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Mr. Fliptron Goes to Burning Man

'Vault of Heaven' theme sends artists to the moon

By Gretchen Giles

Stripped to the waist, his head still wet from the shower, Fliptron stands barefoot in the garage of his Graton home. "I," he intones with magnificence, "have been commissioned by five aliens to build a space ship. Me and 10,000 of my friends have the key to a galaxy where everyone's a kid."

Ringed by his girlfriend Soozatron, good friend Lezlee and the refreshingly named John Whisman, Flip is the only one not laughing.

A 42-year-old solar installation expert, Fliptron (needless to say, his mother didn't christen him such) is preparing to go to Burning Man, the instant art-nation of 30,000-plus people that springs up over Labor Day weekend in the buff alkaline powders of the high Nevada desert each year.

In keeping with this year's "Vault of Heaven" theme, Flip and friends are indeed aiming to levitate. The balsa wood and cardboard creation up on blocks behind him in the garage will be outfitted not only with a green alien figure waving from its top, but with a full hovercraft system on its bottom. Once thus configured, Fliptron's spaceship will hover 16 feet above the desert floor, also known as the Playa, and travel at the somewhat fantastic speed of 5 mph, in the air.

But will it work?

"The aliens have assured me that it will," Fliptron says with all evident seriousness, while his friends openly crack up around him. "But," he adds slyly, "spaceships don't always go as fast you'd like them to."

Named Garuda after the half-man/half-bird Hindu creature that mythology relates was Vishnu's transport, this spaceship began as something far less elegant in Fliptron's imagination.

Starting many sentences with the telling phrase, "When I was 12," he remembers how, as a kid growing up in Occidental, he used to be taken to Dillon Beach to play. There, on a hill above the dunes, was the Nicholas turkey farm, famous for such large-breasted butterballs that the animals couldn't stand upright as Thanksgiving drew near. Flip and friends pretended that the farm's buildings were variously army barracks, an evil fortress or space ranger strongholds. Naturally enough, when it came to build an art vehicle for Burning Man this year, he considered honoring the Nicholas turkey by finally granting such a front-heavy figure its flight. Until of course, as now, friendly laughter prevailed.

The far more regal Garuda is planned to be 29 feet tall and 39 feet long. Its innards are made from, yes, balsa wood and cardboard, but also fashioned of bungee cords, an old metal lamp base and various hula hoops. Torn up grocery bags form its papier-mâché cover, soon to be painted a fantastic red and silver.

Fliptron and his friends are members of the Mystic Beat Lounge, a crew of some 200 North Bay souls who make the annual Burning Man pilgrimage and camp loosely together on the Playa in the self-governing civic model of Burning Man known as Black Rock City.

Zack Darling, an area DJ and graphic artist who is a member of the Mystic Beat Lounge, will be bringing his own art vehicle, the Empyrean Cruiser. Garuda's dimensions are not accidental; the ship is exactly conformed to be a foot taller and a foot longer than Darling's machine. Like any canny 12-year-old, Fliptron planned it that way, so that he and Darling can enact intergalactic warfare together on the Playa, Garuda being just a noxious skosh bigger.

"It's the rocket ship from my childhood," he says. "The one that Wily E. Coyote flew after the roadrunner on."

The Burning Man festival is lauded for many things. It creates a wholly anticorporate culture with no name brands or logos allowed. Even those who arrive on the Playa in rented RVs are expected to cover up the name of the rental company.

This instant society is gift-based, with the only items for sale being the life-saving staples of ice and coffee. No one is allowed to simply gawk at the half-naked and fully naked Burners careening about because everyone must participate. Every essential needed for human life, beginning and ending with water, must be self-provided, meaning that each Burner is required to take full responsibility for himself or herself.

Art and community are the soul and being of the festival. People get married, last year a young woman died and countless babies are surely conceived within its shifting environs.

For the inexperienced, Burning Man also has a whiff of the fabulously horrid. The spectre of 30,000 people, many of them enlivened by substance, can put some visitors off.

"There are lots of lucid people," Fliptron assures. "Those preconceptions are wrong," Whisman adds.

"It's a very good cross-section of a cross-section of society," Flip quips. "A melting-cross-pot section," Whisman one-ups.

The Burning Man website offers a full day's reading, and one feels that it's possible to know, from the comfy environs of home, what the festival is like and why men like Fliptron would spend all their extra money and time building a spaceship. He and his friends disagree.

"They can't tell you where you're going to go emotionally," he says. Whisman adds, "They can't tell you the intangible human experience you've going to have. They can't tell you the sense of community that you're going to feel. It's the same sense some of us had as Deadheads," he grins.

Quickly, Fliptron says, "But the great thing with Burning Man is that you don't have to listen to the Grateful Dead."

Lezlee chuckles and says seriously, "You get a sense of 'I can.' You go out there and see the incredible things that people do and you think, 'I can do anything.'"

Fliptron smiles. "Exactly. I can build a spaceship out of cardboard in my garage and take it out and have a ball."

A fundraising party to put the finishing touches on the Garuda and help send Fliptron to Burning Man is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 19, at 7pm. Opera singer Carol Luna, musicians, fire dancers and more are promised. Mexican Lindo, 9030 Graton Road, Graton. $10 donation. Playa wear encouraged. 707.823.6682.

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From the August 18-24, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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