Rob Mattison: Patriotic Bomb Squadsman Extraordinaire

Kinzy Janssen |

Rob Mattison is not a thrill seeker.  He just handles bombs. Handily. With his hands.

In this case, bombs translates to “yet-to-be-exploded fireworks.” Every year on the Fourth of July, Mattison helps load a pontoon with explosives (plus lighting, carrying, and handling experts) and floats over to Lake Wissota Island to facilitate the show. This is where the behind-the-scenes work happens.

“First we’ll bury the PVC tube two feet underground in the sand and set off an 'atomic blast' to see which way the wind is going and adjust the angle,” says Mattison. This is the kind of explosion that emits one concentrated flash at its peak, followed by an ear-splitting boom.

When dusk falls, Mattison makes sure all the fireworks are under wraps. “I protect the fireworks from sparks. We keep them in totes with plastic lids and a tarp covering them, and I hand the bomb off, unwrap the rubber band, and get the fuses straight for them.” At that point, Mattison’s friend Judge Steven Cray of Chippewa Falls lights the fuse and packs the tube, then scurries out of the way.

“It’s like a war zone, with ashes raining down,” says Mattison, who has never held a natural interest in fireworks. Cray, who is affectionately described by Mattison as his “comic book buddy geek,” asked him to help out about 20 years ago, when the show was in its infancy and based right below Cray’s house. Mattison agreed. They’ve since moved the show up in elevation and magnitude so that more spectators can enjoy it.

“The boats go between us and the beach and we hear the oohs and ahhs,” says Mattison. Cray usually makes notes on the popularity of certain varieties so they can re-order it next year. “We’ll read the names off – you know, like Twisted Peacock – before we light them so we can write a quick note,” he says.

It’s not all beauty and thunder, though. Even if Mattison hands the bomb off safely and Cray pops it in expertly, some don’t make it to the sky, instead rolling out and remaining live on the beach.

“We all know what sound to listen for,” says Mattison of the dreaded dud. “I turn and grab whoever’s closest and hit the water.” Last year he didn’t get wet at all and the year before that, he plunged in twice.

“I told my wife the other day that part of the safety of the event is me being there,” says Mattison. “But most people think I’m crazy.”

Watch a video from Lake Wissota's 2008 display: