The Annual July 4th fireworks display on the Washington College football field here has been called off this year. More accurately, it was never put together. There was an initiative crisis. A nation's 203rd birthday just doesn't have the zing of a 200th, it seems.
So John Conkling, the heart and soul of the fireworks show for the past 10 years, plans to spend Independence Day in his backyard.
"Me, my wife, my son, my daughter - and maybe a few sparklers," he says. "Just a few. Well, okay, more like a few dozen."
A few thousand wouldn't surprise John Conkling's friends. His resume says he is a 35-year-old associate professor of chemistry at Washington College who did his doctoral research in physical organic chemistry. But the size of his eyes when he talks fireworks says he is a far-gone buff.
Nor can the size of Conkling's reputation grow much more. He is secretary of the American Pyrotechnic Association (translation: the guy who does most of the work), and he is generally considered the leading fireworks analyst and scholar in the U.S.
They are used to Dr. John in this picturesque village of 3,500, which was on the map nearly a century before the rockets' red glare.
Used to the funny smells that develop whenever he is testing a new batch of smokebombs in his laboratory. Used to the bangs and booms that cascade out of Dunning Hall, the chemistry building. Used to the packages in plain brown wrappers that he receives all the time - and which crackle, but not with lust.
Most of all, they are used to the deft way Conkling handles his specialty.
Far from being a socially awkward "lab rat" - and farther from being a man who never outgrew a childhood fascination - Conkling is a straightforward, sandy-haired, steady sort.
He belongs to the Optimist Club. He jogs and bikes. He drives a Chevy that is old enough to have acquired a little character. Bring home a frog from a romp through the local marshes, as his son did recently and Conkling couldn't be more thrilled.
Nor could he have been much more careful in making such his fireworks research hasn't become a sideshow or a disruption at Washington College.
Because fireworks in the wrong hands can maim or kill, Conkling's thousands of samples remain under lock and key in his office. He does most of his research at night and during the summer, when school is either slow our out of session, so as to protect passing eardrums. And he never tests smoky products anywhere but under an exhaust fan.
"I wouldn't want anyone here to think I'm strange, and I don't think anyone does," Conkling says.
What they do think is that he has achieved something few academics ever approach: A serious and lasting splash in Washington, two hours to the other side of the Bay Bridge.
In 1976, just in time for the Bicentennial, Conkling was asked by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to rewrite the nation's fireworks code.
The problem, of course, was safety. More than half the fireworks sold in the U.S. every year before 1966 were made by unlicensed and unsupervised chemists. They often used poisonous chemicals, although they usually did not know it. And they almost always used enough gunpowder per firecrackers to cause serious injuries, most of them to teen-agers.
Conkling's new code of conduct, now federal law, requires that firecrackers be fitted with fuses that burn no less than three seconds (to give the person lighting them time to move away) and no more than six (so he won't come back to see what's wrong and get an earsplitting answer or an injury).
The code bans six chemicals, used mostly to put the color in colored fireworks, and restricts dozens of others. It outlines the first performance specifications for the industry. And it reduces the maximum amount of powder permitted in each firecrackers from 130 to 50 milligrams. Fifty is relatively so little that "you could now hold one in your hand and have it go off, and it probably wouldn't even split the skin," according to Conkling.
Since the new rules went into effect, no one has died from a firecracker mishap, and injuries caused by fireworks have dropped from the 54th most common accident (1974) to the 87th (1976).
Conkling's new safety specifications apply to all fireworks sold in the U.S. - and these days, more than 75 percent of them come from China. Maybe it wasn't the biggest deplomatic problem in history, "but getting the Chinese to install the new fuses was a problem. They thought for a long time that we were just trying to keep them out of the U.S. market," Conkling said.
Now that firecracker safety is better than ever, the focus has shifted to sales.
"Safe and sane" fireworks and legal in Virginia and the District of Columbia. Only sparklers are legal in Maryland. Fireworks in some from are legal in 35 states. But more than half the goodies sold this holiday season will be illegal.
"It's unbelievable," says Conkling. "You can buy just about anything right off the back of a truck."
The way to tell if a 'cracker is legal is to inspect it for a manufacturer's symbol. If it isn't there, Conkling advises, "the firecracker might have been made anywhere. We call them 'bathtub.' The similarity between bootleg whiskey and bootleg fireworks is quite remarkable."
But the similarity between a sparkler and anything the imagination can cook up is what fascinates John Conkling. He waxes positively lyrical about it.
"To see a really beautiful sparkler and to know how delicate the chemical balance is, why, that's the reward," he says. "It transcends everything." CAPTION: Picture, Professor John Conkling, with sparklers that did not pass safety tests. By Craig Herndon - The Washington Post