The Fourth of July was hot here in Knoxville. Head for shade, find a cool dark room hot. However, Jane Kirk had graciously invited us to attend the day’s festivities at the Museum of Appalachia. Since part of the celebration includes an anvil shoot, we want to be there. Pook, Patricia, Chris, and I get ourselves in the air-conditioned Subaru and drove north to Norris Tennessee. It seems only fitting that the Flying Anvil Theatre witness this event “up close and personal” because let’s face it – shooting off anvils seems like a crazy thing to do!
People have been crazy for a long time, apparently. Anvil shooting was frequently performed in the South in place of igniting fireworks. One noteworthy celebration was held on the day Texas seceded from the Union. When Union supporter and Texas Ranger Thomas Campbell Jr. failed to express his enthusiasm for secession, he was held captive and forced to “fire the anvils” in the streets of Austin. Texans obviously have a penchant for punishment.
What exactly IS an anvil shoot? Simply put, it’s the practice of using gunpowder to lift an anvil up into the air as high as it can go. Picture two anvils: one on the ground, placed upside down and used as the base and the other anvil (aka: the “flier) placed right side up on top of the base anvil. Fill the hardy hole (I love that term!) between the two anvils with black gunpowder. Set a fuse that will project out far enough to light. Once the lit fuse hits the black powder it combusts (boom!) sending the anvil several feet into the air.
This practice is not without danger. Gravity can bring an anvil back to earth darn quick. Stand too close and you could be crushed. If the black powder goes off too soon (aka premature ignition or P.I., and there must be a pharmaceutical treatment for it) you might find yourself covered with black marks. A weak anvil can shatter, sending shrapnel scattering in all directions.
Let’s be honest. If you went to an anvil shoot wouldn’t you secretly hope one of the above – (if not something even worse) – would occur?
We’re ready for it. Pook has her cameras set up next to the rope that marks the line of safety for spectators. Patricia guards the audio equipment. Chris aims his digital lens. I stand next to two young children, five and eight years old. They’ve plugged their ears with their fingers.
“Has it happened yet?” The five-year-old child asks.
“Don’t worry,” says her mother. “You won’t miss it.”
After the welcoming remarks, the singing of the National Anthem, the short speech by a four star general, a staff member walks out into the field and ignites the fuse.
The countdown begins.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…”
The two anvils sit in the field, smoking, thinking things over. We all watch.
“Sometimes these things take a little longer,” the speaker announces over the microphone.
She begins the countdown again. “Ten, nine, eight, seven -“
The heat hits the powder. The anvil launches heavenwards. Clouds of white smoke fill the air.
Up, up, up!
Hooray!!! The crowd applauds.
“Wow,” says the eight year old. “That’s the first time I ever felt a shock wave!”
It’s not difficult to draw comparisons between anvil shoots and theatre. There’s a great deal of work to do prior to the show. Rituals precede the actual event until the moment of no return – the fuse is lit, house lights out, curtain up, actors on stage.
The show is up.
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream, Brief as the lightning in the collied night*
After the applause dies down another announcement comes over the loudspeaker.
“Next anvil shoot will be at 2.”
I plan to stick around because you never know. Something crazy might happen.
*from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”