George Plimpton has had his share of embarrassments, but only once has he been led away from his stunned dinner guests in handcuffs. The incident occurred one evening after Plimpton, a longtime fireworks buff (see page 68), set off some aerial shells following a party for 40 friends—Senator and Mrs. Edward Kennedy among them—at his beachfront home in Amagansett, N.Y. The policeman who came to investigate initially assumed, as Plimpton had, that the writer's fire department authorization entitled him to set off the shells, but later the law officer discovered a special town permit was also required. Although he had never had any trouble before, George was handcuffed (normal police procedure if the officer is alone in the car with the culprit) and driven off to be photographed and fingerprinted. Satisfied that protocol had been duly observed, the authorities lowered the misdemeanor charge to a violation and George was fined $50 and released.
None of this has dampened Plimpton's enthusiasm. He is Fireworks Commissioner of New York City, an unofficial title bestowed upon him by then Mayor John V. Lindsay, and he is trying to put together an international fireworks contest for the bicentennial year. He envisions it as something like team tennis, with each of the countries in the contest putting on an eight-or 10-minute display every evening as they travel around the U.S.
Plimpton sees pyrotechnics as an art form. "A lot of people think fireworks are rather frivolous," he says, "but to me they are creations that can make as much of an impression as a piece of music beautifully orchestrated."
He also believes they are a splendid release for anyone suffering from writer's block. "Setting off a display gives enormous satisfaction," he says. "I've never known a writer who has set off one who didn't crave to set off more." Whether or not the blocks are dissolved, Plimpton isn't sure, but it is not surprising that he knows of writers who have resorted to this particular relief since he confesses to having introduced many of them to it.
George learned how to handle explosives during the war. "I was a demolition expert in the Corps of Engineers, trained to pick up mines in the ground," he says. "Japanese beach mines were my specialty, but to my everlasting relief the Japanese war ended and I was made a tank driver. I was so bad at that that they made me a tank commander. I was a terrible driver.... I lost control of a tank in Italy and knocked off the corner of a building. I was almost as destructive in tanks as I was in demolition."
At present Plimpton is in the hospital recovering from gallbladder surgery. He would have been discharged by now had he not postponed the operation in order to take part in the commencement exercises at Bennington College in Vermont. He especially wanted to be there. His role in the ceremonies included supervising an aerial fireworks display—a separate shell fired for each graduating student.