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Here you will find random bits of me

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

tales to tell: camels and roses

with my daughter, alexis, finding me after so many years, i’ve been telling her many of the adventures i’ve undertaken in the past few decades and filling her in on what she’s never been told of things that took place during our 31-years of separation.

not that i necessarily need something to lubricate my desire to tell a story. but, many tales have been coming back to mind as of late.

for several years i was the master of ceremonies of several special events centered in and around northern nevada; best known would have to be the 6th largest gathering of harley-davidson sycophants in the country: reno’s street vibrations (short rant that harley owners should avoid ~ if you detect a bit of disdain in my writing you are not wrong: after having ridden {and raced} real motorcycles for most of my life, i find it difficult to get excited over a second-rate motorcycle manufacturer that admittedly builds its bikes for looks and sound and not to be the best product on the market. even worse: they are an american manufacturer; doesn’t say much about this country. and don’t give me any shit about harley ruling the dragstips, flat tracks and other racing venues; the only reason they can compete with the suzukis, yamahas and hondas: the sanctioning bodies require the much more powerful and more efficient inline engine-powered bikes be much heavier than the severely underpowered and antiquated v-twins. the only sanctioning body that does not handicap the real motorcycle manufacturers, as far as i am aware, is the southern california timing association. scta created a special category just for push rod engines. meaning: the harley owners don’t have to whine that they can’t compete with the real motorcycles and can still set a record, albeit a very limp-wristed entry into the book. allow me to give you an example of the imbalance of parity in the performance of two drastically different bikes: over 30 years ago my friend, doral echardt, rode his 350cc yamaha at a record speed of 165 mph on the bonneville salt flats, which happens to be the current record for 1350cc push rod {harley} motorcycles; 1000cc’s and 30+-years later and the harleys are still stumbling along using nearly 70-year-old technology. my favorite saying regarding the quality {or, lack thereof} of hardly-ablesome motorcycles is: “if harley made an airplane would you fly in it?” if you answered “yes”, you are a sycophant, a fool or just have a death wish! that’s why so many attendees of biker rallies around the country tow their harleys instead of riding them. if your ego is that lacking: go see a psychiatrist; don’t make me and the rest of the country listen to your overly-loud trash-heap! they may be slow but they sure are loud. and the excuse that “loud pipes save lives” not only makes us listen to your nickel-dick bike, but implies that your safety is our responsibilities. most harley owners that i’ve seen {and i’ve directly dealt with thousands and indirectly seen thousands more of you prove the following point} shouldn’t be attempting to ride on a vespa let alone something as large and heavy as a dinosaur. end of rant.); my favorite, however, was the virginia city international camel races.

it is through the v.c. camel races that i was bestowed the honorary title of mayor, which won’t get me a free drink at the delta saloon (maybe at the bucket of blood... maybe) but is still pretty-damn-cool.

it is also through the v.c. (pronounced: vee-cee) camel races that i found myself walking down colorado boulevard in pasadena, california on new years day of 2000 as a member of the virginia city entry in the 111th annual tournament of roses parade.

all of this fell together at the last minute, which had roadshows, the company that produces street vibes and many other special events around the county – including myrtle beach bike week (where i worked for, you guessed it: harley) and the former producer of the v.c. camel races (it is unfortunate for my fair town of virginia city that roadshows no longer produces that event as the camel races are not what they used to be) was scrambling to get ready in time to head south out of reno on the day after christmas and down to l.a.

part of the deal was that we were supposed to bring as many stage backdrops and facades as was in the warehouse so we could build a small western town right outside the rose bowl while the tournament’s equestfest and bandfest took place in the days leading up to the parade and the game (all i remember is that stanford was one of the teams playing that day. the only reason i remember that is because of their band: apparently, the stanford band is known for its “individualized” uniforms and on-field antics. the game, itself, interested me not in the least, as per usual.). it is also just across the park from one of the float construction sites, which i never did have the opportunity to get over there to take a peek.

in strict roadshow fashion, we jock strapped the town together in one day and was set up and ready to run camel races on the following day.

camel races at the rose bowl?

that’s right!

well, we ran exhibition camel races right outside the arena as the grounds crew works for days to get ready for the new years day game. but, we were definitely on the grounds of the famous stadium and for several days we had camel races (more like sprints in the confined area being used for equestfest) until mid-afternoon of december 3o, 1999 when joann and i left to go get the motor home in which we and the rest of the crew would sleep (try to, in my case) and dress into our costumes for the parade.

with that date in mind, let me remind you of a little non-event known as y2k and how the world was going to come to an abrupt end.

well… figuratively at least!

allow me to set the scene:

we are in the city of my birth: los angeles, perhaps, the most insane city in the world and we, not only need to get ready for a parade (that may or may not happen depending on just how many computers go down and take us all with them), but we have to buy a week’s worth of groceries, drinking water and valium so we can make a hasty escape to someplace safe(?) in the mojave desert.

socal may have changed a lot since i left west covina when it was still livable, but i can still find my way into the mojave.

the first thing i did when i got up that last morning of the previous millennium was to turn on the news to see what was taking place in other parts of the world: new zealand was celebrating the new day and their infrastructure was still up and running. i had to reason that if my kiwi friends were good to go the rest of the planet should be able to have our y-2-cake-and-eat-it-too (thanks, adrian!).

earth would live to see another day.

despite bringing a few of the roadshows crew with us and the crew our two camel wranglers brought, we still needed another wrangler to walk one of the baby camels. my brother, mark, and his family were still living in socal at that time. so, i was able to secure him to join our entry – while his wife, tracy – shuttled the motor home from the staging area to the post-parade area.

we mustered near santa anita raceway park at around 10pm, parked the cars and boarded the motor home to take us into the party zone on colorado boulevard to ring-in the new year, hoping that the predicted terrorist attacks would not make us a part of history.

we found a convenient place to park and made our way to one of the (mostly) vacant grandstands erected for the parade and awaited the strike of midnight and fireworks while corn tortilla frisbees, by the thousands, soared through the air and noise makers and contraband firecrackers heralded the coming new year.

just as y2k fizzled into nothing, so did the terrorist actions predicted for pasadena. we re-mustered back at the motor home and headed to our staging area, on a closed section of a freeway, where the other equestrian units were gathering (i guess since camels have four legs they are categorized as equestrian units and didn’t know what else to do with us); the bands assembled just above us on one of the area streets and the floats staged on orange grove, just up from the wrigley mansion, which is the home of the tournament of roses.

we got settled-in at about 0130 hours, but i was too amped-up to grab any sleep. so, mark and i roamed the closed traffic lanes for the lack of something better. eventually, i was able to drift-off for about 15-minutes before it was time to get into our costumes.

the real equestrian units were required to be costumed and mounted 90-minutes before parade time. our unit was allowed to wait to mount until we walked our camels to within about 500 feet of orange grove, so the camels could hoosh (kneel down) onto one of the lawns so we could climb aboard. as a thank you to the owner of the house whose lawn was used, we left them with a complimentary load, or six, of dromedary manure. they just seemed happy to have these ships of the desert in their front yard.

even with the exception of being able to mount later than the rest of the equestrian units, we still had to get up and be ready 45-minutes before the parade began.

it was soon after we climbed aboard our camels, i mentioned that with the dense cloud cover and drizzle we were experiencing that morning (did i forget to tell you that the 2000 rose parade was the first parade to suffer rain in something like 30-years?) the b-2 stealth bomber and its f-15 escorts might not be able to do their flybys. which caused both owners of the camels to warn us to hang on as they might not take to the noise created by the high performance fighter planes.

oh great!

that’s all i need is to have my ass 7-feet in the air as clyde, my trusty mount, races at full speed to hide in egypt or the sudan or australia, where there are many feral camels roaming the outback.

i could hear the fighter jets circling above the parade route for several minutes before they made their appearance. suddenly, like a scene from the movie “independence day” (where the alien spacecraft drops out of a cloud) the b-2 slowly showed itself, along with its roaring escorts, and flew over colorado boulevard for the length of the route.

clyde and his contemporaries paid the jets no mind.

clyde, the friendliest of all the camels, was a real gentleman. not that any of the camels had bad attitudes. i’ve spent much time around many camels and have never seen one of them get nasty. but, clyde had a bit of a personality and actually seemed to enjoy the attention. the baby camel that mark escorted was so adorable: i wanted to take him home with me when he started to suck on my fingers; i’m a sucker for sucklers.

several months later, when joann and i hit the nevada state fair to collect her blue ribbons for her porcelain dolls (i think that was the year she did the blues singers??) we passed a small petting zoo with a fully grown and one baby camel. i told joann the big one looked like clyde at which she scoffed. sure enough, it was one of the camel owner’s petting zoo; the baby was the camel that mark lead during the parade and the big one was clyde.

eventually, it was our turn to enter orange grove in front of the wrigley mansion and join the parade.

one of the things the parade officials told all of the units was: wave only with your left hand as all the tv cameras are on the right side of the road and they don’t want hands in front of faces. the other thing they told us was: dehydrate ourselves as the only relief is by doing what the nascar drivers do: pee in your clothing.

i’m too old (or maybe too young) for that!

none of our camels had actual camel saddles. instead, we just sat on their humps. now, that may sound comfortable since the hump is made-up of fat. but, that fat is as hard as a tabletop.

by the time we got to the famous turn in the route at orange grove and colorado, i was beginning to get comfortable(?) with my position on clyde’s hump to the point that i was able to sit like a bedouin, with one leg wrapped around the hump and tucked under the other with balance being the greatest trouble.

as we rounded the bend in the route, with me sitting bedouin-style, the baby camel that mark was walking ran into clyde’s backside. the sudden jolt took away my balance, which caused me to quickly drop both legs to clyde’s sides and grab the lead for dear life. later, as we were watching the replay of the parade on tv, it was my misfortune to be in a two-shot with clyde as i fearfully hung on sporting a look of terror on my face as i grappled for safety. fortunately, that was not my only 15-minutes.

one of the things i used to enjoy about living in socal back in the 70s was that my comedic heroes, the firesign theatre, used to provide their own – mostly improvised – narrative and commentary on the rose parade. so, we’d watch it on channel 11 and listen to fst on kppc, kmet, klos or whatever station might run their surreal depiction.

after the parade i learned that fst were, indeed, out on colorado, not only providing their entertaining account, they were actually interviewing some of the entries.

damn! i wish i’d known that.

i can hear it now: pete bergman says: ”and now, dear friends, we have rocky rococo’s camel corps. you know… rocky actually hand breeds each camel in the corps. hi, rocky!” to which, phil proctor would say in rocky’s voice: “i’m rocky rococo at your cevix!”.

or, something like that.

prior to entering the parade route, my image of the attendees was just a sea of undistinguishable faces.

not the case at all!

it was, in fact, quite intimate: i made eye contact with thousands of people and had short conversations with maybe a hundred or more: ” where are you from?” “virginia city!” what’s it like riding a camel?” “horrible!” “can i ride, too?”…

the beaming smile on my face was not that of a performer!

at several points along the route, i’d look down and back at mark and he’d look up at me and we’d both say: “we’re in the rose parade!” of course, not being in a marching band, beauty queens or the late george putnam on horseback, we had no reason to ever believe that we would have that opportunity.

several days later we reached the end of the route and my bladder capacity. actually the latter was reached a number of miles previous. upon reaching the end of the route the parade officials, however, notified us that the closest portable toilets were another ¾ of a mile away. who the hell plans an event like that?

but, we all survived the parade, y2k, and were even able to get down the road before the parade attendees clogged the roads trying to get home.

much like being involved in the filming of “the world’s fastest indian”: it was an experience i will never forget and one that i never want to repeat.

that is: unless i’m invited back to either.

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