Going out with a bang

07/08/2010 12:00 AM |

Pete Harris (right) started the Greenport fireworks tradition 37 years ago and brought his dad, Stan, and son Cliff on board to help. A private company from Wappingers Falls, N.Y., will take over next year

When the fireworks ended in Greenport Sunday night, it marked the end of an era for the Harris family men, who have given up holiday weekends for decades to offer thrills to their friends and neighbors.

Next year they’ll have time to relax, as Legion Fireworks Co. of Wappingers Falls, which supplied this year’s fireworks, will take over running the local shows.

“It’s been a lot of fun but it’s time to be able to enjoy the summer,” Pete Harris, 57, said about ending his 37-year tenure planning and running the pyrotechnic displays. “A lot of people just don’t realize how much work is involved,” he said.

Pete, along with his father, Stan Harris, 87, and his son, Cliff, 35, typically spend long hours planning the event, setting up for each display, putting on a show, then facing a tedious cleanup before another setup for the second night’s show.

“I’m going to miss it,” said Stan, who was a boiler operator at Plum Island for 19 years. Still, he admitted on Saturday while setting up the pyrotechnics for that night’s show, “It’s work; it’s not just fun anymore. It’ll be nice to watch someone else’s show next year,” said Stan, who first got involved with the fireworks shows when Pete asked him for “a little help” and it became more than a 30-year commitment.

“He’s the mastermind of everything,” Stan said, pointing to Pete with fatherly pride.

So special were this year’s fireworks that Pete, who has been town highway superintendent for nine years, actually took a couple of days off from his job to give his full attention to the shows that lit the sky on Saturday and Sunday nights. That’s a rarity for Mr. Harris, who has taken few days away from work.

“It’s amazing,” Cliff Harris said about the family’s long involvement in the fireworks shows. Cliff grew up in a family already committed to the pyrotechnic displays and got so proficient that, on more than one occasion, he was the kid pointing out potential problems to his dad, Pete said.

Perhaps his years of working side-by-side with his father and grandfather led to his natural choice of a career — he’s a New York City firefighter assigned to Squad 288 in Maspeth, Queens, and has served as chief of the Greenport Fire Department.

“You could almost call me a firehouse brat,” Cliff said.

While computerized pyrotechnics have become the norm for many displays, the Harrises have remained true to the old tradition of hand-fired explosions.

“We’ve entertained a lot of people through the years,” Pete said. “How many people can actually say their job has been a real blast? When you hear the crowd erupt, that’s what makes it worth it,” he said. “You are an entertainer.”

How difficult was it knowing this was the final year?

“It’s not really going to hit home till next year,” Pete said.

Pete Harris was a young member of the Greenport Fire Department when he first met Felix Grucci Sr., Long Island’s famed pyrotechnic expert. Because of Pete’s fascination with fireworks, Mr. Grucci took him under his wing and showed him the ropes.

“I was chompin’ at the bit,” Pete said.

Besides the thrill the three men always got from the sound of applause and car horns following their shows, they feel good, too, about their excellent safety record. The closest they came to a problem was one year when a rack of fireworks blew up. No one was injured, Pete said.

“It’s a well-oiled machine” and the family has always been determined to make it a “safe shoot,” he said.

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