A fiery bouquet for Independence Day

July 6, 2005

By noon on July 4, Ken Barton had already attended the annual pyrotech class, applied for and received permits from 14 municipal, state and federal agencies.

He, along with a crew of Eyeopener Lion's members and local pyrotechs, had already wired and choreographed two and-a-half to six-inch shells in a pyro-bouquet of fireworks that would travel so high in the night sky people in White Salmon and Bingen could enjoy the chemical outbursts.

Then the group wired. And then they re-wired. Three miles of it in all. All groomed toward three mortar stands and a trailer, where 330 shells waited for their signals from one man: Ken Barton.

Now all Barton could do was sit there at The Spit, wait and when his nerves got to him, he could soothe them by checking the wiring again and ensure the $6,000 control box was working.

This is how Barton earned that scorching red sunburn sprawling down his arms and around his neck.

The people began packing along the waterfront at dusk. And as the sun dipped below the horizon, Barton watched the trickle of them swell into a steady stream and then a flood of automobiles, bicycles and pedestrians.

They consumed Luhr Jensen, Marina Park and the Event Site, waiting for a good show this year.

"Heck yeah I'm nervous," Barton smiles minutes before firing off the first teaser shell. "But once you start setting the first few off and you know the control board works, it's okay."

He pauses.

"It's always great to hear the roar of the crowd at the end."

Barton's nerves are understandable.

He follows a long line of Hood River's head pyros that have improved year to year with increasing budgets, new technology and more and more volunteer support.

This is his second show.

Russ Paddock, who ran the show through the 1980s and 1990s, said Barton's show last year might have been the best he'd ever seen in Hood River.

But Barton's success is a shared one, a learned one. He's benefited from Paul Zastrow's shows and Mary and Larry Shown's shows in the last five years.

And everyone - from the pyros to the spectators have benefited from Paddock's passion for pyrotechnics.

In 1976, a volunteer group of firework fanatics - Frank Easterly, Jack Baldwin and Dave Jensen - rescued the show from the Junior Chamber of Commerce, after the monetary pressure of it had bankrupted the young business group.

The volunteer group canvassed the Eyeopener Lion's Club, asking for donations. Paddock gave some money, then asked if he could help at the show.

They had just $2,000 to work with and 10 mortar tubes.

"There were a whole lot of blank spaces in the display," Paddock laughs. "With just four people working, you know, it was hard."

Paddock was hooked.

He completed the one-day class, took the state's first written test to certify pyrotechs and participated in two more shows to earn his official certification from the Oregon State Police.

By 1978 the show was his.

He and the Eyeopener Lion's Club started with $2,000 and 10 tubes he and his pyro crew could reload.

Through the years, however, they campaigned for more money while they labored away building the mortar tubes and pieced together a control box.

By the late 1990s, the Eyeopeners had earned a $10,000 budget, Paddock's heart was troubling him and the year before, he had thrown his best show. A great one to go out on.

"Two years ago, I just helped with wiring and I watched the show from White Salmon at my sister-in-law's house," he said. "I told my wife Betty, I am finally able to turn loose of it. I can walk away from it. Everything was well and good and then last year, they were like Russ, I need your help, which is fine as long as my name is not on the permit."

He's back as a consultant, his official position since he took the three-year hiatus back in 1999.

The name on the bottom of the permit is Ken Barton. And because of that signature, Barton is responsible for everything.

If the wind gust blows a flaming firework into a Nissan Sentra, Barton is responsible. If a firework overshoots the Columbia and lands on Underwood Mountain, setting it ablaze Barton is the man who will be answering most of the questions.

That is why the Eyeopeners spend $2,500 on insurance for this one night, these 30 minutes of lights.

At 9:30, Barton pushes the button to fire the first teaser shell. "Just to see where the wind is going," says Mary Shown.

In another half-hour, the sky is dancing to a luminescent orchestra - reds, blues, whites, purples, greens, mushrooming, stringing, screaming, exploding.

The fiery ballad lulls for minutes then crescendos for seconds, lulls again.

And then Barton unleashes the grand finale, that long-anticipated barrage of fireworks.

More than 400 hours of volunteer support and $10,000 in donations.

Over in 30 minutes.

At 6:30 the next morning, the Eyeopeners gathered at the Charburger Grill for breakfast, where they meet every Tuesday of the month. There, they talked about the show and how to clean up the mess it left behind. They also voted for the person who would shoulder the responsibility for next year's show.

They chose Barton.

"I'm anxious," he smiles. "It's always stressful coming up to it. But once you light off a few and it's over, you get anxious for next year. I can't wait for next year."

The planning continues.

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