In his autobiography, MY WICKED WICKED WAYS, Errol Flynn discovers that ducks possess the ability to pass a chunk of bacon through their system in an incredibly short time: from beak end to back end in eight minutes. He further discovers that if the greasy morsel is attached to a fishing line the line can be pulled back and forth like a string through a big webfooted bead. Thus the same morsel can be entered into a second duck, and a third, and a fourth and so on, until he has threaded eight ducks front to rear in a little more than an hour.
By this time the waterfowl are understandably impatient with their predicament and ready to take to the air. So young Flynn ties the hind duck's line to the end still hanging out of the front duck's bill, then shoos them into circular flight. Round and round they fly, a feathery pinwheel, ascending into avian glory.
"Well done, Flynn," he congratulates himself. "You have created the world's first flying duck necklace."
I once owned a mynah bird named Squirt. I traded a pair of smuggled Tijuana parrots for him at an LA pet store called Harram's Animal Harem. There was a corner bus stop just outside the pet store door and the bird had learned to mimic all the bus sounds-- air breaks, horn honks, bus doors, even gear shifts as the bus pulled away. That was to remain the main body of the messy bird's repertoire. The only words he ever spoke were "Hello, Squirt," or "Hey, Squirt," or "Damn you, Squirt!" --this schtick usually being punctuated by the sound of the actual action. I clocked him with various fares. He turned in his best times with grapes. He could snag a tossed concord out of the air and squirt the skin and seeds back into the air in about ten minutes.
Not as fast as Errol Flynn's ducks but then Squirt eschewed pork. I think the pet store proprietor might have been of the Moslem persuasion.
I've read that a shrew can pass an indigestable fire ant so fast that the insect hits the ground skittering. And my Uncle Jess claimed that the Arkansas tumblebug (AKA dung beetle) processes his rations so rapidly that it's difficult to discern which end is which.
And what, you might ask, brings these speedy metabolisms to mind? Well, it's the opposite end of that quick schtick-- namely the New York publishing proccess. A finished manuscript fed into the front of that literary gut usually takes a year or more before it starts squirting out the rear. Front to rear, an entire year. Now this plodding process probably doesn't do much damage to historical romances or cookbooks or detective action potboilers, but there are works that need to find their audience before the issue arrives. For example, John Barlow's HOW TO SQUASH THE MILLENIUM BUG! is not going to go flying off the shelves in the year 2001. Stewert Brand's TOOLS YOU NEED FOR EL NINO won't be of much use after the destructive little vandal sonofabitch has done his weathery worst and headed home.
How much more worthless, then, are works TO HELP YOU SURVIVE THE TIME OF THE END if said works don't come out until THE END has come and been?
And this brings us to TWISTER!
Several years ago I began to notice something different in some of the faces on the evening news, in particular the faces of disaster victims-- rainswollen Mississippi flood faces; San Francisco earthquake faces, shaken to the core; ripped-to-ribbons Tornado Alley faces... phizogs of ordinary folks scrambled together by extraordinary predicaments, passing sandbags up a dissolving dike or passing concrete rubble down from a freeway collapsed on moaning motorists... strong faces of all colors, ages, and castes, all united in a mutual effort... displayed right there on nationwide TV, faces rich with an expression rarely seen on the evening news. It was a look of strength, and, well, of sanity is what it was: sanity.
--of Strength and Sanity.
It was such a rich vein I was inspired to try to mine and deal it -- take it on the road like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney: "I got it! let's put on a show!"
We would call the show TWISTER! A Musical Catastrophe for the Millenium's End-- set it in the Land of Oz, people it with a cast of archetypes ranging from the clearly obvious characters, like the Tinman and the Scarecrow, to the murky and mysterious, like Elvis and Frankenstein... scramble them all together in ever-bickering banter until they're all crazy at each other's throats, then snap them into sanity with a lastminute tearjerker twist gauranteed to touch everbody's heart.
Fortunately, I already had an idea for the character I wanted to deliver that twist: the spirit of a little girl that got trapped in a car beneath a Covina mall after an earthquake. My angel character was inspired by that little girl trapped beneath the tons of ruin brought down on her by the Mexico City quake. Search-and-rescue squads could hear her beneath tons of rubble, calmly calling and talking. They lowered a microphone through a crack the better to hear her as they labored to remove the slabs of ferroconcrete. She bravely kept talking day and night for close to a week while the rescuers--and the rest of the world-- listened. The little voice finally went silent just hours before they reached her.
I also had the perfect kid play the part: a shirt-tail in-law on my daughter's husband's side, named Emily Messmer-- long, dark tresses; bright-black eyes; intelligent face... plus that thoroughbred glow that some colts seem to be born with regardless of their bloodline. These colts seem to hit the racetrack already galloping full out.
Emily Messmer. Perfect. But as the show's opening drew near, a certain unhealthy anxiety began to creep like mildew through the rest of the Twister troupe: Was it wise to pin the whole play's success on the performance of one untested youngster? The angel's speech was the longest in the script-- three pages. Could she she memorize that much? Could she survive a freezing attack of stage fright? Could she strum a dark room full of sour untuned heartstrings into harmonic accord?
Our first show was performed after the Eugene Grateful Dead gig in the summer of '93, We had rented the National Guard Armory right across the street from the Oregon football stadium. The Armory was completely packed and miserably hot. The sound system was cranked up so loud people could barely hear. And as our little pit band of Jambay marched timidly into the play's overture, everybody realized that the mighty Grateful Dead was going to be a mighty tough act to follow.
Trains boomed past the hall so loud and close we had to shot the backdoors. The audience fidgeted and fussed on the noisy folding chairs, as they fanned their faces with Twister programs. Overhead a platoon of Armory air conditioners droned uselessly. Our damned wireless mikes distorted and sizzled like meat frying in hell. Halfway through the first act all the cast had their mouths full of cotton and their memories boiled dry. We would've rung down the curtain if we had a curtain.
We did have, thank heaven, an angel. Little Emily was the only one of us that had the class to act like a professional. She never missed a line or muffed a word. She didn't freeze up or break character. Her very entrance was a show-stopper; the crowd's fussing ceased the moment she floated on stage, clad all in heavenly white satin with dovefeather wings and a tinfoil halo. The programs stopped fanning. The chairs ceased squeeking. Even the air conditioners ground to respectful silence. These were GI air conditioners; they could recognise rank when it walked in. So could a roomful of Deadheads. There wasn't word nor wiggle until Angel Gloria delivered her closing lines-- "That's all. Vaya con Dios," and turned to exit.
She got a standing ovation.
She was seven years old.
During the following seasons of Twister the rest of us worked on nailing down our lines and cleaning up our acts, in large part because our little angel's act was so classy. Her confidence was catching. We didn't despair when things got a little ragged in the early acts. We knew we had the ace of trumps stashed up our sleeve, ready and waiting for the final hand. This angel ace was a surefire show-stopper everytime we played it... except for the 4th of July Boulder show.
Allen Ginsberg and the Boulder Buddhists had set up the gig in a big old-fashioned movie house downtown. The curtain was supposed to go up at 9:30, right after the fireworks display in the City Park. But the fireworks started late and the spectators got a little bit dry. Then the fireworks went long and the spectators got whole lot soused. It was 11:30 before our audience came staggering in, loud and loose.
There was a bar at the back of the theater and they got looser and louder as play proceeded-- especially this ale-guzzling gang from London. It was hard to tell if they were high or merely Houligans. Maybe they thought they were at a football match and we were the Welsh. They hooted and jeered and catcalled cockney criticisms all through the play, even when Ginsberg did his cameo as the Rabbi Judah Buddha Whitman.
When the Angel at long last made her entrance, the loudest limey of them all brayed, "Aoh nao! Not anether bleedin' clee-shay!"
Emily had faced unruly behavior before, but never insulting behavior. She stopped in midline, taken aback. She studied the noisy crowd in silence for a few moments, then turned slowly around. Uh-oh, I fretted; is she going panic? Is she going to let this trashmouth rabble spook her off the stage? "Not bleedin' likely," the black glisten in her eyes assured me. She resumed her speech, to us alone, her back turned quite emphaticly to the audience.
When they were scolded quiet enough to suit her she turned back around. The remainder of her lines were delivered like a severe reprimand, straight at the obstreperous Englishman. He wilted like a cheap candle in a hot church.
At Bumbershoot up in Seattle just before our next-to-the-last show, a real earthquake demolished the real Covina mall. I was compelled to ask "What'd you think when you heard about that, Angel?"
"I wasn't surprised," she shrugged
So that's Emily Messmer. She's in the sixth grade now. Her hair is short, purple, and parted in the middle. Her eyes still glisten and she's still got that thoroughbred glow.
If you want to hear the real racetrack skinny about youth of today you oughta get it right from the colt's mouth.
Now that I'm into it I remember another incident that planted the notion of doing a story about the way a tornado effects a town. It also happened years ago, after my old writing class classmate, Larry McMurtry, drove me to Fort Wayne Texas for a look at the devastation a twister can leave. The town had literally been ripped to shreds. Groves of trees were wrapped in tin roofing. Fields and lots were sorted by catagories-- studs and siding stacked in this field; screen-doors and chicken wire stacked in that. Bricks were thoughtfully piled back in the brickyard they had come from.
The wind had wheeled into town right down Main Street. Across the road all the houses were fine-- unruffled as hens in their neatly clipped nests. Across the sidewalk to the right was a different story. It looked as though a rotary mower half a block wide had mowed through the houses.
"That's where my sister's family lived," Larry pointed. "It was their wedding anniversay. My brother-in-law gave Sis an elegent glass budvase he'd picked up in Dallas. She put a yellow-rose-of-Texas in it and had just set it on a coffee tab when they heard the warning siren. When the family finally came up out of their fruit cellar there was that vase still sitting on the little spindly-legged coffee table. The rose never lost so much as a petal."
The house was no longer a house, just a floor plan, without roof or walls or doors or windows; the structure had been condemned and recalled to the drawing board.
"Townfolks say one of the worst things about it was this shrieking sound it made, so keen it cut right through the roar of the wind. They say it sounded like hundreds and hundreds of women, all of them screaming bloody murder." Larry shook his head at the description. "Turns out it's a phenomenon people often hear when their houses are being ripped apart. It's the shrieks of nails being pulled out of the walls and studs and rafters."
It had been months since the tornado but the citizens were still dizzy. Divorces had doubled; crime was down by a half. Pregnancies were soaring and so were suicides. Everybody had tales to tell. Their eyes would go all round and rolly as they related things they had seen or heard:
"Went right through the window of a big cattle truck and snatched the driver out so hard his arms and hands were left grabbed onto the steering wheel."
A burly bootstore manager wrung his hands like a distraught highschool girl, remembering: "What got me about it was the way the cursed thing acted like it was making choices. It kept putting out these little tentacles and feeling around after stuff! I swear to God I saw one of them tentacles reach right into that garage yonder. It passed right over crates and bicycle and garbage cans like they weren't worth its time. It went straight to my wife's Volkswagen, wadded it up like a beer can and stuffed it in a dumpster!"
Yet, for all the awe in the voices and fear in the faces, there was in their eyes that aspect of sanity and strength-- and something more. Dignity. Sanity and strength and dignity.
It's that same look one can see in today's televised faces of disaster survivors-- of neighbors from Florida, pitching in to help dig out of the devastation of yesterday's tornados... of neighbors on the seacliffs of Malibu, working together to prop up toppling homes... of riverside communities passing sandbags up the line to a flooding levy.
In the eye of the storm, ordinary American faces, rich with the shine of dignity. And strength. And sanity.
"That's what the Good ol'Boyz in Boneyard call a preremptive rationalization; and a pretty flimsy one it is, too." -- Bones
"And exactly what is this meandering preamble ambling up to?" you may well ask. Well I may as well tell you: we are going to deal a limited number of TWISTER! production packages over the Web.
When we were performing the show and editing the tapes, we weren't intending to win any Tony awards or Canned Film Festivals. We wanted ritual interaction. We Pre-mailed as much of the play as we could to virtual venue-- sending out song lyrics and costume suggestions and publicity paraphernalia. Now we want to do the same with the script and the tape.
We'll sell the 2 hour video and the script, signed by me for $30, including shipping.
To order your copy of TWISTER and the signed script, email us and we will send you the goods along with a bill and then you send us the money, cash check or money order. We're not set up yet for doing credit cards. To email click on the image below (don't forget to send along your address):
I'm exhausted. Stay tuned and we'll keep up-dating the site....
The World Preemeer of TWISTER! has already happened and you can read about it on the website by clicking on the twister card below:
Click here to return to IntrepidTrips