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When the Burning Man folks met the Air Force guys, the desert camping tips flew

Wednesday, Apr 16 2003
A hot rumor swept S.F. at the end of last month -- were Burning Man staffers giving advice on desert survival to the U.S. military?

The gossip even reached the ears of Chronicle editors, who dispatched a reporter to besiege Burning Man Mistress of Information Marion Goodell for details. The scribe claimed her editors were demanding she return with the scoop on Burning Man's military collaboration.

Dog Bites has learned that the real story is somewhat less startling. Burning Man staffers did speak about the logistics of setting up large desert encampments with the military -- retired military, that is.

Seems Sunnyvale's chapter of the Air Force Association, a group of retired military personnel and Air Force fanciers, had a speaker cancel on its March monthly meeting. Gaylord Green, the association's program organizer, had heard from a friend about an interesting talk Marion Goodell had given at Stanford. He decided to invite her as a substitute speaker to discuss how Burning Man sets up and takes down a giant temporary city in harsh conditions.

"Military guys have to do this all the time, go into the desert and set something up quickly and then have it be gone," says Green, a retired Air Force colonel and a program manager for Stanford's Hansen Labs' Gravity Probe B, a satellite designed to test Einstein's general theory of relativity. "I thought it might be a little strange to have the Burning Man folks, because most of our members -- well, the average age is about 65 and they're pretty conservative. But what the heck."

Goodell couldn't make it, so she sent Burning Man's Department of Public Works Chief of Staff Will Roger and Site Manager Tony Perez, who walked into something of a surreal scene.

"It was in this Sunnyvale hotel banquet room with the partitions, and I'm 43 and I was the youngest person in the room," says Perez. "We had Salisbury steak, which I last had about 15 years ago in a TV dinner, and guys in hearing aids were looking funny at my earrings."

The dinner started off with a sing-along to "My Country 'Tis of Thee," which caused Perez and Roger further agitation.

"Thank God the lyrics were printed on my place mat," says Perez. "I had no idea they had two verses in that song! Did you know there were two verses?"

Dog Bites did not.

The presentation nonetheless went well, says Perez. The toughest part was finding 80 slides to show with "minimal nudity."

"They were most interested in the Burning Man cafe, which is about an acre of shade that has to withstand 100 mph winds," says Perez. "And La Contessa -- that's a school bus that's been turned into a 16th-century Spanish galleon. But they seemed to dig it; I got these really nice hearty handshakes from people when we were done, and a lot of questions about how we handled water, garbage, dust storms, things like that."

For their part, Air Force Association members, who rewarded the speakers with official AFA eagle-emblazoned beer mugs, were mostly impressed by their introduction to Burning Man.

"My God, they had a bus that looked like the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria -- one of those," says Armand Petri, who writes the Sunnyvale chapter Air Force Association newsletter. "They got 29,000 people out there in the desert; that's sheer madness! And I thought Bakersfield was the balls of hell."

Some Air Force Association members who looked at Burning Man's Web site after the meeting weren't too impressed with festival attendees' liberal attitude toward clothing ("I got some complaints later about the nudity and the clothing and what have you," says Green). But all in all they agreed that the tête-à-tête was at least interesting, particularly in times when the United States is waging its own desert maneuvers.

About The Author

Joyce Slaton


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