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Going out with a bang

Mark Pickel had a starring role in Christmas on the River this year for the first time since 1978.

Pickel, a Demopolis native, has fond memories of his hometown’s annual Yuletide celebration and has long wanted to again contribute to the merriment that is Christmas on the River.

“I was in the first parade in 72. I marched in the parade up until 1978 when I graduated with Roger Franklin as the band director,” Pickel, who played trombone in the Demopolis High School band, said.

But life after high school took Pickel far from the friendly confines of Demopolis into a new and full career.

“I work in the medical field. I went in the Navy right after high school and was a corpsman in the Navy. I work in orthopedic surgery in Tallahassee now,” Pickel said of his first job.

However, over the last eight years, Pickel has also worked a second job. He has served as a regional manager for Extreme Pyrotechnics. It is that role that allowed him to return home this Christmas on the River as he attempted to make the 40th anniversary of COTR go out with the biggest bang of its four-decade run.

“It is actually, I would say, my favorite job. I am the Florida regional manager for this company, which is based out of Dallas, Texas,” Pickel said. “This was my first year to do Christmas on the River. I have tried to get it for about five years now. I did the (Freedom on the River) with Jennifer Tate. I told her that if she gave me the opportunity that I would outdo anybody who has ever done it. And I think I did.”

Pickel pulled out most of the stops in his efforts over the weekend, using everything from 10-inch shells to music to try to craft a fireworks display worthy of the city he will always call home.

“I’ve seen the fireworks all my life since 72 and I’ve worked with fireworks for eight years now and I’ve always wanted to do Christmas on the River,” Pickel said. “It was real close to my heart. Probably one of the most special events I’ve done. I’ve done a lot of charity events. I’ve done Make-a-Wish. I’ve done bigger shows too. But this one was real special to me.”

Fortunately for Pickel, the show will stand as one of his favorites of all time not only because of its location, but also because of how it all fit together.

“I think this one was more perfect than any. The music and everything, to me, was flawless,” Pickel said. “That’s kind of hard to say in a fireworks show. I promise the next one will be bigger and better.”

Pickel can make that promise because he now has the assurance that Christmas on the River 2011 will not be the last time he gets a featured role in his hometown’s favorite festival.

“It wasn’t 30 seconds after the show ended that Jennifer Tate called me and told me I could do Christmas on the River anytime I wanted,” Pickel, who still owns land in Demopolis and plans to move back to the city during his retirement, said. “You just don’t know what it means to me. It’s just amazing. It’s a privilege is what it is.”