By JENNIFER MEIER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
SOUTH BEND —
BRISTOL — When Chuck Feldman talks about fireworks he is animated, passionate and as excited as a little kid who has just seen the colorful displays light up the nighttime sky for the first time.
But what he knows about fireworks shows clearly that he’s spent half a lifetime learning firsthand about the popular explosives.
For the past 41 years Feldman, now 79 years old, and his son Tom have put on the fireworks show for Bristol Homecoming. Over the years, two of his grandsons, Dustin and Charles, as well as other family members, have also helped out.
His introduction to the intricacies of fireworks began in 1972. Feldman was working for Miles Lab when Bud Hermance, who had put on the Bristol fireworks display for years retired.
“He made all the fireworks himself in his garage,” Feldman said. “He did a lot of ground displays and ones that would float down the river. We used to string white phosphorus candles across the bridge and when they were lit, they would run down into the water and look like a waterfall.”
With Hermance retired and Feldman’s wife Helen on the Homecoming committee, he found himself being talked into taking charge of the fireworks.
Feldman got in touch with Frank Perry of Princess Fireworks out of Mishawaka.
“These guys who had done shows all over the country would come in and help out with the Bristol show,” Feldman said. “I learned from the best. It’s very technical and there was a lot to learn.”
Back then, Feldman said, the fireworks were all set off by hand and there weren’t many rules or regulations.
“My son Tom has helped me from day one. He was 13-years-old then. Now you have to be 18,” he said.
In the mid-1980s Feldman became an operator for Melrose Pyrotechnics out of Kingsbury, Ind.
Today, both Chuck and Tom are certified and licensed by the American Pyrotechnics Association.
“Since 9/11 things have changed a lot,” Feldman said. “There’s one regulation after another. I’ve had a background check by Homeland Security and been fingerprinted by the FBI!”
The Feldmans must take a national safety course every three years and both recently had to answer a 105-question form, courtesy of the federal government.
And that’s on top of the safety classes given each year by Melrose.
“You really have to be up on stuff. There are a lot of tricks of the trade,” Feldman said.
Their experience, professionalism and attention to detail and safety have earned the Feldmans a good reputation in the area. For the past 10 years, the family has put on shows at Long Lake, in Warren, Bristol, Tipton and Elwood.
“We can do things others can’t because of what we know,” Feldman said. “We get no complaints. They always want us to come back.”
In the 41 years Feldman has been setting off fireworks, he’s only been in harm’s way once.
“It happened in 2003, right here in Bristol,” Feldman said. “It was in the middle of the show and one of the fireworks shot out of the tube sideways — right into my leg. It was shocking. It threw me 10 feet into the air and I knocked down my grandson.”
Even with a hole in his leg, one-and-a-half inches in diameter and three inches deep, Feldman managed to light two more shells.
“The show must go on!” he said.
He then crawled about 300 feet away from the area before a friend picked him up and got him into an ambulance.
“That firework was so hot it didn’t even make a hole in my jeans and the wound didn’t bleed because the heat had cauterized it,” Feldman said. “But it took the doctors three hours to clean it out.”
Feldman knows from experience how to stay out of the path of low bursts (fireworks that explode near the ground); how to lay the fuse in his hand and not grasp it before lighting it; he knows what to do with duds and how to clean scrap out of the tube so the fireworks will “climb beautiful.”
“I learned the hard way, but it helps us put on a better show,” Feldman said.
Today, fireworks are no longer set off by hand. The Feldman’s are 100 feet away, orchestrating the show from a control board and with electronic fuses.
That may make the show safer for the operators, but the transportation and setup still require a lot of safety know-how.
“The frequency from a walkie-talkie or static electricity can still set them off,” Feldman said. “I may yell at these guys when we are setting up a show — but it’s for their safety.”
He stresses to the family and others he works with that they need to stay calm.
“I tell them not to get nervous or they won’t be able to think,” he said, “Stay busy, but don’t hustle.”
The fuses, he said, used to burn slowly when the fireworks were set off by hand.
“You could light one and move on to the next one before the first one was out of the tube,” Feldman said. “Now the fuses burn 1,200 feet per second – and we only have 4 feet of fuse for each firework. Your brain can’t think as fast as that burns! That’s why it so important to be safe and know what you are doing.”
The carefully orchestrated show allows Feldman to create a continuous firing of shells that doesn’t let the “air go black.”
“I like a show to shake the ground,” Feldman said. “With a really good finale, I say you can read a newspaper!”
Feldman explained that the diameter of a tube determines the height of the firework.
“A three-inch tube will send it 300 feet into the sky,” he said. “You set off one of those 12-inchers – it goes 1,200 feet in the air and covers a six-block area. It’s a beautiful thing. The force of it coming out of the tube feels like it’s going to take your clothes right off; and you can hear the trees twist and turn.”
Although Feldman is still an integral part of every display, he says his son Tom really runs the show these days.
“All I can say is that it’s a real high — an adrenaline rush,” Feldman said. “It very exciting and it’s been a lot of fun over the years.”
His wife Helen says her husband and son have talked about “hanging it up” in recent years.
“But that time of year rolls around again and they can’t wait to get started,” she said. “They’re just like little kids!”
The Bristol Homecoming fireworks display begins at dusk on Saturday.
Bristol Homecoming Events
Bristol Homecoming 2012, titled ‘HOORAY! For the Red, White and Blue’, begins Thursday with a 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. book sale at the Bristol Public Library. Wrist bands for rides are available from 5 to 11 p.m. at Congdon Park and cost $15. Steve’s Gym is giving a tai kwon do demonstration in the gazebo at Congdon Park from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
From 7 to 9 p.m., the Bristol United Methodist Church will be the host site for the announcement of the Citizen of the Year Award, as well as Bristol Homecoming Queen Pageant. The Bristol Young Talent Showcase will take place in the gazebo at Congdon Park from 7 to 10 p.m.
The book sale continues from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the library. St. Mary’s church is holding its annual Hidden Treasure sale from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Masonic Deli Sandwich sale is from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Masonic Lodge and there will be a fish fry at the American Legion from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.
At 5 p.m., the rides, concessions and crafts open at Congdon Park. Also at the park from 6 to 9 p.m. are children’s activities. Tractor pulls on West Vistula Street are from 6 to 10 p.m. Registration for a 3-on-3 youth basketball tournament begins at 6 p.m. at Cummins Park, with the games starting at 7 p.m. There is a Wicked Hoops Hula Hoop demonstration at the gazebo in Congdon Park beginning at 6:30 p.m. Live music, also at the gazebo, is from 8 to 10 p.m. The park closes at 11 p.m.
The United Methodist Church will host a pancake breakfast from 6:30 to 11 a.m. at the church.
The Hidden Treasure sale continues at St. Mary’s Church from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. as does the book sale at the library from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The Masonic Lodge will sell hot dogs from noon to 3 p.m. and continue the deli sandwich sale from noon to 6 p.m.
St. John’s Episcopal Church on East Vistula will offer strawberry shortcake and ice cream from noon to 5 p.m.
A parade begins at 2 p.m. at Bristol Elementary School and finishes on Vistula (Main Street) by the Bristol Police Department.
Rides, concessions and crafts will open at Congdon Park following the parade.
Magic Steve will perform at the gazebo in Congdon Park from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Children’s activities are offered from 4 to 8 p.m. and a Children’s Dance Contest begins at 4:30 p.m. at the gazebo.
There will be a watermelon eating contest beginning at 5:30 p.m., also at the gazebo.
From 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., the Heartland Cloggers will perform at the park.
At 8 p.m. there is a kid’s bike give-away and the Bristol Lion’s “Cutest Baby” and “Ugliest Pet” contest voting ends.
There will be live music from 8-10 p.m. at the gazebo in Congdon Park.
The 25-minute fireworks display begins at dusk.