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[whitespace] Steve Hosking
Photograph by Scotty Rogers

Dragon's Breath: Steve Hosking holds the keyboard that controls Satan's Calliope.

Hell's Bells

An engineer's devilish art car produces great balls of fire at Burning Man

By Sarah Phelan

STEVE HOSKING'S HOUSE is easy to spot: Everyone can see Satan's Calliope parked out front. An ordinary calliope is a musical instrument resembling an organ and consisting of a series of whistles sounded by steam, all of which conspire to produce a pleasantly cheerful sound.

Whereas Satan's Calliope, as might be expected, creates a hellish cacophony, as if a herd of dinosaurs were roaring between bursts of artillery fire--a description that would no end please the 48-year-old Hosking, who has piercings, earrings and a shaved head and calls himself an old-school punk rocker.

"Any sounds coming out of Satan's Calliope that resemble Western music are an unfortunate accident," says Hosking, who owns three degrees in engineering (electrical, mechanical and computer) and labels his creation "a punk-rock engineering thesis."

But as anyone who knows the first thing about the Devil would expect, Satan's Calliope isn't just a buncha noise. Hell no. Up and running, this beast belches out what Hosking tenderly refers to as "dragon's breath": great balls of fire that whoosh 20 feet into the air above his head.

The story of Satan's Calliope begins in June 1998 when Hosking went for an audition as a bass guitarist, which he didn't get. "But the dude had pictures from Burning Man, and he was looking for a crew," Hosking recalls. The dude at the audition was art-car designer Carl Dekart, who was trying to convert a PopeMobile for Burning Man 1998.

Dekart, who has joined me outside to watch Hosking tinker with his wheeled demon, explains how in 1996 (when his VW was still a normal green bug) he was inspired to create a PopeMobile featuring a bullet-ridden pope mannequin. But by '98, he had concluded that he and the pope were clearly not from the same planet.

"And since I could safely assume that I was from this planet, I figured the pope must be an alien. Hence the need to switch to a space bug," says Dekart, who, with Hosking's help, riveted a large aluminum basket of pie-shaped strips over his car's ribs.

"And once I did that, there was no way I could engineer the doors to work again," Dekart says with a laugh. "So I decided to turn the skylight into an entry hatch. And once I did that, I had to remove most of the seats."

TODAY, DEKART has three VW bugs in his space fleet, all of which must be entered through the lid and have only one seat upholstered with a faux leopard-skin cover yet travel faster than before. As Hosking explains, "Carl is more of the artist, but I made him into a pro by using cheap materials but aircraft-style construction."

Between June and September 1998, Hosking and Dekart busted knuckles, sawed metal and popped rivets to create the first space bug to hurtle down the road to the Black Rock desert, site of Burning Man. When they arrived it was 4am, and Hosking was too exhausted and disoriented to take in where he was.

"So I took a nap, and when I woke up, the first thing I did was take off my clothes, put on my big old hat and gallons of sunblock. Then I took a hike in the desert, buck naked except for my pointy hat, which is worn by nomadic tribesmen in the Sahara badlands."

What he found blew his mind.

"I came across a tiniesque go-cart--a pulse-jet engine--which was making a noise like a low G on a bass guitar." And though Hosking was half a mile away, when its creator finally let it off, he recognized it from the note it was playing.

"It was a very obnoxious sound, given that the exhaust was only 10 inches off the ground, and I could see a cloud of dust rising in the back of the camp, But by time I got there, the guy had disappeared without a trace, as if the tornado that took Dorothy away had got him. I figured his neighbors had killed and buried him, on account of the annoying noise," recalls Hosking, who spent the next few nights ogling insane art cars and rusty contraptions.

"One guy had a living room built on a truck and was serving margaritas from a couch which had a tiller allowing him to navigate," Hosking recalls. "And there were these iron skeletons of birds with two wings which flapped erratically and hysterically like a fish, but making a roar at mid C and turning bright orange as they ran."

ALL OF WHICH inspired Hosking so much that when he got back to Santa Cruz he spent $2,200 on a fancy welder and bits and pieces from surplus stores, which he cobbled together into a jet-pulse engine.

"I managed to get it fired up a little during Burning Man 1999, and it was a real crowd pleaser," boasts Hosking, who by Burning Man 2000 had completely built the body, along with electronic speed control, two computers and a plug-in keyboard that he hung around his neck, so he could play the 14 organ pipes, while dragon's breath whooshed all around. The act drew a crowd of 3,000 on the night of the Burn.

"It was the nearest I've ever come to being a rock star."

To date, Hosking has sunk $15,000 and 3,000 hours into his creation. Even so, getting Satan's Calliope up and running isn't easy. When not in use, the bare-ribbed beast crouches on a trashed Harley Davidson golf cart, its J-shaped custom bent pipes gently rusting. But when it's show time, it takes Hosking 130 strokes from what he calls a "crappy old golf-cart charger" to get the creature, er, erect.

"I want to rip off some poor unsuspecting lowrider and steal his hydraulic pump," Hosking jokes, as he cranks the instrument into place, thereby revealing the innards of the beast, which include a ton of valves, wires, batteries and copper tubes. Not to mention 30 gallons of liquid propane, which fuel the minivan-sized balls of dragon's breath and vaporize instantly, thereby posing "absolutely no danger of fire" Hosking assures me.

This August, Hosking and Satan's Calliope are members of Burning Man's Camp Coup d'état, which so far numbers about 30 people, including Burning Man diehards Michelle Brick, Chris Brick, Amy Wright and Scotty Rogers.

"We're like little kids waiting for Christmas. Burning Man is what makes the other 51 weeks worthwhile," says Hosking, who typically travels to Burning Man with Dekart in a cool-looking caravan of space bugs. As Hosking puts it, "The main hazard to navigation comes from all the yuppies hanging out of windows, seatbeltless, to videotape the event."

On July 7 of this year, Satan's Calliope was the opening act for Point Arena's Independence Day celebration. Hosking, who wants to do special effects for movies, pyro for rock & roll concerts and big choreographed fire fountains, hopes to debut Satan's Calliope in Santa Cruz as part of the October fireworks birthday celebration, First Night or the Fourth of July.

"I'm the engineer from hell, and I'm hoping to spread the light and amusement around," says Hosking with a devilish smile. "A little notoriety is a good thing."

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From the August 22-29, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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