The sidecar is dead! Long live the sidecar!

Just minutes ago, a nice fellow named David carefully strapped my beloved 1977 BMW R100/7 sidecar rig to his motorcycle trailer and drove slowly away. I’m not sure if he turned east or west, as tears of sorrow were dimming my vision.

I was brought to motorcycles by my lovely wife Kate, whose dad was a brit-bike racer of renown. Kate had a stylish Honda CB360 and her motorcycle license, which was just one of the many, many things that dazzled me about her. I immediately enrolled in Motorcycle Safety School, and paid careful attention at her dad’s motorcycle events, trying to determine which of the many motorcycle cliques I was to belong to.

I chose Tribe Airhead — grizzled, pragmatic riders of square, greasy, no-nonsense Teutonic bikes. Bikes that rumbled and growled and would take you across the country as easily as across the street. Bikes that looked like they meant business just sitting there. Bikes that you could invite your burlesque tap-dancer friends down from NYC to do a magazine photo shoot, and the rig is cool enough that they would actually come:

CamPic1Before putting the sidecar on the bike, I took a trip to Martha’s Vineyard by myself, and then an epic trip to Maine with Kate’s father Bob. Bob’s new R1150R pooped out on him, which was a cosmic insult to a fellow who wrestled Lucas electrics for fun. But I solved his problem using a crazy new thing called THE INTERNET. After a short detour to a dealer we found online, me, my R100, and my laptop computer had the Adventure of the Great East Coast Blackout. Only a hundred miles of range in our tank, but a blackout that extended two hundred miles in every direction — what to do? I used my cellular card to make reservations at Mohonk, a Quaker mountaintop with its own generator system, and we wheeled in after dark to the cheerful glow of a fully-functional five-star resort. There’s no better feeling than using your goofy skills to best effect in front of your father-in-law, and I’m eternally grateful for that trip, that bike, and that opportunity.

After I put the sidecar on the bike, we started showing movies to the public at the Guerrilla Drive-In, which we had done just in the back yard previously. The sidecar rig made a great projector platform:

GDI rig
This photo was the product of hours of work by Harold Ross, who bathed the rig in light from various fiber-opctic wands, then stitched it into this photo

I’ve had a great time riding all over West Chester, showing movies with the Guerrilla Drive-In. We even got on the ABC Evening News with Katie Couric!

The Finished ProductI have loved this sidecar rig. It’s been a wonderful, faithful bike, and a sidecar rig just seems to make people happy. Lots of smiles and waves, and it’s a great excuse to wear the lego mini fig helmet I made (pictured at left.) It’s been absolutely wonderful.

However, I’m at a new chapter in my life. I want to take the whole family out for ice cream, and a sidecar doesn’t really work well for that. Plus, as weird as this sounds, a sidecar doesn’t really describe where I am in my life right now. A sidecar combination says adventure — the kind of adventure where brave, plucky souls battle hardship and challenge. A sort of post-apocalyptic vibe. And, as I become a happy middle-aged dude in a wonderful town, with great schools, raising a charming, brave, and intelligent girl, well… there’s not a lot of Mad Max in that story, you know?

So rather than let the bike live in the garage as a reminder of a previous chapter in my life, I want to make room for the next chapter. And I want to make room in my life, my wallet, and my garage for whatever goofy-ass vehicle might be right for that next chapter 🙂

The sidecar is dead! Long live the sidecar!

Brandywine Roller Girls Summer Shovin’!

The magnificent Kevin Corcoran — aka “Steven Spillsberg” — shot and edited video of last Saturday night’s Brandywine Roller Girls bout! You can watch the first period here:

http://www.youtube.com/p/C9C1D6533FD70316?version=3&hl=en_US&fs=1

You can hear me on the microphone, announcing as “Thurston Howl III.” Pictured below: what the Howl family drives to a bout (we borrowed this VW Type 181 briefly, sadly, it is not ours!)

Thurston and Lovey Howl

The next Brandywine Roller Girls bout is the Back 2 Skool Brawl on August 20th. All four bouts have sold out so far. If you’d like to get your tickets, you can buy them at Brown Paper Tickets right now!

Pictured below in the bout poster (from left): the Brass Knuckle Betties’ Crash Bansheekoot and BroozHer Berardi, and the Spell Razors’ Kimmee Chaos and Small WoundHer. I especially like the Spell Razors’ witchy bout-fits.

Back 2 Skool Brawl: August 20, 2011

Brandywine Roller Girls Summer Shovin’!

Electric Disco Hovertank Racing wants YOU!

One of the finest traditions of roller derby is goofy halftime activities. Goofy halftime activities? This stuff is what I was born to do. Here’s what I’m trying to get organized, and I want your participation!

Start with leaf-blower hovercrafts, like the one pictured here. It’s made of some plywood, some 6-mil plastic, lots of duct tape, and a hardware-store leaf blower:


The audio has been disabled on that video. If you’d like to see a version with a soundtrack, I’ve created a YouTube Doubler version here!

Make a couple of those hovercrafts (here’s some sample plans), then add painted cardboard superstructures, just like Box Wars does for their halftime battles at Toronto Roller Derby:

Okay, so far we have hovercars. Really cool-looking ones if we paint them bright colors, maybe even fluorescent colors with the black-lights at the rink. I’ve ordered a case of Mr. McGroovy’s Cardboard Box Rivets to help with the body construction. I’m imagining small perforated flanges screwed to the cardboard that will allow the superstructure to be securely attached. Hey, it works great in my head!

HOVERTANK
Next ingredient: Laser-tag. Roller rinks do this as a birthday-party activity. Caln Skating Center has a number of heavy, solid Tippman 98 paintball guns that have been converted to laser guns with bolt-on electronics packages. The rink also has a number of inflatable five-foot bollards that look like giant Weebles. They’ve lent me two guns to experiment with. The electronics are a far cry from the lazer-tag guns when I was a kid; they know WHO shot WHOM, and a gun will disable itself after its health is depleted. If you add CO2 bottles, they even have recoil(!)

Okay, enough talking. Hovercrafts, plus cardboard superstructures, plus fixed-mount laser guns, plus Brandywine Roller Girls halftime equals HOVERTANK RACING. Since we’re inside, we’ll use electric leaf blowers, so that makes it ELECTRIC hovertank racing. With the loud music, black lights, and fog machine, it’s electric DISCO hovertank racing!

The rules? Hell, I don’t even know yet:

  • Maybe the hovertanks will have their power cut for five seconds when a hit is scored.
  • Maybe if the tank has some momentum when being hit, the pilot will come tumbling out through the cardboard wall of the tank. That’s good show-biz right there.
  • Maybe we’ll vote on the best-looking tank.
  • Maybe the tanks will race around the track, or maybe they’ll race from end to end of the rink, capture the flag style, THROUGH the audience.
  • Maybe we’ll fix the laser-tag guns in a locked position on the tanks, so the entire tank must be aimed, like wooden ships fighting naval engagements!

The guns are configurable with infinite or limited ammunition, infinite or limited health, so we have lots of flexibility. We can figure out what’s the most fun to do, and what’s the most fun to watch.

Brandywine Roller Girls SOLSTICE SMACKDOWN poster

Right now, I have simple hovertank plans, and I have two 48″ rounds of 1/2 plywood, and plenty of 6-mil plastic. There’s a leaf blower at the rink. I’ll be there for scrimmage tonight, June 15th, from 7-9 PM to watch BRG scrimmage. We may do some hovertank racing at this Saturday night’s bout, depending on if enough makers come out and say “YES! I will be a part of this nebulous box-of-ingredients project!”

Hoverboard

If that’s you — if you’d like to be one of the charter members of Chester County’s very first ELECTRIC DISCO HOVERTANK RACING LEAGUE, leave a comment below! I’m thinking we need hovertank designers, hovertank captains, and hovertank pilots (people to shove these floating hockey-pucks around.) You don’t have to do anything this week — just leave a comment below, and I’ll add you to a group!

Electric Disco Hovertank Racing wants YOU!

More about the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage

In my last blog post, I hyperventilated about how my wooden nickels caused me to stumble on the story of the PR stunt to end all PR stunts — a fifty-wagon reenactment of the westward migration, with a wagon from every state converging on Valley Forge National Park in 1976.

Things have only gotten more amazing since then.

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At a luau this weekend, inimitable salonnière ModBetty of Retro Roadmap gave me this wooden nickel, exclaiming that she had found it at a Phoenixville Historical Society flea market and thought of me. I loved the art, and I loved the instructions to remit five to earn a mysterious, quote-armored “Buffalo” Bill gift.

It wasn’t until we googled up the Longhorn Ranch Glen Mills that we realized that we were holding the wooden-nickel equivalent of the Pick of Destiny. The Longhorn Ranch was a beloved western-themed restaurant where cowgirls would shoot cap guns while singing “happy birthday” to you: “Happy birthday *bang bang*!” Eric Lewis had dinner there in 1977, the night before he shipped out for a career in the submarine service. And then the restaurant was torn down to make way for… are you ready for this? For PULSATIONS. I wish I knew how to permalink to Facebook comments, because so many of the memories that folks were commenting about were so great: “I ate at the Longhorn, and then later came back to see Human League and The Fixx at that same spot!” BEHOLD THE DEEP MAGIC OF THE WOODEN NICKEL.

Bicentennial Wagon Train BookOkay, back to the other thread. Since my last post, I’ve searched for the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage on the Internet, and found many interesting scattered pieces. But I had lots of questions about what seems to be a huge, audacious PR stunt. Who designed the wagons? Were they to “real” specifications? For God’s sake, who paid for all fifty to get built? Who flew back and forth across the country in smoke-filled 1970s jet planes, organizing this huge thing?

I found, and ordered, a hardcover book on the subject, and it arrived yesterday. The frontispiece of the book declares in stamped gold foil that it is “Number 2,184 in a limited edition first printing of 2,500 hallmarked and registered copies. A gift of the MAYFLOWER CORPORATION.” It is signed (with a stamp) by John B. Smith, president.

Bicentennial Wagon Train Book
And WOW, is this book a treasure trove of information. Just to start out with, the PR company that organized the campaign, began in true focus-group style — consulting Amish wagon makers, then wheelwrights and authors. They consulted with the Smithsonian, created a design, then awarded the contract to build fifty(!) wagons to an Arkansas firm with subcontractors all over the country. In a surprise local development, it turns out that the rubber-rimmed hickory wheels were made by the firm of Hoopes and Darlington right here in West Chester, PA — a company that had been in business since the 1800s.

The book is organized into five sections, one for each of the wagon train routes that converged on Valley Forge. It’s packed with pictures – Lydia is enjoying leafing through and looking for pictures of brown horses with white blazes.

Bicentennial Wagon Train Book

For every question this book answers, two more present themselves to my mind. In the course of Googling, I saw that Thelma Gray, literal-and-figurative pioneer of the Philadelphia advertising community, had organized a country-wide tour called “America On the Move” with Ed McMahon, and backed by the Teamsters. It ended somewhat shakily; was this campaign, with major backing from the Mayflower corporation, a savvy way of rebooting a troubled initiative? (If so, it will only increase my respect for Thelma, who has a valid claim to have invented the product recall.)

Bicentennial Wagon Train Book

Bicentennial Wagon Train BookI’m in love with the story of the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage. What an amazing trip! I can’t wait to go back to Jimmy’s Barbecue in Malvern and ask Holly a whole bunch of questions. As the daughter of one of the PR firm’s heads, she rode every mile of the trip, spending a whole year in a wagon. Was her dad one of the fellows who worked to make this happen? How did her dad make the transition from Philly ad-man to rootin’, tootin’, rawhide wagon boss?

I mean, this is a mammoth campaign; this isn’t like one of those “Vikings attack Penn’s Landing” events that turns out to be five potbellied dudes in a rowboat (I still remember that particular disappointment from sixth grade, and I am still bitter.) This is a wagon train re-enactment that’s the same scope as the original. I love to imagine neatly-pressed interns, fresh from reading “Ogilvy on Advertising“, trying to find someone to shoe a Morgan horse at 2AM, scowling around a soggy Marlboro, wishing cellphones had been invented already. There’s a movie in here, and it’s a movie I very much want to see!

Once I’m done reading every word in this book, I’ll ask the West Chester Public Library if they’d be willing to keep it in their collection, so y’all can see it too.

Good God almighty, what is the next amazing thing that wooden nickels will reveal? I can’t wait to find out!

More about the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage

Wooden Nickels and the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage

Brandywine Roller Girls Wooden NickelsI knew that my wooden nickel project would start yielding unexpected, and awesome, results. Today I got my first giant bonus!

Brandywine Roller Girls sponsor Jimmy’s BBQ heard about the BRG nickels, and offered to redeem each nickel for a pulled pork sandwich. Not 10% off a sandwich. Not a free sandwich with the purchase of a meal for a family of twelve. Nope, if you get your hands on a BRG wooden nickel and bring it to Jimmy’s, they will trade that nickel for a whole delicious pulled-pork sandwich. You hand them the nickel, they hand you an insanely delicious Memphis dry-rub style pulled-pork sandwich. Oh, man, what a deal!

But wait, that’s not even the most amazing part! Jimmy’s general manager Holly told me that the reason she loves wooden nickels is from her days as a young girl riding in the Great American Wagon Train Pilgrimage. This was a huge event in 1976, in which fifty wagons(!) — one from every state — converged in five wagon trains on Valley Forge National Park. The whole thing was conceived and executed by a Philadelphia ad firm. Holly rode in the train as a young girl for a year and a half(!!!), leaving Blaine, Washington in June 1975, and arriving in Valley Forge in July, 1976.

Bicentennial Wagon Train: Bud Pena and the New Mexico WagonGOOD GOD, are you kidding me? This thing sounds like a combination between Woodstock, a gypsy caravan, and an Iron Butt motorcycle rally, with a couple of Appalachian trail through-hikes thrown in and Pa Wilder marching proudly at the head. Can you imagine the logistics involved with putting together a fifty-state wagon train, with wagons converging from every direction? Before cellphones? With a musical performance in every town?

There doesn’t seem to be a central website, or even a Wikipedia article about this huge event, but you can read lots of great tantalizing story fragments in the comments on this page. Or scroll halfway down this prim writeup by the National Parks Service, and look at pictures of the wagons here.

Have a look at these scans of the original brochure, which is a fantastic piece of long-form David Ogilvy-style copywriting. Holly hinted about all sorts of stories to come, too. “Oh yeah, our wagon master was captured by Indians.” She was quite serious.

I’ve got to learn more about this. What an amazing crossover of Madison-avenue culture, local PR gumption, and actual real-world logistics! What a cool experience riding (as Holly did) from Washington state to Valley Forge in a covered wagon at nine years old! Thanks, wooden nickels, for uncovering this story!

UPDATE: after @subewl tweeted that last photo, Sean McGlinch responded with this photo, that his grandfather had taken in front of The Guernsey Cow in Exton:

Bicentennial Wagon Train passes the Guernsey Cow

SECOND UPDATE: I just discovered that there’s a Facebook group with lots and lots of great photos.

THIRD UPDATE: Wow, every name I google in connection with this project is turning up amazing stories. The wagon train was (partially? mostly?) administered by pioneering advertising and PR executive Thelma Gray, inventor of the product recall. Thelma had, several years before, organized an across-the-country tour for the Teamsters with Ed McMahon and the Nixon administration. Good lord, it’s like finding out that P.T. Barnum lived in your own back yard, and was a lady in a tweed suit!

FOURTH UPDATE:Here’s another photo of the wagon train passing the Guernsey Cow that Sean McGlinchey sent me. I love the comment by Chris Thompson on the flickr page: “Look at all these hipsters in this instagram shot”

Bicentennial Wagon Train, 1976

Wooden Nickels and the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage

BRG vs. DSRG: Derby Sumo

As a part of my ongoing job to become first, an adequate, and then a good roller-derby announcer, I drove down to the Christiana Skating Center last night to watch our own Brandywine Roller Girls scrimmage Delaware’s Diamond State. The more derby I watch, the more I understand that this is not schtick-with-some-sports, this is sports-with-some-schtick. Don’t get me wrong, I love schtick. But in addition to the hot shorts and eyeblack, there’s the speed of tennis, the teamwork of hockey, and (I am not kidding here) a healthy dose of sumo. More about that in a second.

"It's like they're getting ready to raid Bin Laden's place!"
Here’s Koach Hot Wheels briefing the BRG skaters before the scrimmage. They’re looking pretty tough: a friend at work said “They look like they’re getting ready to go to Bin Laden’s house. A couple of them told me “What I was actually thinking ‘OMG we’re gonna be hitting strangers for the first time!'”).

The Diamond State skaters were tall, fast, and tough, in pink T-shirts with Chaplin moustaches painted on their faces. During their warmups, I saw skaters with their skates wi-i-i-ide apart, carving back and forth like they were trying to screw their boots into the hardwood floor. I met their coach, Axl Rolls, and a few of their NSOs (“Non-Skating Officials”), who were kind enough to come and help with BRG’s first bout in April.

PERMISSION TO BUZZ THE TOWERBRG’s photographer, Randy “Papa Razzi” Litwin, was there, on skates, and as the warmups began, he was out there rolling around the outside of the track, often skating backwards and looking sideways (looking sideways through a zoom lens with one eye, even.) He told me that he really enjoys taking photos at the Christiana Skating Center because there’s a lot of light (lots more than at Caln), and that the reflective floor helps, too.

Here’s number 9, Skinny Guinea, warming up around the fourth corner. The way you score points in derby is that one skater — the “Jammer”, with a star on her helmet — laps the pack of skaters, and earns a point for every skater on the opposing team she passes. In the pack, it’s a team sport. Blockers try to get their own jammer through the pack, and stop the opposing team’s jammer. Conversely, blockers also try to foil the other team’s plans.

So the whole game is a combination of long, sweeping strides while the jammers lap the pack, straight-up speed skating, and then scrums while each team works together and with their jammer.

KickAsh brings WoundHer through the pack

In this picture, Number A55, KickAsh, is in the green helmet. She’s managed to pull number 1/2 pt, Small WoundHer, out of the pack, and is trying to bring her around safely to the outside so she can finish her scoring pass.

Meanwhile, the Diamond State skater closest to the camera is gathering herself up for a hit. I think what’s about to happen is that KickAsh is about to pull WoundHer to the inside while she freaking blasts the opposing blocker off the track.

And that’s where the sumo comes in. I’m not making a stupid crack about body types — sumo is all about power: staying grounded, then exploding out and upwards. Modern derby skaters aren’t allowed to use their arms to hit. There’s no tripping, no elbows, no pushing. The hits are all straightforward body checks using momentum. No matter who hits whom, it seems like the lower, steadier skater always keeps rolling while the other skater goes flying. I saw a lot of clean, hard hits last night, and I understood what the DSRG skaters were doing with that wi-i-ide sumo stance: once Diamond State’s “tank” got planted in position, it seemed like she was rooted to the floor, not rolling along on ball bearings.

The Brandywine Roller Girls skaters worked together really, really well together as a team. They listen to each other, they listen to their coach, and they try really hard. I’m learning a lot about the sport, and I’m having a great time. The next bout is Saturday night, May 21st, and I’ll be announcing. See you there!

BRG vs. DSRG: Derby Sumo

Happy Mother’s Day!

We had a fantastic mother’s day yesterday! We went to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival for the first time in five years (last time we went, LBY was riding in a howdah on my back, like a small cordura-shaded maharini.)

We saw a fantastic sheepdog demo, with border collies using the power of INTENSE STARING to move packs of sheep all over the ring. Here’s a short video I took of Skep moving five sheep to numbered stations around the edge of the ring. Station two, the target, is just to the right of the camera. You can hear the handler’s whistles!

We had our kitchen and outdoor brooms trimmed and re-tied by Bob Haffly, the broom guy who is a giant celebrity at the festival every year. This guy can keep a crowd spellbound to watch him make brooms. He’s a fantastic pitchman, but with the added benefit that he’s not evil! I have a couple of Flickr pictures, but this YouTube video made in 2008 is much more fun to watch:

Bob wouldn’t take any money to rejuvenate his brooms. “See you in another five years!” he said, and then told us a story about how the day before, a lady heard him say that, then looked carefully at him, and said “…I’d better get a few more brooms, in case… something happens to you.” He was terrified, and spent the rest of the day looking in the mirror for signs of impending doom.

Rounding out the trip, Kate covered herself in glory when, we were looking at the sheep-show sheep in their pens, a sheep escaped. “Catch that sheep!” went up the hue and cry. And Kate TOTALLY CAUGHT IT. What a hero! Why, it’s just the kind of thing you imagine happening when you head to the sheep show as a kid.

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We even saw a blade-shearing competition, where a brawny farmer with a banzai headband, a lean, rangy Irishman, and a young, laughing woman with a big braid down the middle of her back all competed to shear five sheep, with points for time, quality of fleece, and avoidance of nicks. The winner would advance to the world championships in New Zealand. It was a close competition, and after the scores were tallied… the young woman won! Her red-headed daughter ran up on the stage laughing, and jumped into her arm (the right arm; the left armpit of blade shearers gets caked with sheep poop from the wrestling holds they put the sheep in!

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What a wonderful mother’s day!

Happy Mother’s Day!

Quick! Get your tickets to the 5/21 Brandywine Roller Girls bout

Brandywine Roller Girls The combined Guerilla Drive-In/Brandywine Roller Girls event on Saturday night was a success. I had a great time, and people in the crowd really enjoyed seeing the sport — many folks for the first time.

I’ll post pictures and more impressions of the evening, but first I wanted to quickly get this up — tickets for the first full match on May 21st are now available to skaters and officials. As the BRG’s proud announcer, I have access to tickets, and they will sell out. If you put your name, email, and number of tickets you’d like into the Google Docs form below, I’ll make sure to set that many aside for you!

This is just a handy way for me to know how many tickets I should get from the league — you’re not making an ironclad commitment, and you won’t be paying now. Basically, this is just a “Hey John, save me some tickets” list.

See you there!

Quick! Get your tickets to the 5/21 Brandywine Roller Girls bout

“Remember, Black and White is Always Right!”

Brandywine Roller Girls scrimmage tonight was a slug-fest. The skaters were over their wide-eyed “OMG, we’re actually going to start hitting each other!” suprise, and were getting down to business. Business, in this case, meaning slamming each other off the track so that the jammers can’t score!

"Remember, Black and White is Always Right!"

Tonight, head referee Tommy Gears (on the right) was teaching two new refs: Joey Shears and Wild Wild Wes (left and center), about penalties. There’s back blocks, where a skater pushes the skater in front. There’s elbows, forearms, tripping, there’s cutting the track; there’s all kinds of stuff to watch for. It’s hard to see what’s happening — there are so many people, so many elbows being thrown. “Tommy, when can I make the call? How can I be sure I saw-“

“Make that call loud and proud, fellows!” I heard Tommy saying to them. “Just remember: Black and White is Always Right!”

“Remember, Black and White is Always Right!”

Roller Derby Announcer BoomCase

Inspired by Mr. Simo’s BoomCases, (and preceded by the fellows at Hive76), I took apart a Roland Mobile Cube and reassembled it inside an old fabric-and-pine Singer Featherweight sewing-machine carrying case that Kate found by the side of the road.

This is not a very complex hack (Step 1: make a hole in the box! Step 2: Put your junk in that box!), but it’s very practical — the Mobile Cube is set up for batteries or DC power, it takes a wide variety of inputs, and there’s various reverb knobs to twiddle.

PLUS, I can put my roller-derby announcer microphone inside the case. And a music source! So the whole thing becomes a self-contained, er… something! It’ll also look good strapped to the luggage rack of the sidecar.

Plus, it’s loud. REALLY loud. Bolting the speakers into a pine box seemed to take an already-loud amp at make it even louder. I’m really excited!

Roller Derby Announcer BoomCase