Who Are The People In Your Neighborhood? …CANNON MAKERS.

Just a few minutes ago, Kate, Randy, and I were walking down High street to get some lunch at Salad Stop. “Whoa”, said Randy, and we saw a big cannon set up in front of the Chester County Historical Society. In front of the cannon was a white-haired man in civil-war galluses, looking every inch the seasoned historical reenactor. “Say, wow, what kind of cannon is this?” we asked him. He smiled, turned, and pointed to a man in grease-stained blue jeans smoking a cigarette behind him.

Turns out, the guy in the blue jeans is Jeff Stafford — a local fellow who is also THE world’s go-to guy for taking your hundred-and-fifty-year-old locally-cast piece of ordnance, putting it on a new, correct, rolling mount, and restoring it to the point where you can repeatedly hit a four-inch target at two hundred yards.

The cannon Jeff was standing in front of was cast right here in Phoenixville, PA in 1862. Jeff showed us the markings on the barrel: Cannon number 379, cast by the Phoenix Iron Works in 1862. Weight: 816 pounds. Inspected by TTSL: Theodore Thaddeus Sablinsky Ladlie!

Jeff fabricated the wheels and carriage for this particular gun, including all the staves and coopering, from white oak, all to the original specifications. It’s not just his hobby, it’s his job! He told us that he restores (and fabricates) cannons for museums and private collectors all over the world. “I bet you have some stories!” I say, and he smiles and says “Yeah, there’s some pretty colorful characters.” Of course, I assume this means that he has furnished more that one evil genius’s volcano lair with lovingly-recreated operational field pieces.

The three-inch ordnance rifle, in front of the Historical Society for a special event, fires a nine-inch, eleven-pound projectile. The grooves in the projectile match grooves in the barrel, spinning it for accuracy. I had never seen a cannon with functional iron sights before — only pirate cannons and rusty curios in the park that look like they only shoot, you know… thataway.

If you happen to be reading this on Thursday, September 22nd, 2011, you can run down to downtown West Chester and meet Jeff until 6PM today, before he loads his two-thousand-pound cannon up on his trailer (by himself, with the help of a hand winch.) He’s in Embreeville, and invited us over for a tour. I can’t wait! More about Jeff on his website: staffordwheelandcarriage.com.

Who Are The People In Your Neighborhood? …CANNON MAKERS.

Yarn Bombing in West Chester, by Jim Breslin

Jim Breslin is a local artist, writer, and founder of the West Chester Story Slam. He just made this short documentary about the Insomiknitac — the shadowy, mysterious figure behind West Chester’s yarn bombing! You can see both Kate and me in the movie. (And no, neither of us is the Insomiknitac!)

Seeking Insomiknitac – Yarn Bombing Documentary from Jim Breslin on Vimeo.

Yarn Bombing in West Chester, by Jim Breslin

Everything Looks Better In a Pelican Case

If you know me, you know my fetish for Pelican cases. EVERYTHING looks tougher, more durable, more ready-for-adventure in a Pelican case. Including roller-derby announcer microphones!

Everything looks more adventurous in a Pelican Case

I now have not one, not two, but three apprentice announcers for the Brandywine Roller Girls, and so we need two mics to plug into the small mix panel that a great article in Five on Five magazine told me to buy.

I got the boxes around the microphone handles (called “mic flags”, I learned) from B&H Photo, and had 2″ die-cut stickermule stickers made for them (Stickermule is GREAT, by the way — they use top-quality vinyl, and their preview functionality is wonderful.)

I’m deliriously happy that there’s a whole announcer crew now. It’s time to start inventing kung-fu announcer drills: “Announce this jam by reciting Lewis Carrol’s Jabberwocky, matching your tempo, attitude, and cadence to the action of the jam! Maintain a precise distance to your cardioid microphone! GO!” I am perfectly serious when I say that my goal is to be the worst announcer in the league.

Here’s some footage of what’s going on with the Brandywine Roller Girls these days — these are some rushes that Kevin Corcoran edited together from a shoot last Wednesday. Stick around for the “jam cam” footage starting at two minutes — I can’t wait to see more of this!

…and don’t forget, the next bout is coming up on Saturday night, August 20th! You can buy tickets right here!

Back 2 Skool Brawl: August 20, 2011

Everything Looks Better In a Pelican Case

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:


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!

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!”


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.


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