VENTURA COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS — It is 9:29 p.m. and the fair is going full tilt: spinning neon rides, multicolored food booths, the thick scent of livestock, wall-to-wall people moving down the main concourse with the bob and eddy of a river.
But one minute later, at 9:30, the people stop, and the river gets dammed up. Here on a pavement triangle formed by Sugar Babes, The Original Bratwurst, and Spiral Fry's, about 100 of them stand mute, looking skyward.
\o7 Pschhhhttttt. Thwa-BOOM!\f7
Overhead, a flash of white light is followed by arcing ribbons of royal blue and champagne sparkle, all blooming from the same hot spot in the black sky.
A baby cries.
Another flash of light, another punch of sound against the chest, another round of fireworks.
A young couple, arms around each other's waists, sigh: \o7 Ohhhhhhh. \f7 An elderly man positions his wife's wheelchair so that she, too, can look up, and the bespectacled pair are frozen in place, mouths agape.
The sky is awash in ephemeral color. The show intensifies.
Some of the fireworks blossom into electric pink and green flowers and vanish, silently. Others soar upward leaving threadlike trails of white, building the anticipation of what will happen high up when they detonate, releasing, perhaps, a vast cobalt shower with crazy twirling yellow offshoots. Others still are simple, direct, built for the white-light-bomb-in-your-face effect.
Twelve minutes in, at 9:42, the fireworks have gone from slow build to machine-gun finale. When the sky goes black and empty and silent, everyone, save the crying child, cheers and applauds.
The show may have been a surprise, all right, but the kind of surprise that gives a thrill and somehow manages to collect spirit among strangers and then express it.
Who knew the heavens would open up so?
Roger Jobe is a licensed pyrotechnist, "a fancy word," he says, "for someone who lights fireworks."
By day Jobe hauls mail around Bakersfield on subcontract to the U.S. Postal Service. Every night of the fair, Jobe drives here from Bakersfield in a rented truck loaded with 180 pre-selected explosives--enough for one show. He and two associates, one of them his son, set them up on the beach and, at 9:30, strike a match.
The scene at the beach is warlike. The fireworks, called "rounds," are individually loaded into 3-foot-high firing tubes stuck in the sand and aimed at the sky. The tubes are strengthened by wood racks and arrayed according to the power of the rounds, which range from 4 inches to 8 inches in diameter. Row upon row of racked tubes, tilted slightly so trajectory is over the ocean, appear as a bulkhead against some invisible but approaching armada. Out the end of each tube hangs a fuse in a protective red plastic sleeve, ready for lighting.
At 9:25, Jobe inserts earplugs and dons an orange protective jumpsuit and goggles. Truly modern and large fireworks displays are managed electronically from a distance. But this one is of relatively modest scale and run the old way: lighting by hand, up close. And anything can happen.
Like the time in Lancaster that a 6-inch round went off inside the firing tube. In failing to lift off, the exploding round lifted Jobe 18 inches off the ground, blew him 20 feet back, and sent him to the hospital for burns and cuts, stitches and much healing.
"Sure I think about it," he says. "But the truth is, I love this. And you get used to it. You move on instinct."
Indeed, that's how the lighting proceeds: two men, each at opposite ends of a rack, each bent at the knees and hunched down and bobbing back and forth like a first-baseman waiting for a throw. Then, they light and turn away, light and turn away all up and down the line.
It's a strange dance. They do not communicate but seem to know where the other is. The firing seems random. They do not know, specifically, that they're lighting something called a Pink Peony--only that it's a 4-incher from a rack of 4-inchers.
"You try to mix it up," says Jobe. "try to keep it interesting, till the finale. You can't really know for sure, so you just move so it feels right."
Up in the sky, however, it always seems to hang together, to look so planned, to look so choreographed.
But one little fact challenges that notion.
Roger Jobe never looks up. He never sees what he does.
"Why would I?" he asks. "I'm just here lighting on instinct, keeping me and my men safe. I'll admit that I like the way they look when I do see them, but the last time that happened was when I was recovering from an appendectomy and sat in the bleachers."
Only Stern Ingram, Jobe's associate from Saugus, plays choreographer, thinking of all the people stopped in their tracks on the midway. He personally wires together the series of firings that make for the finale. And all of them are connected by timed fuses, requiring only one light for the whole thing.
Ingram operates on the Big Bang Theory. He's tried ending with spectacular but silent visuals, to no effect. People seem to need the cannon booms to announce the end. Ingram first states his finale philosophy as "I like to keep it Italian," or operatic, with a dramatic crashing close.
But then he makes his goal even more plain: "Scare the mamas, wake the babies, and send 'em home crying."
Each night of the Ventura County Fair, that's exactly what happens.
You can even hear the baby crying.