The Thunderdome is a huge geodesic dome where two people fight. Yes, it is a real-life version of the fighting arena portrayed in the 1985 movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The Thunderdome has been a thriving institution at Burning Man since the mid 1990's. It is organized by a camp named Death Guild, which is also an Goth/Industrial/Metal dance club in San Francisco. There are two combatants strapped into their respective harness. The saddles/harnesses are attached to bungee cords hanging from the top of the dome. Combatants are armed with a foam covered bat, rather like a Nerf bat. They fight for three rounds. The round begins by strong men pulling the bungee cords apart, then letting them go so the two fighters are thrown into the middle of the arena.
It is violent and you can get hurt. It is not uncommon to see blood in the Thunderdome. There is a saying at Burning Man: Read your ticket! This refers to the legal notice on the back of the ticket that states that you assume responsibility for injury or death by attending the event. Burning Man isn't suppose to be safe.
The Thunderdome was something that I always wanted to do, but never got around to it. One reason is that you need to have an opponent. People line up in pairs and wait their turn to fight. You could show up alone and just find someone to fight with, but that wouldn't be as meaningful as a fight that has a purpose. So I likely would not have ever fought if not for expressing myself on social media. Before Facebook took over the universe there was a social media site frequented by burners, it was called Tribe. Tribe was more about shared interests and lengthy discussions, which were often rants and flame wars. At some point in early 2007 there was a discussion about war. I've always been against war and said something to the effect that there is no honor in fighting an immoral war. Although logically correct, statements like that offend a lot of veterans.
My anti-war statement received a very hostile response. A burner who went by the playa name Jar Jar threatened to kill me. Yes a literal death threat. I didn't actually fear for my life, and said something like "Dude, that's not cool." His response was to double down and threaten me again. So I said something like, "Okay let's fight in the Thunderdome." I knew nothing about Jar Jar and didn't really expect the fight to happen, mostly because it is so difficult to meet up with people at the event. It did happen though, because I kept in touch with a mutual Tribe friend, with the playa name Rapunzel, who knew Jar Jar. So I went to her camp and the detail of when to have the fight was set.
I arrived at the Thunderdome at the agreed time after having partied most of the day. I was wearing just a silver cape and a piece of silver material as a wrap around skirt. For hygienic reasons you can't fight in the Thunderdome naked, so I fashioned my skirt into a makeshift pair of shorts. In retrospect I wish I had been in silver make up, but this was Thursday and I usually wait till Friday to be Silver Man.
The rounds of the fight are very short. When you're in a fight they go by even faster! Here is an important tip, should you ever fight in the dome, when they release you, you're thrown forward and your face will hit the playa dust. You need to be ready for that. Neither myself nor Jar Jar were prepared for that. The winner of the battle is decided by the crowd hanging on the outside of the geodesic dome. After three rounds, the very goth MC holds up the hand of the combatants and people cheer for their preferred fighter.
In keeping with my pacifist leanings I had a very foolish idea. My plan was to just stand there and let Jar Jar pummel me. That was to be a statement against war. I did that for the first round, which you can kind of see in the video below. I tried to be passive and just protect myself, but that isn't really clear. Toward the end it was a bit more clear, because I just stood there and held my bat in front of myself. Unfortunately there are many problems with that plan. One is that without explanation nobody knew what the hell I was trying to say. After all, the whole thing is about being a bad ass. I just looked like a loser. Another more basic thing is that it was no fun!
So I came out swinging in round two. In the third round I definitely got the better of my opponent. I grabbed his bat with one hand and wailed on him with the other.
Here is the fight!
When the fight was over the crowd cheered much more for Jar Jar. I felt disappointed and defeated of course, then I considered my abandoned strategy of pacifism. I also realized that most of Jar Jar's camp was there to cheer for their friend, whereas I didn't bring a cheering section. It's not necessarily an impartial crowd, and I only fought well in the last round.
After the fight all was forgiven. Jar Jar and I hugged. He offered me a ride on a mutant vehicle that was there to take him back to camp. Jar Jar, a gay ex-marine, suffered from diabetes and war injuries including lung problems that may have been caused by exposure to agent orange in Vietnam. The war I so actively opposed. Unfortunately Jar Jar died while waiting for a lung transplant in July of 2011. Jar Jar my friend, rest in peace fellow warrior, your war may have been wrong, but you served your country with honor.
Thank you to Shawn Murphy for taking the stereo photo of the fight, using my FED Stereo camera, and a big thank you to Doug Churchill for the video!