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Holderfield's hobby lights up the sky

Some people collect stamps in their free time. Others build model ships. Some people paint, read or watch TV.

Mike Holderfield uses his free time to lob colorful explosives in the air.

For the past five years, Holderfield, 63, has put together the fireworks shows for Elba's Let Freedom Ring celebrations.

He said he has been interested in fireworks since he was a kid but only recently began to take it seriously.

"At the house on Fourth of July, I would try and do a little fireworks here and there, but I was just kind of disappointed in the outcome," Holderfield said. "So, around 2011, I joined a group called Deep South Pyrotechnics."

This was the first of many online and in-person groups that Holderfield has joined that are dedicated to helping amateur pyrotechnicians.

"It was a lot of guys, a few women, and we all got together in the interest of pursuing better shows," he said. "We did group shoots so we could all provide product; we could do a big shoot without it breaking us all."

It was in groups like this that Holderfield learned the details of putting together a big fireworks show. He bought an electronic firing system and began to plan his shows in the way that a director stages a play.

"It's kind of a pyro-musical," he said. "You want to kind of let things lull and then hit them with a hard one. You try to choreograph and put a show together."

Then, when Holderfield attended his 40th high school reunion, he offered to do a show for his former classmates. From there, he said he got a call asking if he would do the fireworks shows for Elba's Fourth of July celebrations.

"I started looking at it and said, 'Well, it's my home-town. Fireworks are pretty pricey, and they can't really afford this,'" Holderfield said. "So, I kind of gave them a figure that I thought they afford, which helped pay for the stuff. It didn't cover it, but I decided that the rest of it would be my contribution to the town."

Giving back is a big theme in Holderfield's pyrotechnic hobby. His two biggest shows are the one in Elba and one for New Brockton High School's homecoming.

"Once again, it's a labor of love...or whatever you want to call it," he said.

Despite all the work that Holderfield puts into this hobby, it remains only that: a hobby. Outside of this, he works as a radio engineer at two radio stations, one in Enterprise and one in Dothan. He said he thought about doing fireworks as a profession but decided that might ruin the fun of it.

"Thinking back, it would have been a pretty cool thing to do, but it's not always as cool because then you get into a whole lot of expenses and certifications and government overreach," he said.

However, Holderfield does take care to follow safety regulations as if he were a licensed professional. This includes keeping crowds at least 150 feet away from where he is shooting and keeping himself at least 75 feet from it.

Last year, Elba's Chamber of Commerce showed its appreciation for Holderfield by giving him the Spirit of Elba award.

"It surprised me," Holderfield said. "I didn't even know it was coming. My family got me to go to the banquet, and I went. Then, all of a sudden, they started talking about this guy, and I said, 'Wait, that sounds like me.'"

Again, Holderfield was quick to say that he didn't require any kind of awards to keep doing the shows every year.

"They're good people," he said about Elba. "I am just trying to help if I can. This is one way I can do something as a service to somebody."

Recently, Holderfield has been getting pyrotechnic help from Deanna Proper.

"She helps me with these shows," he said. "Since I am in a wheelchair, I can't do everything—I can do a whole lot—but she helps me. She's helped me with all of my Elba shows except for maybe the first one. She digs pyro."

Even if Holderfield didn't use a wheelchair, the amount of work required to put together a fireworks show is much more elaborate and intricate than most viewers probably recognize.

According to Holderfield, a 12 to 14 minute show like the one at last week's Let Freedom Ring celebration takes a full three days or nights to plan. That includes choreographing the show and preparing each cake, the term for a group of fireworks, individually.

"Three-quarters of the show this year was totally new stuff," he said. "So, I had to put together a whole new shoot list. I couldn't just go back and pull up the old Excel sheet."  

Regardless of the work-load, Holderfield continues to put on shows for his family, friends and neighbors.

"This is the way that I can do something to bring some joy and happiness to people," he said. "The biggest thing is to see the show go off like you've planned and everybody enjoying it."