burning the fuse on both ends: an interview with scott swendsen
Balancing work and hobbies is no small feat. A select few are able to make their hobby their work, but the majority of us can’t feasibly make money gardening full-time (that used to be called farming).
But Scott Swendsen is a man who has been able to do both his dream, and his other dream. A man of dual-talent, he’s a licensed pyrotechnician and gastroenterologist, as well as a dual-citizen of both Canada and the United States.
Me: What’s pyrotechnics?
Scott: I’m a licensed pyrotechnician in the State of Texas. I do mostly professional city shows for 4th of July or New Year’s Eve. Most of the fireworks I work with are purchased, but a few are made by hand, and we basically figure out how to coordinate them all. I do a lot of work with fuses so I can time them. Sometimes we put them to music and basically put on a huge show for a big group.
M: Aren’t you Canadian though? How do you feel about fireworks being illegal in Canada?
S: It’s disappointing! Canada needs to get with the program. I am now a US Citizen as well, so I have dual-citizenship. Funny enough, I got my American citizenship while I was getting my pyrotechnic license, and so they ask you to put on your application for U.S. citizenship if you have any hobbies or interests...and I decided it was probably best to omit the fact that I’m learning to make bombs and explosives while applying to be a US citizen...it wouldn’t go over very well (laughs).
M: And what kind of doctor are you?
S: I’m a gastroenterologist, so I’m a digestive system doctor. We take care of everything. Esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, liver, all that kind of stuff. I spend probably ⅔ of my time doing endoscopic procedures, which is just like playing video-games inside of people.I put scopes in their mouths and up their butts. And then the rest of time is spent in clinics.
M: So, are you an internal medicine doctor by day, fireworks enthusiast by night?
S: Ha! Yeah, right. It’s funny, I got my pyrotechnics license while I was training to be a G.I. doctor, there’s not a lot of creative overlap there--
M: Wait, so you were getting your dual-citizenship, your pyrotechnics license, and your G.I. training all at once?
S: All at the same time, yeah. We do have a lot going on. So I did three years in adult internal medicine, then 3 years sub-specialty in gastroenterology, and it’s nice to have that basic knowledge of adult medicine so that when people in my community comes out to me I can answer their questions, but I’m a G.I. specialist at heart. I love that stuff.
M: And how many years have you worked with pyrotechnics?
S: I think it’s been 3 years now. It’s actually a long process to become a pyrotechnician, at least in Texas. In Colorado where I am now, it’s not so hard. You just take a little test and you’re certified. But in Texas, they make you do 5 apprentice shows, so basically you have to join a professional outfit that are doing shows to 4th of July or New Years Eve and help them do the planning, setup, and execution, and once you’ve done 5 of those, then you take the test and get the license. You learn the funnest things from these kinds of people, they all love to blow stuff up. While preparing for shows, they’ll say “If you mix this and this, it’ll make a huge bomb,” or “This is how you make a total crowd pleaser.” And these aren’t things for public display, these were things we’d do on our own on private land.
M: What do you love most about having a pyrotechnics license?
S: One fun thing about these fireworks for a group of thousands of people, is that they have to be big. They have to wow a lot of people. So to be able to watch them up close like I get to watch them - that’s the thrilling part. Each blast shakes your body and it’s a rush to do those big fires. Another perk is that once you have a license, you can buy fireworks wholesale, which is usually like a quarter of the price compared to the stand. And in Texas, the stuff you can get is impressive. Not just little sparklers, but mortal shells and huge big fireworks, you can buy simply at the stand. And that got me intrigued and I wanted to pursue that.
M: What do you love most about the shows?
S: I enjoy them just for me. I love to watch them and work with creative fireworks. Change the rhythm and pace and make such a different appearance with the fireworks, not just your standard ball explosion. I love the ones that are directional, or have a ring or heart or smileyface. So I get a kick of watching it for my own sake, but I love the crowd reaction. That is just a ton of fun. We did this air show once and they wanted us to launch fireworks amongst the planes and do a wall of fire by the crowd and the planes were just above us. I was right where the action is.
M: What’s your favorite accomplishment? Ever? Associated with work or pyrotechnics or otherwise?
S: Ever? Big question. I feel like I should say marriage and family. If I say anything else I might be in trouble. We’ve got four kids. But also, medical training meant a lot to me. I spent a lot of time working hard to do that, but pyrotechnics make that fun and special. I cherish my pyrotechnics license and keep it in my wallet all the time.
M: Do you let your kids play with fireworks?
S: No! Ha, they’re too young. The oldest is 11. I’m also wary for myself. Being a doctor that does a lot of procedures, the worst case scenario is that I blow up my fingers or blow up my hands. I’m pretty cautious. They’ve seen a lot of my shows though, but I make sure they keep their distance.
M: Was there anything in the learning process of pyrotechnics that surprised you?
S: People are very safety aware. Don’t put anything near it you can’t afford to lose. So don’t put your head over a firework unless you want to lose your head. People are very careful because they have a lot of respect for them. Interestingly enough, when I was in Texas, a different doctor who also liked to put on pyrotechnic shows - the trailer full of fireworks next to him blew up and killed him. So my wife was like “no, no, maybe this isn’t the right place for you. Doctors and fireworks are a bad idea.”
M: Any other life lessons in firework building?
S: Gosh, I don’t know. I think with both my medicine and firework careers, that everything in life is risk and benefit. It’s a discussion. You can’t live life perfectly safe. You do what you can, but you’re not living if you’re not living without any risk. Worth it to me to go out and blow stuff up, but also worth it to me go and do medical procedures that will save people’s lives.
M: Right on. So, Independence Day is coming up. What is freedom to you?
S: When I became a US citizen, my naturalization ceremony was in Austin, so they had probably a thousand of us and we were representing the countries we were from, and they had this inspirational video, and even though I grew up die-hard patriotic Canadian, I was touched by the patriotism and love that people gained for this country, and how honored they were to be American. That certainly rubbed off on me. But boy, freedom. To move, to believe the way you want to believe, travel, to raise your family how you want to is a real blessing, a real privilege.
So there you have it. “Get you a man who can do both” takes on a whole meaning.
M.H. Shepherd is a writer, a strong consumer of Indian food, a redhead, and has a passion for finding adventure in the mundane. She loves her 1984 Chrysler Laser and being a part of the team at Rhone.