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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Jul 14 1999
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First the Fireworks
On July 3 -- after watching a small group of friends consume 18 pounds of hamburger, a storehouse of ribs, several Costco-sized flats of fowl, 4 yards of links, no less than 15 bowls of pasta, potato, and vegetable salad, a pond of margaritas, and copious cases of beer -- I follow the dwindling remnants of the mobile-and-conscious to the front stoop (actually, the neighbor's front stoop), where a bag of illicit pyrotechnics emerges from the trunk of a stolidly American car. With casual aplomb, bottle rockets skim past cars and land on rooftops of newly developed loft spaces; Roman candles, gripped in drink-bewildered hands, are pointed at friends and loved ones with fuses still burning; sidewinders skitter just past legs and tires before exploding in the street. Gina Messa twirls in the center of the broad sidewalk, clutching a string of small exploding firecrackers. Her fingers are burnt only a little, and she grins with perfect white teeth as she waves her stinging fingers in the cooling night air, sitting on the step beside me. She is clearly excited. Her breath is rapid and shallow, and her eyes, framed by short, even bangs, are as wide and watchful as a child in summer who has just trapped and released a grass snake.

"I'm a pretty normal girl," says Messa, watching closely as a lighter is set to another fuse, "but I love blowing things up. I love fireworks."

We all do. We can hardly help it. It's in our blood.

"During the War for Independence, the colonies fought the British Navy, which was, at that time, the largest in the world," says Capt. Steve Peckham aboard the tallship Pilgrim of Newport. "That's the equivalent of Ethiopia taking on the U.S. Navy, today." The crowd murmurs appreciatively, squinting in the blinding glare of the morning sun reflecting off the bay.

"We beat them by outsmarting them," continues Peckham, a thin, wiry, weather-tanned man with a trim beard and a pale blue shirt that reads, "When men were iron and ships were made of wood."

"We outsmarted them with small, maneuverable ships like this."
The Pilgrim is a gorgeous, 114-foot topsail schooner built by master shipwright Dennis Holland to resemble a privateer vessel used during the Revolutionary War to capture enemy crafts and cargo. While Holland was obsessed enough with building the ship to move his family aboard, so he could rent their home to get money for lumber, he never sailed the craft.

"Captains don't know how to build ships," says Peckham, "and shipbuilders don't know how to sail ships." The Pilgrim's current owner, Wade Hall, serves as Peckham's deckhand. After the holiday, he and the rest of the crew -- first mate (and captain's wife) Carol Peckham, second mate Antonio Weise, deckmate Dan Wollenstein, and gunner Gary Harper -- and 10 young teens from a transitional program sponsored in the San Diego area will race seven other tallships on the open sea, from San Francisco to Long Beach. Covering the journey is Tom Steinbeck, son of John Steinbeck; as usual, Tom has the look of a brigadier on safari. (Ten years earlier, in a small bar in winter Massachusetts, Steinbeck and I waged a drinking campaign of fuzzy but monumental proportions. Steinbeck says he's happy to see us both alive; his face suggests surprise might be the more suitable adjective.)

But just now, there are battles to be waged.
"Let's go blast some holes in the Hawaiian Chieftain," says Capt. Peckham, fixing his steely gaze on the bay. A large portion of the 60 guests aboard are put to work hoisting the mainsail with a feebly intoned, "Heave! Ho!" Two volunteers are asked to man the wheel, and we head out for open water, where the official state tallship Californian and the locally moored Hawaiian lie in wait, still rankling from the previous day's conflict.

"I can't help it if our cannoneer loads faster than anybody else on the water," says Peckham with false modesty. "I can't help it that the Californian is state-funded, and they just run out of ammo sometimes." Other tales of antagonism unfold: Bras hung from figureheads, potted trees tied to masts, floating food fights, general mocking. We have stepped on board, into a war zone. Wollenstein, sporting a shaved head and two hooped earrings, scrutinizes a map with crowlike attention; Weise, with his wild hair and bare feet, runs from bow to stern checking and securing lines; Peckham states precise, stern orders in a voice that rarely strains: "Four spokes left," "Full right," "Two spokes left." Within moments the helmsmen are exhausted and asking for relief.

"This isn't a cruise," says the impassive captain. A tremendous tanker crosses our path with a warning bellow and a wake that drenches the deck. When it passes, the enemy ships are in sight. "Clear middeck!" shouts Peckham as Harper -- in a black tunic and red bandanna -- readies the cannons. "Fire!" A loud explosion and a trail of smoke denotes the line of fire: a solid hit on the Hawaiian's port bow. The smell of gunpowder hangs in the air. A little girl wrinkles her nose, but claps as the Pilgrim erupts with applause. The Hawaiian maneuvers, trying to land a broadside hit, but her guns are silent: Her flint stock is out. "Reload! Fire!" The morning is shattered by another thunderous crack. The Hawaiian takes a second hit and the crowd is ecstatic.

"Let's hear it for the Hawaiian," says Capt. Peckham. "Hip! Hip! Hooray!" Three cheers, then into battle, again.

"Four spokes left! Six spokes left! Fire!" The Californian takes a broadside hit. The explosion echoes off her sails and drowns out our cheers.

"That's how you know you got a good hit," laughs Harper, running to the other side of the ship to load cannons. A pitiable charge comes from the Californian, too late to be impressive.

Eight-year-old Jack McArdle sniffs the gunpowder and claps his hands wildly. "Shoot 'em again! Shoot 'em again!" But the California Hornblower, an unarmed ferryboat, has come between the cannons and our target. "Shoot that boat!" shouts McArdle. Harper considers it, but Peckham is not amused.

"That's an unarmed ship, son," explains McArdle's father. "You don't shoot unarmed ships."

"Why?" asks the boy, not taking his eye off the target.
"It's not the American way."
"It's my way," says the boy.

The ferryboat slips away unscathed and the Pilgrim is in serious trouble. Off starboard, the Hawaiian is closing in; off port lies the Californian. We wonder if the ferryboat wasn't a decoy.

"We're in a really bad spot," says the captain. "They're ganging up on us."
Harper fires and scrambles to reload, but it's useless.
"Where's France?" asks a disheartened passenger as we are beaten into submission.

"This is payback," says Capt. Peckham, positioning the cannons toward the city. The empty shots rebounding off the building faces hearten the passengers and crew as nothing like a good, loud bang can.

Outside the "Hillbilly Hoedown," among a glistening echelon of vintage American cars parked in front of 330 Ritch, promoter Rick Quisol looks like a slender Ricky Ricardo getting ready to sing "Chant of the Jungle." He waves and nods his extensively brimmed hat at tattooed greasers and smiling gals in sundresses. Inside, western swing bands wail onstage in front of a mural of a roadside shack and low-slung moon. Folks feast on "Big Bopper" brisket and "Ritchie Valens" quesadillas, and the dance floor jumps with a stylized version of '50s Americana that includes cigarette pants, ducktails, and women with tattoos. But there's something missing.

"When I was growing up in Brisbane," says Quisol, "M-80s were a rite of passage. Now, they're totally illegal, and what do we have? It's important to keep in touch with that side of yourself. To have some semblance of danger in your life." (For that, Quisol will have to depend on Rounders guitar player JB, who will be playing the set with a broken arm.)

"It's about fireworks and barbecues and dressing up," says the infamous Mab-era waitress/stripper/scenester Ruby Blackstock, adorned in red-white-and-blue sequins and a full Pabst Blue Ribbon skirt, "and our country, despite the Republicans."

"I like fireworks," reaffirms Blackstock, who will leave the "Hoedown" early to take the train back to Redwood City, where she and friends will celebrate with a bang. "Everyone likes fireworks."

My distaste for city fireworks displays impels me to spend the rest of the night at the "Red Neck White Trash Blue Ball" held at the Cocodrie, but as 9 o'clock approaches my agitation grows and, finally, despite the tire tossing and impending wet T-shirt contest, I find myself outside, climbing a hill to catch just a glimpse. There are other last-minute spark gazers, and as we ascend, the crowd and the urgency grows. The hill isn't high enough. My pace quickens as I climb the next block and the next. Soon, I am jogging, running, sprinting up the stairs leading to Coit Tower, with a couple of dozen others in tow. On the lower road stands a large crowd. The excitement is palpable.

"How much longer?" I shout, blood pounding, chest heaving, face ardent and flushed.

Three minutes. I bound up the hillside, through brambles, under tree trunks, over a wooden fence, and arrive at the crest just as the first explosion bursts across the sky like a giant sea anemone. I jump in the air, my smile stretched to hurting. I climb a tree and dangle there, grinning with every brilliant spray. I am 9. We're all 9.

A portly Chinese man wearing a small red hat skips down the hill below my tree, singing, "A-me-ri-ca, A-me-ri-ca, A-me-ri-ca," and as the final embers fade from the sky and the last strain of music wafts from below, another song washes over the hill, not some thin, ragtag smattering of words, but a sonorous round of "Happy Birthday." Japanese, French, German, African, American, on top of the hill, with the city and bay stretched at our feet, eyes riveted to sulfur shadows in the air, singing. To the fireworks.

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

By Silke Tudor

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Silke Tudor

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