Workin' For The Man
a country boy raised by hippie back-to-the-land parents from San Francisco. It wasn’t the easiest of cultural divides to bridge. Discussing why Reagan’s trickle-down ectonomics were a failure for the middle class while tossing bales of hay with your neighbors didn’t win me any friends, and is part of the reason why I repatriated back to San Francisco.
The one thing I really do miss about my bucolic upbringing is working with my hands. In the Sierra Nevada hinterlands, if something needed fixin’ you fixed it yourself, whether it was mending a fence or reforging a support bracket for a tractor. Lately, I’d been feeling the need to get my hands dirty again and started looking around for a project to be part of. I was put in contact with the gang at Five Ton Crane, who are building their latest natural wonder: the Nautilus.
If the name Five Ton Crane doesn’t immediately ring a bell, take a stroll down Market Street and hang a right at the Embarcadero. You see that giant silver Raygun Gothic Rocketship parked there? That’s theirs, as well as the Steampunk Treehouse in Oakland. These two projects salute all that is awesome in metalworking, and were both funded by the Black Rock Arts Foundation to be enjoyed at Burning Man.
This year, while the number of projects funded by the foundation was increased, the budget for each was decreased, so massive installations like these just weren’t going to be possible. It appeared that Five Ton Crane would not have a towering piece of art on the Playa. This was until Chris and Amber Marie Bently (longtime Burners and owners of downtown’s Bently Reserve) decided it was time they had a personal land-based version of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus submarine from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. This was something I could get behind and put my shoulder in to.
As I come into Five Ton Crane’s industrial wasteland warehouse space, I’m immediately confronted by the hulking mass of the Nautilus. At 25 feet long, 8 feet wide and 12 feet tall, it’s striking and shining like the beached metallic crustacean that it is.
I talk to Sean Orlando, the project’s artistic lead and he places me under the care of production manager, Cate Boadway. She immediately puts me to work drilling holes for rivets, which are actually just decorative. The entire hull has a nineteenth-century appearance of being riveted together, although this magical creature is being assembled with twentieth-century welding – yes, the freakin’ laser beam kind of welding.
The smell of hot, burning metal fills the air as others work to form various parts and smooth the spot welds in the skin as I finish up my session forming two small pieces of metal for the sides.
My next trip out to the studio shows many new changes. I go up to the top deck and encounter Sean outfitted in his welding leathers, trying to use two hands on the three hand job of welding the captain’s chair in place, so I give him some help putting it. Once everything is partially set, Sean sends me back to the tail to hand sand the spot welds so that once the skin is painted, everything will have an even, lustrous yet aged glow.
After sanding for a while, I rest to rebuild my elbow grease reserves and chat with David Shulman who is in charge of operations and electrical design. He explains to me that all of the controls of the drivetrain (electronic, pneumatic, mechanical, etc.) need to be moved up top to connect with the steering components and other elements that I had just been helping Sean to put in place.
Like a kid in a candy shop, David becomes giddy as he tells me what’s going to make the Nautilus roll. In researching what to build it on, the crew came across an aircraft tow tractor. You know those four-wheeled things you see dragging jet airplanes around the airport on the tarmac? One of those.
With four-wheel drive and slow, lumbering power, the crew is of the opinion that the tractor will wheel the Nautilus around with power to spare. There’s a lot of work to be done – it’s no easy feat converting an aircraft tug into a land-based submarine.
The canopy has been built, the controls are fully moved up top, the doors and “iris” bulkheads have gone into place to get it Burning Man ready. I’m eyeing all of the progress while caulking in the welds and seams so that the Nautilus can be painted. Next, a clear coat is applied to the interior, and the exterior gets a coat of rugged gunmetal blue. We wait for the paint to dry.
With the paint set, it’s time for the interior to go in. I work with the interior designer, Bree Hylkema, who, with others, has been building the interior of the Nautilus while the metal work has been going on. The amazing work of her team becomes apparent as we mount the library, the map room, and a fully functional bar. A variety of mock gauges give it that truly submarine-y look.
The days get more and more busy. We test out the sound system, nodding in approval at the surround sound inside as well as outside the Nautilus. The lights lining the outside of the hull look as if Jules Verne and Tron got involved in an intimate relationship. I can hardly wait to see how well the periscope will work with its night vision abilities when the driver feels like going into stealth mode.
On my last day at the studio, I walk around and take in the nearly finished Nautilus that is just about to be loaded onto a trailer that was bought specifically for terrestrial submarine transportation. What a glorious beast this is going to be as it cruises across the Playa in search of adventure, ready to take on the world, or at least the desert outside of Reno. The Captain is in.
For those ditching San Francisco to get in a week of partying on the alkali sands of Burning Man, you will most definitely see this bad boy cruising around. And if not, stay tuned, because in the third week of October, Sean Orlando will be giving a talk at Landor & Associates at 1001 Front Street with the Nautilus parked out front.
Fear not if you’ve missed out on being part of this project. Once the decompression parties are over, the planning for the next Burn gets underway. Talk to the Black Rock Arts Foundation if you want to lend a hand to some fun art project bound for Nevada in 2012. Making crazy ideas a reality is what gives Burning Man its pulse.