HUNTSVILLE — Editor's note: Gerry Etheredge retired as head pyrotechnician for the show in 2010. Ron Cleere has since taken over that position. This year's show will be fired by both men.
On the Fourth of July, one of the many great American traditions is for families to gather at the local park to enjoy each other’s company and watch the explosive brilliance of colorful fireworks that fill the night sky.
This year’s Fourth of July celebration in Huntsville is going to be bigger and better than ever before, according to Gerry Etheredge, the man who has been in charge of shooting off the big fireworks in Huntsville since 1973.
“This year is probably going to be the biggest show we’ve ever shot. We’ve shot up to $15,000 before and this one should top $20,000,” Etheredge said Friday.
Etheredge credits Huntsville Fire Chief Tom Grisham for helping him increase the budget for Huntsville’s Fourth of July celebration.
“When Tom Grisham got involved with it, he convinced (the city) that we were servicing more people in the Huntsville area with the fireworks show than anything else out there. We’ve serviced, if that is a good word, a larger crowd than all of the other functions put together that are designed for the public for any given year,” Etheredge said.
“We’ve had estimates of between 10 and 20,000 watching our shows, so that being the case, we are perhaps justified to get some of the discretionary budget that the city has.”
With the increased budget, Etheredge and his partner Ron Cleere will have more than twice as many mortar tubes to shoot off fireworks with than in past years.
“We’ll probably have around 40-something tubes or mortars, and in past years we’ve had 15 or 16, something like that. We’re going to have way, way more,” Etheredge said.
The fireworks crew is also keeping the show old-school, by shooting off the fireworks by hand. Many major shows use electrical equipment to shoot off fireworks, but Etheredge believes this takes away from the experience.
“Most of the shows you see nowadays are shot electrically. You don’t get the up-close personal involvement with the electric-fired shows,” Etheredge said.
“Back when they first started the electric-fired show, we made up our minds that we were going to continue shooting by hand simply because that’s the only way our crew gets up close and personal with the fireworks.”
Etheredge got involved with the city’s Fourth of July celebration in 1973, when he was asked to handle the food for the celebration.
“The city of Huntsville in 1973 decided they were going to have a Fourth of July celebration and they hadn’t had one apparently in a long time. I asked about fireworks and the Chamber of Commerce gave me $50 to buy fireworks with,” he said.
His first show went well enough for the city to continue supporting the fireworks show.
“Somehow or another I impressed somebody because the next year the Chamber of Commerce gave us $500 and the next year our budget was $1,500, so I must’ve impressed somebody,” he said.
Since then he has been in charge of shooting off the fireworks for the city’s celebration almost every year.
The retired veterinarian’s love for fireworks has continued to grow over that time, even though it’s tough for him to explain why he is so passionate about them.
“Fireworks get in your blood. It’s kind of like being an Aggie. ... Being an Aggie is something you can’t explain to somebody if they’re not one because it’s something that defies explanation, and that’s the way it is with shooting fireworks,” Etheredge said.
“It’s hard to explain to somebody what it means to get out there and have sticks of dynamite going off all around you and getting the thrill out of it that we get.”
Etheredge and Cleere are eager to show off what they have in store for this year’s show to the public.
“We love doing this,” Etheredge said. “As I’ve said several times, it’s awful hard for me to feel good about saying give me some money so I can have fun, but that is what it boils down to. My crew and I get a blast out of doing it, no pun intended.”