and together the two men came up with their signature kick off which has been jump starting the show for the last 20 years. As Bill cranks up the National Anthem and the song hits “…rockets red glare,” the first bomb lights the sky.
Jim can’t imagine life without fireworks. As he explains, “I first started with fireworks when I was 14 and went to work with my brother stuffing 4” tubes at a factory in Danville, Illinois. When I turned 15, they let me shoot off my first aerial bomb and that was it, “he says of his first experience with real fireworks, “I was hooked from then on.” He and his brother continued to work the county fairs and local shows for years. “My mom and dad never came to a fireworks show,” he says. “Made them too nervous.”
And, it seems, with good cause. Grider was badly burned one year when a tube exploded and he spent 37 days in the hospital. “When I went back next year to do the show, my hand was shaking when I lit the first one…” Jim remembers.
These days, no fireworks display gets off the ground without some expertise in handling aerial bombs…and some benevolent funding. Along with advances in technology and design of fireworks, the overall expense of a fireworks display has skyrocketed (pardon the pun), and this is creating a whole new playing field when it comes to “putting on the show.” Some estimates put a typical July 4th show budget is between $3,000 and $20,000. While others put the cost of larger shows at $1000 – $2500 per minute. Add the expense of additional fire and police who stand by to make the 4th safe for all and it is apparent why local communities and municipalities struggle with the expense of putting on fireworks displays. Jim won’t disclose the budget for the PD show, but it is apparent it is no small undertaking, and remains something Phelps Dodge has continued to support for the community even when copper prices were down.
Jim and his crew start prepping for the show that afternoon about 2:30, but don’t actually load the tubes until 7:30 that night. At 8:40pm, in a time-worn ritual, Jim calls Bill Taylor, of 101.9FM to let him know he is ready. And Bill launches into the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem to kick off the show. The first aerial bomb goes up in the sky when the words “…rockets red glare” comes over the airwaves.
Jenny keeps track of time for the guys, yelling out “5 minutes…10 minutes…” while using her judgment as to a good time to shoot off another “Big One.” As Jim explains, “When Jenny yells 15 minutes, I tell my guys go ahead and fire em off as fast as you want to…” It is a finely orchestrated affair with no absolutely no instructions.Just instinct. Together they manage to shoot off 600 aerial bombs in less than 30 minutes without a hitch or a hiccup. Much of the crew has been doing this with Jim for more than a decade: wife Jenny (20 years), Ron Attaway (17 years), Eddie Oman (15 years), Ernie Baca (4 years) and volunteer, Terry Vanderplast..and their experience shows.
It is estimated well over five thousand people watch the local show; lining the highways and parking lots and private backyards of the area. They come from all over the community and outlying areas including the Valley, Safford, Tucson and Roosevelt.
They come to watch the Greatest Show of the Season.
As Jim says, this show is for all ages. “In fact, even the tall ones (pointing to me) end up just like the little ones on the 4th…. Full of awe.”
That’s right Jim.
(The Fireworks Display starts at 8:45 on July 4th, Wednesday)
First published on July 7th, 2007