By Tony Tedeschi
You would probably mistake the men for revolutionaries
about to invade new territory with their bombs . . .
It was the smell of the crushed grapes that reminded me of the boss – dead more than twenty years – and the family heritage that had died with him. I thought, once again, of the wooden box that contained his papers, given to me by my grandmother after the boss died. It was in the attic, of course, with all the useless bric-a-brac we accumulate as we grow older. The damn thing was a real bother. I’m not about to say it haunted me, but whenever I thought of the box, it seemed to demand I do something about what it contained.
My bus had made an unscheduled rest stop near Wallingford, Vermont, and someone nearby was making wine. It’s true what they say about smells being the most powerful catalyst of memories and the strong smell of the pressed grapes was one of my most vivid childhood remembrances. Every October, my grandfather made wine, a deep red zinfandel with a rich grapey taste. We drank it with dinner, as soon as it had fermented, while the taste was still quite raw. My family seemed to make a virtue of impatience. In the case of the zinfandel, it worked for me. I liked the wine new. It had that unchecked power of youth. As a kid, I drank it, greatly diluted with cream soda, but still it always left me light-headed. Then after dinner, my grandfather would show me how to draw animals.
The animals my grandfather drew were always elliptically shaped, fat really. He put them down on the white paper that was used to wrap the Italian bread from the warm ovens of our neighborhood bakery in Astoria, Queens: fat fish, fat birds, even fat cats. They had to be robust to accommodate the split bamboo he used to fashion set pieces, anchored to the turf at fairgrounds, which held his exploding powders. My grandfather, you see, was a pyrotechnist and one of the unrecognized artists who’d brought this spectacular art to these shores from Europe. The Long Island of the first half of the 20th century was a gathering place for clusters of these nameless immigrants determined to recast this new land in the images of the old.
Pyrotechnics had been my family’s trade for generations, as far back as we could trace. In fact, in the living room of the home where I lived with my parents and grandparents, there was a photo above the mantle, taken in Melfi, Italy in 1900, showing my grandfather as a boy of about 12, along with his father and his father’s father, outside a cave, with what were obviously explosives, wrapped neatly in brown paper. If you didn’t know that the sign, in Italian, above the cave read “pyrotechnics laboratory,” you would probably mistake the men for revolutionaries. In a way, I guess, they were. They were about to invade a new territory with their bombs.
My grandfather was the first of our family to cross the ocean. It was 1912. Then, two years later, he sent for his father. For a short time, they labored together, putting on shows across most of the eastern United States, putting in long hours working for other men who had the capital they never managed to accumulate. When my great-grandfather died, my grandfather carried on alone. He was on the road for days, sometimes weeks at a time, living in economy hotel rooms, preparing his meals off hot plates, because he didn’t like the tasteless “American” food they served in diners. Instead, he heated the pasta, artichokes and chicory or escarole soup my grandmother packed for him in jars, accompanied by the salted mozzarella and dried sausages she wrapped in waxed paper.
When my father was a teenager, my grandfather began to teach him the business. But I never knew my father as a pyrotechnist, and my grandfather never tried to teach the art of his bombs to me, beyond the harmless drawings on the bread paper. It was a moot point, really, because I never had any real desire to learn it. I asked my father why the family tradition had been allowed to fade so quietly into oblivion. He told me it was a matter of fear.
When my father was 16, he was working with my grandfather at a fireworks company compound. My father, being an apprentice, was making fuses in a small, outbuilding, separate from the main structure where my grandfather worked. One day, the building where my father worked was blown to smithereens. My grandfather was like a crazy man and had to be restrained from entering the burning skeleton of what remained of the building. My father, however, had left to go to the bathroom, a few minutes before another apprentice had struck the spark that leveled the fuse factory. I don’t know what pact my grandfather made with God to spare his son, but when my father came running around the bend from the outhouse to see what had happened, my grandfather determined that my father’s career in pyrotechnics was over.
The art of pyrotechnics had created in my grandfather a reverence for fire and he made the fire work for him in dazzling ways. The shows he staged when I was a young boy were the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen. His aerial bombs filled the sky with rich reds, bright greens, whites that hurt the eyes, yellows like the light at the center of a flame. There was a two-dimensional quality to his air shows. As a spectator, I always felt as if no distance separated me from the sky, as if I could reach up just a bit and pull the colors down about me.
And his set pieces were even better, built of the split bamboo that he fashioned at the long tables where he worked, then driven into the soil of the fairgrounds where he wowed his audiences. The fairgrounds were flat, empty places that my grandfather filled with color. He seemed to like that setting, the sheer blankness, unencumbered by backdrop, uncluttered by someone else’s work. I remember the distinctive form he cut, silhouetted against the colors, his sweat-stained and pock-marked fedora shielding his head from the burning pellets that rained down upon him like tiny meteorites. I remember the cadence of his limp (a wound from an explosion) as he moved from set piece to set piece, lighting the fuses, releasing his fountains to spill cascades of burning, colored waters; his birds to flap their wings then fizzle back into darkness; his gunfighters to do battle with each other; and a burning-bright, 48-star flag, that to my young boy’s eyes was the only flag worthy of the name, “America.”
My grandfather was never home, of course, on the Fourth of July, but he always left his calling card. On the last few days before he went on the road for the Independence Day celebrations, he would retreat behind the closed door of his cellar workshop, so neither I nor my sister might see what he was doing and be tempted to repeat it when he was not around. Then hours later, he would emerge with the neatly fashioned aerial bombs and pinwheels, hung with the familiar brown-paper pods, which he would turn over to my father with the appropriate instructions.
When the evening of the Fourth would arrive, and after all of the amateurs had had their time to play with their weak Asian substitutes, my father would unleash my grandfather’s tour de force, nailed to the telephone pole alongside our house. Always a police car would come by early in the show. Always my father would go to the squad car window and explain that we were pyrotechnists. Always the police would give permission to continue, reluctantly, the way police do. Always they’d stay around to “supervise.”
When my grandfather retired, he was, for the most part, stubborn to a fault and extremely set in his ways. He lived with my parents in Copiague, just east of the Suffolk County line on Long Island, in a slab ranch with no wine cellar. He’d while away his days at home making repairs to things that didn’t need repairs and painting things that sometimes needed a new coat. I had lost interest in drawing and developed an interest in photography. I liked the feel of the machine in my hands. My grandfather was a favorite subject. I’d sneak up on him and do candids. He’d pretend not to notice.
He was painting a footstool in the backyard one summer day. While I squatted for a low-angle shot, he mumbled something.
“What?” I asked, after clicking the photo.
“Giotto,” he said.
I assumed he was referring to himself and his painting technique. Then, I wondered if he were not acknowledging a passing of the torch.
My grandfather’s stubbornness, more than anything else, had kept him from gaining the recognition he deserved during his most productive years and making the money he should have made. For one thing, he had refused to learn English beyond the barest minimum vocabulary of mispronounced words that he needed to communicate, and this badly broken English kept him from conducting any kind of meaningful business of his own. Often his intelligence was underrated because of his language deficiency. And, he did not suffer fools lightly, so he made his share of enemies. His bitterness sometimes took the form of we (Italians) against they (every Philistine who had preceded him here). They, of course, did not appreciate his art, understand his metaphors.
There was, however, one man who took a great interest in my grandfather’s work. He was another Italian immigrant, younger than my grandfather, a lower-echelon helper at one of the pyrotechnics companies where my grandfather had worked. This man had managed to save some money and began his own business about the time my grandfather retired. He convinced my grandfather to come work two or three days a week during his retirement, to make some extra money off the books. My grandfather accepted the offer to break up the boredom of his days at home and because he loved making his bombs. Also, I believe, he felt he had a legacy and no place to leave it. This man had been kind to my grandfather and my grandfather returned the investment in kindness many fold. He taught the man the wonderful things he knew.
It was a few years later that I graduated college, joined the Air Force, married and fathered two daughters. In the service each year, on the Fourth of July, we would have a USO troupe entertain at our base in New Mexico. After the entertainment, there would be a fireworks show. My wife would enjoy it. My daughters’ eyes would grow wide in a combination of fear and amazement. I would be totally unimpressed.
When I left the service, we returned to New York, to Queens, not far from where I had been raised. We’d go each Fourth of July to a place under the Throgs Neck Bridge and watch our neighbors set off those same lame fireworks that were a mere warm-up for my grandfather’s neighborhood show when I was a boy. I would tell my wife and my daughters that this was nothing, couldn’t compare to the fireworks my grandpa used to make. They had known him for the final few years of his life, but he had long since stopped making fireworks, and it was impossible for them to relate to what he had done, without ever having seen it.
Then, the man my grandfather had taught began winning awards at international competitions and gaining greater recognition, until he became one of the foremost pyrotechnists in the country, if not the world. He did big national and international celebrations. I decided to take my family to see one of the new impresario’s shows.
So, I stood one night in the wind and the rain at Shea Stadium. The game and the fireworks display had been delayed several times, but finally things got under way. I looked straight up, my eyes turned to a black sky, the two-dimensional sky of my boyhood, just inches from the end of my nose. But even the sky, in its shortened dimension, seemed to be shaped by the magnitude of the aerial bombs – the designs I’d seen so many times. How they lit the sky with color, with design, complicated design – symmetry, asymmetry.
The rain made my face wet and I was glad for that because it hid my tears. I knew my grandfather was staging this whole extravaganza. I saw my grandfather’s face behind the exploding circles of color, as clearly as I’d seen it in the late ‘40s, when he’d shown me how to draw the fat fishes on the Italian bread paper.
They had a set piece that night at Shea Stadium, something that said “Mets” in the team colors, but it was lame compared to my grandfather’s fountains, his dueling cowboys, his birds, his American flag.
The following weekend, I dug the wooden box out of the bottom of a cardboard shipping carton in my attic. In it were white papers, rolled and stuffed in, too many for the small box, crushed on both ends, flattened along the length. The roll was tied with a piece of twine, yellow with age. I loosened the knot and unrolled the scrolls. The drawings were on an array of papers: white bread paper, brown bag paper, some on stiffer oak tag. The pictures were cruder than I’d remembered and that disappointed me a bit, but as I began to examine them more carefully, I realized it was not the drawings themselves but the promise of what they would become that was the true marvel of their meaning. The formulas scrawled in the freehand boxes in the corners marked these as the blueprints of his set pieces: compounds of strontium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, sulfur, in combinations I couldn’t begin to understand.
I rolled the papers back up again and tied them with the same twine. The roll wasn’t quite as tight as it had been before, nor the knot as neat. I was sorry I had disturbed them. Then I couldn’t help but smile. I couldn’t blame him for holding something back. The set pieces were special. They were his gift to us, to live only in the memories of those of us who had seen them, the way only he could have built them. I pushed the wooden box back into its setting among the inconsequential cartons that protected it.
The bus was moving now through the hills of central Vermont. I was on a long, overland trip, the way my grandfather used to travel. It was a Sunday; I was heading for a writing workshop, which would begin the following morning. I was about to chuck the corporate life still one more time and take another stab at something creative. My wife always viewed such forays into a new life as writer or photographer as detours in an inevitable business career path, from which we always emerged poorer. After each, I always promised I would get serious about becoming a businessman, but they were promises I knew I couldn’t keep.
I’d been looking at the sky, watching the clouds thicken. I followed the bank of clouds back down to the road. It was one of those sparsely populated rural roads: a house here, a barn there. A chilly, early autumn wetness covered everything. There had been sprinkles, but a serious storm was building overhead. It would empty the landscape of all human movement. Then I thought, if they ever exploded the big bombs, if the lunacy ever took them that far, I could only hope that for one brief instant I would see the boss’s colors again, his designs – that they would at least have had the good taste to let my grandfather put on the show.