What a big Man you are

IMG_7639 Well, now, that’s a Man. A mighty tall man. The names are pouring in – Tin Man, Skinny Jeans Man, Clown Man. You can make up your own. But there’s no getting around one thing: this Man is huge. It took a huge crane to get the huge man assembled. It arrived from Reno on Tuesday morning, and by 8 am it was out at the Man Base, along with a hundred or so onlookers plus workers from various crews of an equal number. There were to be two big lifts  – first the Man’s legs would be lifted to an upright position, then his torso would be placed on top of them. We’d only get one try, though – the cranes on site are too small for the job, and this was the only day that the big crane was available. If things didn’t go right, we’d still have a giant Man, but he’d be Reclining Man. Not quite the same. The day broke clear, but very windy. Wind is not a good thing when you are lifting very large objects into the sky. The crane operator, Leonard, was asked what he thought. “No problem,”  he said. Cheers all around. Back in the heart of the city, Booya suggested closing down the heavily used 5:30 road, to keep the dust down. Brilliant.

There was an air of surreality right from the start
There was an air of surreality right from the start

Brandon, the lead rigger in Black Rock City, called together a team of Heavy Equipment and Man Base workers and assigned them to the four guide wires. Then he explained the process of transferring the load from the guide wires to the wires anchored to the ground. The plan was to stabilize the legs, then have Metal Shop Heather weld the base. Heather is the hot-shot welder in Black Rock City, always the person who is called when something special needs to be done. We only know a little bit about welding, but we know enough to know that she lays down a mighty fine bead. But anyone can do that with a little practice. Her skills transcend the ordinary. We’ve watched surreptitiously when she has finished some complex task, because she doesn’t like to be watched when she works. But when she finishes, she pulls away from the weld and tosses her torch back sharply, like she’s just jumped off her horse and finished tying her hog at the rodeo. She’ll also be the person who does the welding in the Man’s middle, and in his neck when the head is attached. Of course she’ll have to be wearing a harness, because she’ll be working way up in the air, but in her case that has presented special problems: One, it has to be a welder’s harness, because it has to be fireproof, and two, welders are often rather big guys, and she’s kinda tiny. It’s not easy to find a welder’s harness that could do the job for her, but eventually a suitably small rig was found.

Metal Shop Heather at work
Metal Shop Heather at work

Anyway, after the Man’s legs were upright and secure, then the crew would move to the torso, get it up in the air, guide the 20×20-foot spine into the legs, then buckle down the support wires again. “The limiting factor in how quickly this will go is how fast we can do this,” Brandon said to the people gathered around him, their multicolored hard-hats nodding in understanding and agreement. There was one task left before the lifting could begin: the Man needed a lube job. Bacon fat was rubbed all over the top of his femurs, to make it easier for the spine to slide in. And then the big leg lift began, and it was almost astonishingly easy how quickly the legs went up. In contrast to last Friday morning, when a smaller crane seemed to strain under the load, eventually hitting 92 percent of its capacity, this time there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation as the legs neared vertical. Although there were people manning the guide wires, most of the stabilizing work was being done by Pope Phabulous in his Hyster, which had also been attached to the legs. As the legs neared vertical, there was an unmistakable wobble back and forth as the weight shifted. “He was twerking!” Layna said. Then the Man stopped moving, and a cheer went up all around. Done! If nothing else, at least we’d have Leggy Man.

As the Man neared vertical, he did a little shimmy shake
As the Man neared vertical, he did a little shimmy shake

As the cables were being attached and tightened to the anchor buckles on the ground, Joe the Builder was underneath the giant legs, trying to make sure the Man was standing upright. He was using a six-foot level, which looked ridiculously tiny in context. A plumb bob would have been no good, because the wind was still blowing steadily. But no matter. “We use the tools we have,” Brandon said. Finally the cables were set, and Pope could climb out of his Hyster cab. “Want to feel my left foot?” he asked. “It’s still shaking.” The simplicity of the task, and the Man himself, for that matter, was both beautiful and terrifying. He’s held together with giant bolts and, as they have come to be known, Joe the Builder’s giant nuts. The legs are secured to the ground by four cables. Yes, those cables were made of thick metal strands, probably half an inch or so thick, but still: four stinking cables holding up two enormous legs weighing tens of thousands of pounds each.

Getting the legs ready for the torso
Pirate, Playground and Gary getting the legs ready for the torso

“There’s a balancing point between ambition and failure,” Andrew Johnstone said to us, “but I think we’ve got the right people to stay on the right side of it.” Pirate took Gary and Playground up in a boom lift, and they helped get the legs ready to receive the torso. On the ground, Brandon had another briefing with the people working the guide wires. The tension was building for everyone, it seemed, except for Leonard, the crane operator. He sat in his cab, legs crossed casually, arms behind his head. It was apparently a walk in the park for him. We asked him later if he had ever been to Burning Man, and in fact he had. He did the big dome lift for Kiwi’s Temple of Transition in 2011. “Burning Man is cool,” he said. “I came back that Friday to check it out.” Then it was time to lift again. The spine of the torso had been sitting securely in the ground, but they had to lift it out of its hole and then, while it was suspended, slice the corners of the ends so that it would slide more easily into the pelvis. Also, Layna slathered more bacon grease on the spine. As you know, you can never have too much bacon at Burning Man. The Man Krewe had already placed the Man’s heart inside the torso. The Man has always had a heart, and this year will be no different. It’s an intricately worked wooden sculpture, usually signed by all the people working on the Man project. Usually, if you know where to look, you can see it because it is highlighted with neon. But not this year, though: the Man’s outer cladding will shield it from view. But don’t you worry – the Man has a heart. The engine of the crane grumbled slightly louder, and just like that, smooth and easy, the torso began to rise in the air. Easy peasy. The torso was flown over into the legs, and the protruding wood was guided into place 50 feet in the air by Bruiser and Joe the Builder. There was an incredibly loud grinding sound as the wooden spine slid into the wooden pelvis. “I couldn’t hear myself think,” Bruiser said later. “I’m yelling, ‘Stop! Stop!’ and I couldn’t even hear myself.’”

Andrew models Joe's big nuts
Andrew models Joe’s big nuts

Little by little, through the grinding noise, the spine slipped into place. Bruiser and Joe were being encapsulated by the descending torso, but they seemed almost too busy to notice as the poked and prodded, persuading the spine into place. Once again the ground crew went into action, transferring the weight from the guide wires to the ground anchors, and the big lifts were done. We’ll have a standing Man, a giant standing Man, after all. “We’re gonna live inside there for the next couple of days,” Layna said afterward. She and Goatt and Cory and all the others will attach the torso to the legs securely. They’ll drill  holes through the giant pieces of wood and push enormous bolts through, attaching them with, yes, once again, Joe’s giant nuts. “This is so surreal,” Crimson Rose said as she watched it all unfolding, and indeed it was. There were dark clouds moving in now, and the radio said people were seeing lighting at the work ranch, and the dust was kicking up. So here we were, standing under a giant Man, who was perched under a giant crane, as a lightning storm approached. “(The crane) is the tallest thing in 50 miles,” Leonard the crane operator said. So everyone scrambled down and huddled underneath the shade structure at the Man Base. The big crowds were long gone, Sarah was coiling up the cables, and it was time to bid Leonard and his crane farewell. We love you Leonard, but you’re paid handsomely by the hour, and it’s time for you to go. The squall missed us. The crews went back up in the boom lifts and went back to work. Tomorrow they’ll continue to secure the connection between the torso and the pelvis, and eventually they’ll put the final cladding on, which will close up the open middle and extend down below the waist. Oh and also tomorrow? They’ll put on the big Man’s head.

Once the legs were up, the torso came next
Once the legs were up, the torso came next


Not everyone was tense the whole day; Chaos and Joe share a light moment
Layna pulling the chain
Eva’s been keeping a picture book of the build
Sarah and Andrew secure the cables
Up you go
Time to button him up

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Greasing the Man with bacon fat
Bettiejune, KJ, Playground and Crimson took in the action
A piece of the Man’s 20×20-foot spine was trimmed to help slide it into place

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Joe only had eyes for the Man
The Man’s heart
Looking for a level
Brandon checks the cables

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Heather getting her game face on


Pope went to Pirate for some commiseration

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Pregame huddle
Brandon reviewed procedures with the crew
Lots of folks were on hand to watch


Gary helped the crane operator get set up


About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

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