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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Jul 21 1999
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Forevertron, and a Day
Highway 12 lazes through Sauk County, Wisc., cushioned on either side by emerald green farmland and brightly painted grain silos. During the summer, warm rainstorms soak the asphalt within a breath's span and lightning bolts skitter across fields strewn with glistening tractors. The air is spongy and green.

The Sauk County seat is Baraboo, Wisc. -- famed hub of American circus lore, where men still carve wagon wheels and schoolchildren covet the smell of greasepaint -- but the true Midwest pilgrim's bourn lies some five miles south, across from the abandoned Badger Army Ammunition Plant on Highway 12, just outside Prairie Du Sac, under the auspices of Delaney's Surplus. Travelers from all over the world come to Wisconsin seeking out Delaney's, not for the nourishment offered by endless cans of Superman SpaghettiOs or for the comfort and security of 80 bright yellow aqua-lungs, but because, somewhere behind the vast castaway emporium, hidden by a bulwark of towering trees, lies the Forevertron, and its creator, Dr. Evermor.

For two years, I had carried a small snapshot of the Forevertron pressed between the pages of favorite books. I didn't know it had a name. I didn't know how big it was or what it did. But I did know the man who dropped the seductive photo into my lap had been on intimate terms with a great many unusual things, and the first time he saw the Forevertron he fell to his knees. So I came.

There are whispers of the Forevertron in the tall grass along the highway outside Delaney's, tall metal sculptures that invite long stares and experimental touches: a pale wrought-iron gazebo with peeling benches and delicate curlicues; a towering crimson heart, made of 6-inch-thick steel, that took an architect's mind and a giant's hand to erect; tremendous birds with feathery brown wings formed from the rusted blades of clipping shears; several man-sized lizards standing upright with wide comical eyes, chain-link tails, and pursed lips so sweet with mild surprise that you might ignore their industrial beginnings.

But these are mere whispers.
Through an unlocked gate of two long red metal spars, down a short dirt road, and around a gentle bend waits the chimeric world of Dr. Evermor -- 12 acres, 15 years, 10,000 sculptures, more than 1,000 tons of scrap, and the Forevertron.

Dr. Evermor was born Tom Every in 1938 in Madison, Wisc., where certain passions became manifest at a very early age. He recalls wartime recycling as a child, youthful patriotism infused by used toothpaste tubes and old rags. He remembers collecting newspaper and scrap metal with his Cub Scout troop in Brooklyn, Wisc. He remembers when the troop turned its attention to other benevolent causes, while he continued to hunt for stray pieces of copper and iron. At 11, he sold his first full railroad car and founded the Brooklyn Salvage Co. Later, he founded the Wisconsin By-Products Corp., recycling for U.S. Rubber and collecting industrial scrap for local dealers. Then he went into demolition, overseeing the wrecking of more than 350 major industrial sites over the next 20 years.

Every has a gift for distinguishing metals -- something his wife of 35 years says a person is either born with or not -- and as he tore apart trains, canning factories, power plants, churches, breweries, creameries, and railroad cars, he began to appreciate how the pieces fit together. He began admiring the intrinsic beauty of industrial form. He saved fragments from meltdown and started constructing metal "fantasy machines." During a 12-year association with Alex Jordan, a wealthy eccentric who turned his "bachelor pad" into Wisconsin's most popular tourist attraction, Every created countless machines, including the world's largest carousel, which became the chief enticement at Jordan's House on the Rock. Today, Every's baroque style and ingenuity still permeate the house and grounds but, as often happens in the confluence of art and commerce, when the relationship went sour, Every went without credit or compensation.

The Forevertron was Dr. Evermor's colossal corrective.
Sauk County is draped in a threadbare cloud cover that bathes the sculpture garden in pale ivory light. Insects and lawn mowers buzz through the tall grass. Lady Eleanor, Dr. Evermor's wife, sits in the center of "Metahappenings" -- a round cement patio scattered with smallish, carry-away sculptures like the wide-armed Happys and the leering Hors D'oeuvre Kittys -- with a gold paintbrush, putting a sparkle in a nutcracker Periwinkle's eye. Visitors trickle through the trees, tentatively asking if the sculpture garden is open. They are an odd assortment -- families with relatives in the area, folk-art seekers, net-savvy Winnebago warriors, artists with solemn faces and sketchbooks, and pilgrims with rumors in their pockets. Lady Eleanor smiles at them all and takes donations when she cares to.

The sculpture garden is always open, and even when it's not open, it's available -- as local children who nightly raid the soda cooler will attest. There are no tour routes or guides. There are no time limits, or souvenir T-shirts at the end of the road. There are only dinosaur flies as big as semi-trucks, with autoclave bodies and giant compound eyes; scornful spiders on spindly legs two stories high; 17-foot-tall Madagascar "elephant birds," made with salvaged instruments that play by wind or by hand, and packs of prairie cats with slavering mouths stalking them through the trees; a 30-foot-long wagon that makes coffee and grills hot dogs; God-sized violins, running and jumping through flocks of peacocks; cosmic listening devices with Victrola-style megaphones; armies of "computer bugs"; hordes of lizards; choruses of wide-eyed whatnots. It goes on: Behind every tree, under every shrub, around every corner lurk whimsical notions and terrible creatures, assembled from the extinct trappings of industrial revolution.

"Children seem to understand more than adults," says Dr. Evermor. "They don't ask what it was, they ask what it is." Children also know that bridges should be crossed and stairs should be climbed, just as pliers beaks should open and close and spring necks should twist and bob. "I never alter the form of the materials," says Dr. Evermor in a rumbling tone that belies the forgone utility of the cigar he chews throughout the day. "That's where the whimsy comes from. There is no preconceived idea of how a thing should look. The sculptures are kinetic. They move. They should be moved."

Dr. Evermor is a stocky, weathered man of cockney descent who has most recently taken to wearing a pith helmet over his snowy hair. His gaze is that of a career welder, lingering just above a focal point that is most commonly a blinding flame; his arms are hairless and pitted from years of contact with white-hot metal, and his oculus bears infinitesimal scars. The "school of hard knocks" explains his forthright manner, firm handshake, and disdain for sleep, but it does little to explain the phantasmic Victorian style of his art, which seems culled from a long lineage rife with pirates, royalty, and mad inventors. But even a study of his style can't explain the Forevertron.

The Forevertron is a 150-foot-long, 40-foot-tall "machine" made from nearly 300 tons of scrap. It has been inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest recycled metal sculpture in the world, but it is not the size of the thing that inspires pilgrimages, it is the grandeur and the purpose.

The heart of the Forevertron is a glass ball suspended in a brass egg towering some 35 feet in the air, sustained by three tremendous tesla coils (for which state contracts have been issued, forbidding their operation). Spires rise in the air, connected by delicate swings; elegant metal canopies shelter sinister apparatuses of unknown origin; spiral staircases ascend to towers harboring a mammoth telescope and an ornate gazebo with a heart-shaped love seat; white bridges arch gracefully from the ground; colossal gears link with engines and combines; large metal insects guard the gangway; and an antique traffic light waits to perform its grand obligation.

There are recognizable parts on the Forevertron -- a 17th-century double-compound steam engine, the decontamination chamber from the first Apollo mission -- but taken as a whole, it is an Orwellian fantasy, both terrible and magnificent to behold.

As the story goes, the Forevertron was originally conceived in the 1800s by a distant relative of Dr. Evermor, a young boy duly inspired by Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. It is an escape from the petty "hocus pocus" of daily life, a direct shuttle to the big man upstairs. Everything else -- the bird band, the phone booths, the lizard sentries, the Victorian grills -- is just a set, made in preparation for that great day.

"When the dear Dr. Evermor is ready to go," says Dr. Evermor, "he will climb into the glass ball inside the copper egg. All the equipment will be humming, the band will be playing, the chorus will be singing. It will be a great day of celebration. The king and queen will sit in the gazebo. The doubting Thomases will watch from the telescope. The 'Olfactory' will fill the air with lovely smells. The whole town will be here, and food will be made for them on the 'Epicurean.' The 'Juicer Bug' will make sure there's enough power, and a giant force beam will shoot Dr. Evermor into the heavens. People will listen for his arrival on the 'Celestial Ear.' Colonel Chester Gjergon will steer the egg from 'Overland Master Control.' (He's been my dentist for 50 years; he can be trusted.) And everyone will rejoice."

Indeed.
Driving around Sauk County, Dr. Evermor's thoughts turn to more secular matters: how industrial shapes from the 1850s and 1950s are vanishing in a molten stream; how they should be preserved for the next generation, as examples of history, design, and art; how he would like more space to build the testament. A storm begins to darken the expansive horizon. Lightning flashes across the fields, and churlish clouds roll toward Highway 12. We return to the Forevertron as night falls.

This is how it should be seen, I think, silhouetted against a roiling sky, lit only in exquisite nightmarish flashes. I'm standing at the gangplank, waiting, watching. A low rumble begins, an archaic engine springing to life somewhere to my left. A violent gust of wind rips through the Forevertron, making the swings sway, spinning armatures, and lifting cables. Everything creaks and clanks. The engine is roaring now, but the wind drowns it out. The night is suddenly very dark. I don't know where Dr. Evermor is. Lightning creates a photo negative of the Forevertron. It is trembling. The egg is suddenly illuminated, three points of light burning inside the glass ball. And the storm explodes, sheets of warm rain seeming to erupt from inside the ball, drenching me, blinding me. I can hear nothing but the maelstrom, and for a moment Dr. Evermor's ascension seems very, very probable.

Over the rain his voice rises, "Close the windows on my car!"
There will be no ascension tonight -- Dr. Evermor has earthly plans for the ammunition plant across the road, a 300-acre testament that can be seen by satellite -- but if anyone can do it ....

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

By Silke Tudor

About The Author

Silke Tudor

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