The Fire Crackers
I’m pretty sure I’m in the right place, Lakeshore State Park east of the Summerfest grounds, but the Bartolotta Fireworks Co. folks were a little vague on time – come “somewhere around 4-ish,” they suggested.
In a line of work where the least imprecision could mean disasters ranging from death to a few months of penciling on eyebrows, I thought for sure they’d operate on a strict schedule. But it’s a little past “ish” and still no sign of the pyros. Then, around 5 p.m., a black pickup pulling a silver box trailer appears from the park’s southern edge. The trailer bears a diamond-shaped high-explosives warning sign.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wondered what goes on behind the scenes of a fireworks show. I envisioned advanced computers, choreographed routines, time codes and fail safe devices. I imagined every member of the Bartolotta crew was part scientist, part artist, part wizard and part dude-who-likes-to-blow-stuff-up.
But when Jeff Bartolotta steps from the pickup, he doesn’t seem to fit the mold. He looks like a good old Wisconsin guy, your favorite uncle type, robust and mustachioed, with a sort of standard-issue real-man haircut. He’s also not one for small talk and, having been around lots of explosions in his day, demands a certain amount of volume in those addressing him.
After a few half-shouted sentence fragments that pass for introductory pleasantries, he extends the ramp from the back of the trailer and pulls open the door. Inside is an epic mess: firing tubes, fire extinguishers, wires, tarps, boxes bearing enough firepower to bully France. Jeff lights a smoke, throws me a pair of work gloves and starts passing me various pieces of heavy equipment and things that don’t mix well with burning Marlboros.
Jeff’s brother Jim – also a man of limited hearing, but of smaller stature and with a greater gift of gab – arrives with several volunteer “pyrotechnicians,” as they’re officially known. No business this side of the porn industry attracts more eager male volunteers; the Bartolottas deputize upwards of 400 each summer to help with displays. Once these apprentice sky arsonists have aided in detonating enough ordnance under the watchful eyes of the brothers, they may earn the privilege of executing displays on their own using the company’s permit. There isn’t much that’s required to join the team other than a toleration of risk, although a mustache is probably a plus.
All the workers bring their own gloves for setup, since the firing mortars – the “guns,” as they’re called – consist of PVC tubes framed in heavy, splintery, hand-shredding wood. Jeff, though, palms them barehanded. What he’s lost in hearing over three decades in the business – ever since his father, Sam, started the company in 1977 – he’s gained in the brute strength and leathery hide of his hands.
Once the guns are set out shoulder to shoulder, extending at least a football field in length and loaded with some 4,000 shells, it’s time to break for dinner.
When I return around 8:30 p.m., the pyros are busy trying to fix a neon sign that’s supposed to light up at the evening’s climax with the name of the show’s sponsor. For some reason the sign isn’t powering up, and for the next hour, the team, with methods more Fonz than MacGyver, dismantles it in an effort to find the bug. Minutes before showtime, they finally get it working.
Then the team huddles for a game plan, which goes something like this: Have a burning flare in your hand and touch it to whatever fuse has yet to be lit. The intricate choreography I had expected to govern things turns out to be pure chance. No one has any idea what the shell in a given tube will reveal when it detonates. No computers control firing rates – it’s just guys putting fire to fuses, much as the Chinese did 1,000 years ago, or the way kids light smoke bombs on Independence Day. The closest thing to high-tech is a switchboard that controls the grand finale, and even that looks like it’s from 1980.
The team puts on helmets, eye and ear protection, and nylon jackets pocked with melted holes. In my shorts, sandals and T-shirt, I’m thinking I’m pretty much screwed.
Once the launch command is given, the fuse lighters move in a frenzy. Occasionally a shell detonates low and rains sparks around us. One bum shell lands just feet away; everyone hits the deck and covers their head, but Jeff, like Patton, refuses to bow to the danger. The shell – one of those flash salutes designed to make a loud sound and a brief, bright flash – goes off without hurting anyone. Still, it leaves a sizable crater in the ground, sending a geyser of dirt into the air.
Jeff flips the switches on the board and concludes the show with a rapid-fire finale. By now, we’re all surging with adrenaline. Being at ground zero is far more visceral, louder and brighter than watching from a distance. After the last shell detonates, burning cardboard rains from the sky for minutes. Everyone on the team hopes for a wind from the west so the debris lands in the lake and no cleanup is needed.
In the quiet afterglow of the show, the park’s geese can now be heard squawking loudly. They don’t seem impressed. But I can see why the Bartolottas do what they do, and why the volunteers keep coming. Blowing stuff up is fun, dude. -M.Q.
Queen of Green
As estate gardener at Villa Terrace from March to November, it’s Gail Jaeger’s job to bring the Renaissance Garden out of winter into its full summer glory. Sometimes, though, she has to be patient in the early weeks.
“I thought finally I could begin to clear away the old foliage, get ready to set annuals and begin pruning,” she says, “but a late snowstorm put me back.”
The available space, from the top of the bluff down to Lincoln Memorial Drive, is totally given over to garden plots, so one of Jaeger’s first tasks each year is to order new plants. There are days she looks longingly at the park land just beyond the garden’s fence, imagining how she might use it, but mostly she’s too busy maintaining this masterpiece to waste time on wishful thinking.
“This is a public garden, you know. A lot of people think because of the fences it’s a private garden. But it’s not.” Like the Charles Allis Museum, Villa Terrace is part of the Milwaukee County War Memorial Corp.
It’s also a popular destination for garden tours. “We have had tours come from Texas and Missouri,” Jaeger notes. “Also, we have volunteer workdays – Saturdays, 8 to noon – where volunteers learn pruning and planting and attend lectures.” For those not especially interested in the fine points of horticulture, there’s plenty of watering to be done and no shortage of weeds to pull.
Jaeger has two secret gardens to tend, as well as a thicket, herb gardens and fruit trees. She presides over one of the most impressive man-made sights on Milwaukee’s lakefront. Sailboats, fireworks and, yes, the Calatrava are rivals, but none have the garden’s combination of mysterious hidden places and refreshing open space, nor its ever-changing display of colors.
Jaeger is a graduate of St. Joan Antida High School, UW-Stevens Point’s urban forestry program and two years of advanced study at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens. But for all the science in her background, she speaks of her job in poetic terms: “You should have a love of nature, then an artistic side, and finally the desire to nurture. … The garden is mysterious in so many ways.” – J.H.
Slinger Super Speedway is located about midway between West Bend and Hartford. At a track like this, we think of the drivers as the stars, but the racecars won’t go without men like Tom Schley. As a longtime pit crew member here, Schley – it rhymes with “sly” – works with cars all summer at the speedway.
The pit stops are a favorite of the TV crowd, one of the few times you see people’s faces. After a few ticks of the clock, if all goes well, the driver roars out of the pit and back into the race. All eyes are on the car, but the pit crew is busy preparing for the next stop.
Schley got the habit of making things go early in life. “I started working on cars when I was 10 or 12,” he says. “My dad was a driver before I was born, driving on tracks all over the state during the ’60s and early ’70s, racing on the dirt tracks, the State Fair.” Young Tom earned his stripes in his dad’s garage alongside the big guys, helping to modify or build cars. It was learn by doing, a tough school that held a boy to high standards.
Now, as part of a crew of seven or eight, “I’m mostly responsible for tuning the engine,” he explains. “And when the car is on the track, the way they’re built now, the driver has no peripheral vision, so we’re all connected with two-way radios. There’s a crew member in the stands, and I’m in the pit telling the driver what’s ahead or what’s coming up on him.” He may not be on the track, but he’s in the race.
There are those who don’t understand paying good money just to see some cars going around and around. Tom Schley’s advice to them: “They need to live the experience, get out on the track and feel the G-force. There are two-seater cars and people who will take you out on the track.”
The G-force, ladies and gents, awaits you. – J.H.
Every year when the State Fair ends, Cindy Mifko swears she won’t be back on the job next August, running herself ragged for 12 long days.
As day manager of the fair’s bakery, she’s the woman who puts the cream puff on your plate so you can get it all over your chin and your swell new State Fair T-shirt.
Mifko’s fair stint starts a week before the gates open, training the rookies, refreshing the memories of the veterans and making sure the ovens are ready to run at 450 degrees. The bakery will turn out about 340,000 cream puffs over 12 days, at 550 calories per puff. That makes for 187 million happy calories.
Mifko and her daughter Rachel, a cream puff princess to Cindy’s queen, ride the No. 46 bus together each day, Southridge to the fair and back again. Their work clothes are a tip to the other riders. “You get to be a kind of celebrity on the bus, you know,” Mifko says. “People want to talk to you about…” Well, what else? The sweet, messy, fattening, creamy heart of the fair.
The plump pastries don’t make a noise or come in flashy colors, but they’re entertaining all the same, even to a veteran like Mifko: “I like to go out by the tables on my break and watch the people who try to eat them like a sandwich. What a mess! You can always tell a first-timer that way.”
Mifko’s crew is mostly kids, 30 to 50 at a time working up to nine hours a day in sweltering temps. It’s chaotic and exhausting. “You get home at night and throw your work clothes in the wash, just to get the smell of cream puffs off,” she says. “Most nights you’re too tired to wait to put them in the dryer. That can wait till morning.”
Every year, she doubts she’ll be back, and every August, there she is. Why? “I guess because it’s such a special world for that short time. The people are friendly, and when you keep up with the demand … it really is a good feeling.” – J.H.
Mario Quadracci is an associate editor at Milwaukee Magazine and freelancer Jim Hazard is a frequent contributor. Write to them at email@example.com.