The Delaware National Guard again will provide the fiery conclusion to Dover's Independence Day celebration.
Anyone who’s heard Tchaikovsky’s rousing 1812 Overture can’t help but be thrilled at the triumphant finale of the piece, with its cacophony of brass, chimes and roaring cannon fire.
Although it isn’t always played to the accompaniment of live cannons, it seems Independence Day audiences across America like it that way.
Not wanting to disappoint Dover audiences, the Delaware Army National Guard is only too happy to comply, said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Frassico.
People just gape in awe as guardsmen fire off the artillery pieces in time with Tchaikovsky’s masterwork, which traditionally marks the end of the 287th U.S. Army Band’s annual concert and the beginning of a spectacular fireworks display, Frassico said.
“It’s a real adrenaline rush for me,” he said.
However, it takes a lot of work and preparation before a guardsman gets to pull the lanyard setting off each blinding flash of flame and an ear-splitting roar, Frassico said.
The Delaware Guard has been providing the artillery display for more than 20 years using two cannons, a vintage 1918 French model and an American 75-mm pack howitzer.
Between uses, the cannons are stored in New Castle and trucked down to Dover, Frassico said. They are built to be towed, but at speeds no greater than 40 mph, and don’t have lights, meaning they can’t travel at night, he said.
There’s that, plus the fact the cannon would be pointed at oncoming cars as they travel Delaware’s highways.
“The muzzle would be facing the traffic coming up behind us, so the first thing people would see would be the business end of a cannon,” he said. “If you’re coming up on it too quick in the dark, you can imagine what would happen.”
For security and safety reasons, both the shells used on July 4 and the firing pins travel separately from the cannons.
Once the artillery pieces are set up on the south side of Legislative Hall, a liaison from the band coordinates with alternating three-man firing crews to make sure the blasts are in time with the music. One soldier hands a shell to another, who loads it into the cannon while a third sets off the blast by yanking a 10-inch lanyard.
Even though the cannons fire blank rounds, spectators are kept away because of the dangerous flames and scalding hot grease and wax erupting from the barrels.
Once the music ends and the echoes of the blasts fade out, there’s another sound: the roar of the audience around Legislative Hall, clapping and yelling in appreciation.
It’s a real thrill, Frassico said.
“There aren’t a whole lot of people who can say they actually get to fire an artillery piece, even if it’s just a small one,” he said. “I really look forward to it.”