August 12, 2006 2:00 PM PDT

A day with Survival Research Labs

(continued from previous page)

At the propane shop, though, I discover that there's a wee problem: The technician there won't touch two of the tanks, as they're covered in grease and oil and he fears they could ignite.

So a few harried cell phone calls back to the SRL site later, a friend arrives in her car to clean the tanks and attempt to sweet-talk the nice propane shop gentleman into giving us the fuel. She does. And he does.

In the meantime, the friend and I switch cars, and now I'm entrusting her to drive those four tanks of propane back to the SRL site in my car while I take hers to the hardware store. As I'm driving--she informs me, by the way, that her brakes aren't working too well--I'm trying to decide if anyone's insurance would cover my car if for some reason it suddenly exploded in the middle of downtown San Jose. Probably not, I guess.

At the hardware store, I weave a shopping cart up and down the aisles, in desperate search of all the right parts and pieces that the SRL crew has asked me to get. And I have to admit that it's not as easy as it should be, as I really don't know that much about this stuff. So eventually, I check out, $400 lighter and 600 feet of orange construction site fencing heavier.

A gofer's world
When I make it back to the site, I find out once again why my job is clearly the most important of anyone's.

I return and go up to one of the SRL artists--who is building a machine whose destructive powers come from a jerry-rigged Boeing engine--and tell him I couldn't find the particular pipe fittings he had asked for. He huffily informs me that he might as well stop working because he can't proceed without them.

Ah, power.

Needless to say, I want to see the show go off, so I return to the hardware store and find the pieces.

Later, as the evening staff-meeting approaches, someone suggests I head off to get coffee for the crew.

So a fellow gofer and I navigate the streets of downtown San Jose in search of a Starbucks, and I'm lamenting missing the meeting and the fascinating information that will be discussed. I'm thinking that fetching coffee isn't really what I signed up for.

But then I realize that yet again, the fate of the show is in my hands, since who wouldn't feel important providing the caffeine that could be the difference between crew members falling asleep at the wheel of a dangerous machine and, well, not doing so.

At 10:46 p.m. the show finally begins, just a tad late, but not so much so that the sold-out crowd of 2,000 is restless. And what a show it is.

Afterward, long after the paying public has left, the crew and many hangers-on are still partying. It looks a little bit like I imagine a bombed out city would look: huge char marks and broken, twisted wood everywhere.

But this is not a disaster zone. It's a party, and the SRL crew is letting off weeks' worth of steam as they continue playing with their "toys" late into the evening.

At one point, I join several others who are lying down on the ground directly underneath a trio of very large propane-belching fire cannons.

And as they blast huge plumes of fire into the air above us, cooking us briefly in intense heat, the only sounds I hear are the squeals of delight of everyone around me.

And all I could think, as I squealed along with them, was, only two weeks until Burning Man.

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