demolition derby

Earth. Wind. Fire

2013 Matches for Blog Post 005

Many years ago, when we lived in the Eastern Sierra, John and I were nearly evacuated from our home.  That summer, the Rainbow Fire brought firefighters from all over the West to our small mountain town.  Whether and how we’d have to leave was all people could talk about.  For over a week, the sky was heavy with blood-red smoke that occluded the sun.  We kept our truck packed with a few essentials, those we couldn’t bear to lose.  Just in case.  Firefighters saved the day then, as they will soon, I hope, in the hundreds of fires that rage now in the West.

Years away from that proximity to wildfire have made me forget how fire worry cloaks dry places in summer.  When we lived in Pennsylvania, I can’t remember one fire scare that didn’t involve a structure.  Floods were that region’s menace.  In our seven years there, the shed in our backyard flooded three times.  Next to a culvert which backed up every spring from heavy rain and idiotically designed drainage from a nearby golf course, the shed was full of things we’d carried from move to move.  Memorabilia, furniture, yard tools. One March evening John and I forged through our backyard in chest-high water and hacked a section of fencing away so the water could drain instead of flooding the house.

In the Pacific Northwest, late summer means smoke from fires east and south. My favorite woods are closed down by the timber company in August and September.  Just in case.  But in general, for many years, I have spoken of fires as not that near to us.  They are over there.

This year, fire has been on my mind pretty much since spring, when we decided to move.  It is a story both short and long, too tedious to report here, and is also the reason for the radio silence in this blog space.

John and I have moved a lot in our together life, each time purposefully, each time surprised we’re doing it again, each time mystified about the way our belongings have multiplied like those gremlins in that awful 80s film.  Moving means limbo and heartache, straddling the line between the love of one place and the hope about the next place.  It’s exhausting, exhilarating, overwhelming, terrifying.  The cleansing power of fire – a proper burn of most of our things and the party that would accompany it – was a solution I thought about more than I should have.

Before we moved, I ended up burning only a few things I’m not at liberty to report here, but suffice it to say there was (probably) too much beer involved.  Not as a retardant but as liquid encouragement.

The second night in our new town, which is in the high desert, we were jolted awake by a thunderstorm and a fire raging in the hills above town.  It was three o’clock in the morning.  The seven fire trucks worth of sirens I counted were ultimately eclipsed by the din of thunder above us, which boomed so loud it rattled the glasses in the cabinets and made the dog hide behind the toilet (I’m not sure why this was a safe zone, but she felt that it was).  The kids climbed into bed with us, and it would’ve felt like a scene from The Sound of Music, except that ash blasted into the house through the open windows until it occurred to us to close them.

The next morning we found all the surfaces in the house covered with chunky silt.  Parked on the street, our car looked like it had been in a ticker tape parade.

This.  Our new life.  We’ve moved from the one of the rainiest places in the West to one of the driest, a climate John and I haven’t lived in for fifteen years.  In the months that led up to being here, I made a habit of turning to John and telling him all our moving troubles and expenses could be solved by one thing.

“Oh yeah?,” he’d say, “What’s that?  A brigade of leprechaun movers?”

His ideas were different every time.  A team of furniture-hungry zombies.  The world’s biggest yard sale with a complimentary deep-fried bar – Oreos, pickles, butter.  A Dumptruck Demolition Derby, all the contestants loaded down with our household goods.  The crowd could trash-pick our stuff when the event was over.  The list was endless.

“Nothing so theatrical,” I’d say.  “I was thinking a book of matches.”

“Your solution lacks imagination.”


I didn’t think we’d move again, at least not this far away.  For months, while I packed up our belongings, I cursed the weight of them, the knickknacks and kitchen crap, the books (oh dear, I DO have a problem), the clothes and shoes and yard stuff and furniture.  I fantasized about using this life change as an opportunity to become a family of ascetics.  We could retrofit our trailer and practice micro living, everything we owned having more than one purpose.  Downsizing!  The next frontier!

With my truck:  Eleven trips of donated goods, one trip to give away items to family members, several more trips to deliver plants in pots and those dug up from the yard to friends, one trip to the food bank.  A massive neighborhood yard sale.  And still, we had too much crap.

I mean, what do we really NEED my high school lettergirl jacket for?  Or the skis John lost in an avalanche twenty years ago that we found the next spring?  Or the newspapers from 1875 wrapped in wax paper my great aunt gave me?

It turns out downsizing is a tricky business.  Even though we gave away so much, we still have too much to fit into our new house.  (I’m mostly sure we’re not hoarders). So we did what all good Americans do and put the overage of our lives in a storage unit.  Boxes upon boxes of it, where it will probably mold overwinter in the rainy Northwest, the plywood walls of the unit wet with condensation as so often happens, and then we’ll probably have to get rid of it anyway.  Maybe we’ll learn our lesson this time.

Now that the world is burning all around us, the thought of lighting matches doesn’t bring me much joy.  Each morning we wake to see what our day will bring.  Some days it is a “red flag warning” (a trifecta of wind, lightning and plenty of tinder).  Others it is an AQI (Air Quality Index) level Orange or Red (UNHEALTHY).  Above Red are Purple and Maroon, levels that are “HAZARDOUS.” We plan our time outdoors accordingly.  Morning is best.  In the afternoon it’s hot as balls, and the air reeks of fire and burns our lungs.

The kids have begun to ask what would make the world reach Purple or Maroon, and I don’t trust myself to answer, because of course I’ve imagined something apocalyptic already that involves much more than wildfires.  As a family, we keep our fingers crossed that fire will not be the thing to get us into those foreboding AQI colors.

Truthfully, now that I’m a high desert dweller again, I can’t make the joke about needing a book of matches without thinking about the loss of life and property this year’s fire season has already cost.

But at some point we’ll have to face the music with the rest of our things, and I’m pretty sure the leprechauns are not going to help us out.  I guess I’ll stow my matches for another time.  Just in case.  For when the rains come (I hear they do here), for when there’s not such a constant reminder of how nature is the boss of us.  For our next move.

Or maybe I’ll put my matches away for good.  Now that I’m thinking about it, John’s Dumptruck Demolition Derby idea isn’t half bad.  We DO have a county fair here…

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demolition on hold

Our local demolition derby is cancelled this year.  Organizers said there wasn’t enough interest, which I guess means there weren’t enough entries since the stands are packed with spectators every year.

I’m sad, to be sure, and confused.  For months some friends and I have been creating a derby car, a scheme hatched at last year’s destruction derby.  Not too long after that night we found the perfect carcass of a car and hauled it home on a rented flatbed.  We borrowed an engine.  We’ve skulked around junkyards.  Our car lives in the shop of a friend, our ringleader, the beating heart of the operation.  Knowing the goal is to destroy what we create has been a delicious torment.  A twisted anticipation.  Mostly, we’ve enjoyed rich, sometimes frustrating, time together and haven’t spent too much money.  Maybe I’m delusional, but our efforts remind me a little of barn raising, even though our end game is to ruin what our hands have built (but not so much that we can’t reuse the engine and the car).  We gather, we plan, we build, we eat, we admire what our joint ideas render for the group.

I can’t explain the lack of destruction derby entries, though one of the event organizers bemoaned the recession.  In a listing economy, I think it makes perfect sense to go out and wreck something.  But creating a car is about more than this impulse.  It’s a way to keep life simple, centered, local.  A  little money and some sweat equity can make a good derby car, and businesses will often sponsor such a project.  As hobbies go, you can’t get one more wholesome than hanging out in a friend’s garage.  Heads under the hood of the car, the group of you trying to figure out how to make the thing run with a borrowed engine and some junkyard parts while the smell of motor oil and hand cleaner and beer and music from the beat-up radio on top of the workbench filter in.  The garage is the place where mechanical skill and art, invention and logic, friendship and communication intersect.  And I haven’t even mentioned the joy a car brings to thousands of spectators, no matter if it dies in the first round.

Neighboring counties will host derbies this summer, but we’re not so ambitious that we’ll take our act on the road.  Part of the charm of it was always operating entirely on a local level.  So.  Our car will just have to wait.  And so will we.  Besides, another year of tinkering on our joint effort will be an alright way to spend the long winter hours.



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demolition…a love story

For a while when I was young we lived in a very small town in northern California.  Hours from any major city, you could only get to it on steep, winding roads.  There were no stop lights, no big box stores or fast food franchises.  I could walk anywhere in town from my house and, as long as I was home by dinner, I was allowed to roam. Looking back from the lens of parenthood and a world that feels more complicated and more dangerous than it did then, I realize what a gift that kind of childhood was.

Every summer we had a big Fourth of July celebration.  Our main park was also home to the fairgrounds and baseball diamonds, a community center and forest service offices.  Before the holiday weekend, a cavalcade of semis barreled into town and disgorged their sea-monsterish carnival parts while kids made excuses to hang out at the park and watch the carnies set up shop.  Elsewhere in the park, our local chapter of the Lions lined up trailers for food and beer in the concessions area by the playground and organized vintage fire trucks from five counties to participate in the parade.  A rodeo, a greased pig race on the baseball field, sack and three-legged races on the park lawn, music at the bandstand — our town transformed itself into a Norman Rockwell painting.  At least on the surface.

I loved all those things, of course, but what I really loved best was Sunday night, at the end of the holiday, when the demolition derby happened in the rodeo arena.  It was more popular than the rodeo, better attended than the parade, and every year the stands were so packed those who came late had to hang on the fence to watch.  Relative to the other events, it cost a lot of money to get in.  People had generally blown through whatever cash they’d allotted for the weekend by then, myself included, but that didn’t stop us.  The derby was the finale of our festivities.

The evening began with the rodeo queen and her court racing around the arena brandishing various flags.  Crammed into the tiny announcer’s booth, the school choir sang the national anthem.  After that the water trucks watered down the competition area to ensure cars would never get much traction.  The boy scouts sold popcorn and nuts, cotton candy and soda, and one of the rodeo clowns usually sat on the fence to entertain us in between events.  Derby cars caravanned slowly into the arena and parked facing the stands in a chevron so we could have a proper look at them.  Usually there were twelve or fifteen entries, sometimes more.  Inside, these cars had been stripped down — gas tanks moved to the back, roll bars installed, all the seats except for the driver’s and the glass taken out.  They were old Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Chryslers –trash-picked from junkyards or someone’s collection of vehicles from their land — implanted with engines that could withstand battle.  Cars were worked on all year in secret.  Drivers were people we knew from the bank and the hardware store, parents and teachers and firemen.  Once in the arena, derby drivers pulled themselves out of cars through driver’s side windows (the doors had been welded shut),  and then stood theatrically, often in costume, next to their rides.

The exterior of the car was the thing.  Painted, bedazzled, props welded to their tops, the cars were voted on by the audience before they even raced.  Voting was crude, the winner decided upon by the announcer for loudest applause.  I was generally hoarse from whistling and cheering before the destruction part ever started.

The suspense, until we got to see what we all came for, was delicious, tortuous.  In the beginning, three or four cars at a time would race in “circles” around the arena, like it was a NASCAR event.  There were several heats of this sort of racing so we could get a look at how each car performed.  After that, cars came back again in sets of three or four and ran the track backwards, and this was the beginning of lost bumpers, dented doors, radiators spewing hot fluid onto the arena floor.  Between heats, cars drove behind the arena to a place we couldn’t see, where each driver had a pit crew that kept the thing going for the big event.

The big event, when all hell broke loose, was, of course, what we’d all really come to see.  Event coordinators made us sit through a singer with a guitar, usually, or the rodeo clown doing his bit with a bull.  Water trucks mudded down the arena again.  We fidgeted through intermission, placed bets, loaded up on more snacks until cars limped back into the arena and staged themselves in a circle facing out.  The announcer gave the call.  Every engine gunned.  Sparks flew.  The din thrummed in our chests.  And then it began.  Drivers circled and rammed each other, ganged up on cars with popped tires and flattened back ends.  Props were severed from the tops of cars.  Some cars died early on, the driver required to sit inside until it was over.  Sometimes a dead car magically resurrected itself, able to battle again, a thrilling reversal of fortune.  I loved every minute of it.

Since that town, I’ve lived in several others that also host derbies.  One summer in my first few years of teaching a friend of mine from the city came to visit during our town’s Memorial Day celebration.  A die-hard urbanite who prided himself on visiting small towns only through drive-by, Brody was fascinated with the mule parade, the craft fair, and the rodeo, at which we featured chariot steer roping (which was more about how not to get ripped from your homemade, welded chariot by your horse than lassoing a hysterical steer calf).  He loved it all, but what he loved best was the destruction derby.

Because my husband was a paramedic, we were allowed access to the gate at the end of the arena.  Brody and I hung on the fence, close enough to get sprayed by mud, and watched people I worked with ram into each other.  Cars caught fire and got hooked together, waging attack as hybrid, two-car beasts.

A few minutes into the finale, Brody turned to me a little wild-eyed, and said, “Now I know how the Romans felt.”  He raised his fist into the air.  “Throw in some more Christians!”

Maybe my zeal for the derby grows from some primordial delight humans harbor for watching destruction.  Maybe it comes from the disjoint in witnessing people I know to be reasonable, thoughtful humans in their everyday lives step into an impulse that’s surprising, shocking.  I’m riveted by the marriage of art and savagery, of community and competition, of recycling and waste.

I’m in another small town now, and we have a derby here, too.   This year I’ll partake in the demolition again.  Only this time, I’ll be in the arena, driving an ’85 Cutlass.

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