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.


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!


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

Accidental Roller Derby Svengali

The picture that Randy took of me with the Brandywine Roller Girls at my 40th birthday party has taken on a life of its own, first getting picked up as the new team’s temporary Facebook profile photo, and now this:

Accidental Roller Derby Svengali

The picture just got picked up as the cover of the Daily Local’s nightlife supplement, which hits stands today. So I am now accidentally portrayed as some kind of… Roller Derby Svengali? I can live with that. Thanks, Randy!

I am incredibly proud to be portrayed as an unexplained tuxedo-wearing member of the team’s entourage. Though now that I think about it, who’s the one person who wears black tie to a brutal sporting event? We all know the answer to that question:

Accidental Roller Derby Svengali