Sitting on a porch in Minnesota, savoring these last sultry days of summer sun, I reflect on the plasticity of time and how it molds itself to events, spikes and nubbles and fuzzies and all.
The Farewell Tour of Robert Dante was launched in May with a two-day appearance in Memphis, a fun city with spectacularly spooky graveyards. Outside their creaking gates, Life abounds in all its rich variety of restaurants, book stores and always, music. Between them, workshops, lessons, demos and parties. Ah, life.
Mission accomplished, we cruised to our next destination at our leisure, napping in rest stops until we reached Camp Crucible in Darlington, MD, a nine-day smorgasbord of workshops, demos and consults. The place, under the guidance of Uncle Frazier, retaught me how to relax. I liked the place strongly – and savored the positive vibes – enough to make this the venue to try to break the Guinness World Record, “Fastest Whip.” This entailed cracking 10 cups in a row with a whip. Simple enough, until you realize it had to be done in less than 4 seconds. First attempt went well, with ample volunteers to witness, record and deliriously cheer. But when we looked at the numerous videos afterward, it was obvious the gods were laughing. There were 11 cups lined up, not 10 -- and I'd still broken the record. A few days later, we marshaled the troops once more – this time, it was clockwork, with the 10 targets struck with cracks in 3.87 seconds. All the evidence gathered, tapes burned to disk, statements taken, and off to London went the heavy package. In the past, Guinness took 6-8 weeks to affirm or deny new record claims, but now their email said it could take up to 12 weeks. Patience is exercised as much as persistence in the world-record racket.
Watching the videos, I was mesmerized by the slow motion of the whip. There also were 3-D versions of the exercise, which opened our eyes to possibilities for future videos. Everything came together – even the still photos by William seemed to be divinely synchronized, with 7 of the 10 target cups hanging in the air simultaneously as the uncoiling whip prepared to strike again.
Next gig, we motored to Burlington, Vermont, where our hosts were gracious and welcoming. One attendee came from Montreal, bringing a bottle of “Dante” red wine with her. I am not a drinker, and there was more than enough wine to go around for those who wanted some. I am told it was tasty. Out in the country, long-haired horses in paddocks and pastures watching, the whips cracked for two days, and I think I did pretty well with one hand.
Ahh – that “one hand” thing. Actually, it's the left shoulder. Adhesive capsulitis, aka frozen shoulder. Endocrine problem, diabetic hazard, not enough slippery juice in the joint so things lock up, painfully, whether you're moving or not. Gravity itself becomes the great enemy. Can't tuck my shirt in, comb my hair, put my finger in my left ear, or steer the car with both hands. The cure is to give a general anesthesia, pump the capsule full of fluid, go inside the shoulder with surgical instruments and manually break the adhesions loose. I've been told it sounds like branches being cracked to pieces, but with a quality surgeon your bones won't be broken -- even if it feels like it. I now refer to my orthopedic surgeon as my 'wingman,' and I am happy to recommend Dr. Tom Walsh of Minneapolis for any problems you may have in your arms or hands.
How bad is it? This is a career-ender, an unexpected and abrupt stop of a 25-year journey. The seven stages of grief, dark thoughts of mortality, the futility of the mission, the nature of the human condition at ground level.
The floating roads took us to Cincinnati, where Mary's folks welcomed us for a few days before we fluttered back to Minneapolis, home base, for an oil change. The month of June was not yet finished, and we had a full head of momentum going.
We sling-shotted out of orbit, destination Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, one of our favorite cities, for a three-day weekend whip fest. Kind hosts Laura and Claude let us rest up for a week before hitting the boards again, and Bryan was our benevolent host. From him, I got a ticket to "The Farewell Tour of Robert Dante," which I will frame and hang next to my Guinness World Record certificates.
Claude is a Civil War buff and owns many interesting books about the era, including a three-volume work about the Battle of Gettysburg I read over three nights. He and I also watched a three-part miniseries about Gettysburg and Daniel Day Lewis' flesh-and-blood portrait of Lincoln, right on the 150th anniversary of the history-changing campaign. Two weeks later, we'd drive through the actual battlegrounds in Pennsylvania.
Confident in Winnipeg, I took a shot at breaking a second Guinness World Record, “Most candles snuffed with a whip in 60 seconds." The world record had been held by Adam Winrich with 50 candles. I was certain I could beat that number. But the record had been broken a few months before by a Chinese national who raised the number to 78 candles, a mountain quite a bit higher and steeper than I thought it was.
I stacked the odds in my favor using a nylon whip which sprang back into its shape faster than a leather whip would. I could muscle the whip to get more speed without sacrificing accuracy. The rules stipulate the whip cracker has to be 2 meters from the candles – I used a 5-foot whip, relying on the fall-cracker combination of the whip to make up the distance. I positioned myself so the whip would be close enough to puff the flames out without splashing candle wax. It was a good plan.
One hundred votive candles were lined up in five tiers for the first day's attempts. I thought this would be easier if the targets were clustered – but they were so close that two and three candles at a time were being snuffed – and these candles would not count toward the total. Changing heights meant taking fresh aim every 20 candles or so. These results were not good.
Next day, we lined 100 candles along 30 feet of waist-high boards, each candle placed 4 inches from its neighbor. I planned to take mini-steps between cracks, the consistency of the motion allowing me to “cycle” the whip to go faster. This plan worked – but multiple snuffs of candles torpedoed me. The best clean count I could achieve was 74 candles. The record stood.
I do not mind failing. Babe Ruth was not only the home-run king, he was also the strike-out king. In my job, I put my neck on the chopping block again and again, like a matador. Failure becomes a dress rehearsal, no shame in not setting a new mark. You have to get out there, heart hammering, dry-mouthed, to stand on the line. You can't go for it without “going for it.” Nothing is guaranteed. You play the odds do your best and hope your gods are smiling today.
End of June reached, Farewell Tour was clicking along like a Swiss watch. We bid adieu to the green veils of the Northern Lights and chugged back into the good old USA on July 1st at Pembina, North Dakota.
Here, problems arose. We had three bananas from Canada to eat on the road. We admitted it. This was enough to warrant a complete search of the car, apparently. Mary and I were held in a locked room while they tore our car apart (perhaps looking for citrus or onions, as well). We heard someone announce they had found a computer. We remained sequestered while they browsed our files. Finally, a flak-jacketed youngster informed us there were “questionable” photos on the computer, but they would not show me the “evidence.”
Curiously, when I pointed out that as a diabetic I needed to eat something after a few hours, they gave me – one of the bananas.
We were held until late evening, patted down and groped, interviewed by an agent of Homeland Security. The laptop computer and several flash drives were seized. Here, 60 days later, the agent tells me they are still doing a forensic analysis of the computer, and they cannot tell me when they will be done nor what if anything they have found.
The computer, incidentally, holds all my financial records, contracts, contacts, backups for books and flyers, email archives, notes about phone calls, scripts, writings, internet backups – in short, everything needed to run my business and maintain correspondence. Within two weeks, we had turned down at least $1500 in gigs for the fall because we did not have access to our computer. Time to involve our congressmen, I guess.
Turned loose, we zoomed to Minneapolis and immediately bought another laptop computer, so we were at least still online.
We raced east, reaching Piscataway, NJ before July 4 for Tesfest 2013, where we sold our remaining stock of dvds and books. After a jam-packed weekend of workshops and demos (and complimentary whip repairs), we aimed the wrinkled nose of our car north to hang out for a few days with my friend R in upstate New York. Some private workshops paid for this part of the trip, a green immersion in the verdant thrum of the forest. I filled the quiet evenings with whip repairs and cracker weaving. An oasis is La Domain Esemar.
Next stop Pennsylvania, via Gettysburg, the chilling, gaudy tourist-fest of statues and pastures passing by on both sides of us, mile after mile. That evening, we camped at a friend's charming little bed and breakfast where Mary chatted with the resident ghost from the early 1800s (Mary will talk to anyone unselfconsciously, living or dead, a remarkable talent).
The rolling hills of Pennsylvania gave way to the steeper hills and forested mountains surrounding Roanoke, Virginia. I remember I lectured to a packed room, trying to talk loudly enough so the folks down the hall could hear me.
Once again, we embarked for Cincinnati. Mary's parents had renovated a downstairs bedroom for our use. We indulged in a week of blissful nothing, feeling peaceful. Already, we had traveled more than 3,000 miles from Canada. After we caught our breaths, we programmed the GPS to guide us to Greenville, Ohio for our last appearance of the summer, the Annie Oakley Days Festival Showcase, ramrodded by bullwhip pioneer and showman Gery Deer.
It's always good to see old friends – Kirk Bass and Melody (and their amazing kids), shaman Elk, Gery, a very tall Chris (The Whip Guy) Camp, lightning-fast Luke – a lot of whip handling talent there, so the whip demos drew the largest audiences of the fair, from the first show to the last
I tried for the candle-snuffing record again. I had held myself back, not participating in the contests and shows, but my left arm from shoulder to wrist by now had me in constant agony, draining my energy and my patience. I gave the candles two good tries, but I did not come as close as I had in Winnipeg. Knowing I'd have shoulder surgery in one week made the bitter pill of defeat easier to swallow, but it also made me wonder if the Annie Oakley Festival was jinxed. In 2009 I tried to break the 'most cracks in a minute' record, two weeks before my first surgery on my right shoulder. The results, still floating around on YouTube for the world to see, were disappointing. Hmm. Coincidence?
End of the road, back to Minneapolis, where Peter and Angel had offered us a safe place to recuperate from my Aug. 5th surgery.
That was that summer, that was. The Farewell Tour of Robert Dante in 2013. People still presume to ask my wife if I am ever going to get a “real” job, but as the Magic Eight-Ball says, “Don't count on it .” I stopped arguing with the gods years ago and accepted that a big part of my job is simply to do the best I can with what I have at hand – usually, that means either a bullwhip or a pen.
The record calls for 10 targets to be hit with a cracking whip. Witnesses, timekeepers (with clocks to measure 1/100ths of a second), photographers and videographers were all on hand for the event at Camp Ramblewood in Maryland.
The previous record was 4.85 seconds. My goal was to break the 4-second mark. My first run through was 4.37 seconds, good enough to beat the record -- but not good enough for me.
Saturday, June 1st at 10 a.m., I did it in 3.87 seconds.
The attempt was filmed from many angles, and included 3D versions. Here is a video taken at a close angle that captures the tension and speed of the event.
And if you want to see what the Minneapolis Star-Tribune has to say about it, read the story HERE
The Greenville, OH native's legacy is on display year-round at the Garst Museum, but June 25-28 all stops are out with look-alike contests, fast-draw competitions, knife-throwing and whip-cracking shows and the ever-popular Western Arts Showcase hosted by Gery Deer.
It's one of our favorites, so we'll be there this year.
For more information, go to The Annie Oakley Festival website.
Bullwhips are no longer allowed on Washington State's Olympic College campus after an email complaint from a professor about "the historical use of whips and their meaning to her as well as other students."
The student newspaper's story, "Bullwhip controversy inspires a forum," can be seen at http://www.ocolympian.com/news/article_28654240-919d-11e2-b471-0019bb30f31a.html#.UUuDAGySGLk.
In short, student Jason Harris would sometimes crack a bullwhip on campus as a hobby -- until professor Karen Bolton sent out an email saying that, as a person of color, she felt offended by the recreational practice because of the historical context of the whip and it’s (sic) origins in slavery.
A public forum on the issue, attended by OC’s President Dr. David Mitchell, gave students, staff and instructors the chance to share their feelings about bullwhips, both as dangerous weapons and from their racial standpoint in relation to Bolton's email. (I do not know if any whip experts were present at this discussion.)
Reading this, I could not believe that in this day and age, such ignorance and prejudice could rule at an institution of higher learning.
I tried to see the issue from Professor Bolton's perspective. A few weeks ago, I watched a TV special about "Roots." In one scene, a black slave was beaten with a bullwhip wielded by another black slave under the watchful eye of a white overseer.
It is a wrenching scene emotionally, but it was theater. The whip technique was wretched, with the vicious cracks obviously added in a "sweetening" session in the editing room.
This 30-second scene was not intended to be a history lesson about bullwhips, or it would have discussed the physics of the apatosaurus' tail, the whips found buried with Neanderthal hunters, the whips drawn on the walls of the pyramids as symbolic of royal power. It also did not note the significance of whips in Australian culture, where children take part in contests at county fairs, vying for honors that recognize their skill and artistry in whip routines. It certainly did not address the growing feeling among many whip crackers around the world that the day is nearing when whip cracking will have a place in future Olympics.
Consequently, I wrote this letter to the student newspaper's editor, Allysen Dyrness:
Is this story for real or is it an early April Fool joke?
I am astounded, because Washington is home to David Morgan, the internationally renowned maker of the whips used in the Indiana Jones films, and home to Restita de Jesus, founder of the Snapdragon Whip Enthusiasts, a respected organization in the world of martial arts. It just goes to show, I guess.
Personally, I had no idea that my entertaining and exciting bullwhip shows are only echoes of historical oppression -- and apparently, neither have my audiences over the years.
3- time Guinness World Record holder (Most bullwhip cracks in one minute)
Author of "Let's Get Cracking! The How-To Book of Bullwhip Skills"
Professional bullwhip artist and teacher
A few days later, I received this reply from Ms. Dyrness:
My name is Ally Dyrness and I am an editor of The Olympian. This is indeed a true story and is a topic which is still being discussed. If you would care to share your view on the situation we would love to hear it and I am sure we could set up an interview. Let us know what time works for you and we will see what we can do about it.
Thank you for your time and concern,
After a bit of thought, I replied:
Thank you for your invitation to comment. I have taken the liberty of forwarding your note to David Morgan and Restita de Jesus, noted below. I am on the road this week and I am not able to sit down with a phone until this weekend. I imagine you are on a deadline, so you are welcome to reprint my original letter (also below) and/or to speak with these other two whip experts who live in your area.
I am sure that one or the other would be happy to speak with you shortly.
Whether coincidentally or not, a few hours later, I got this note from Jason Harris:
I wanted to thank you for something that you did for me - you spoke up about the Bull Whip fiasco that happened at a Washington State College (I was the individual involved in the ruckus). I was shown the E-mail that you sent in about the incident, and was honored that you took the time to speak up about it.
Thank you again, Mr. Dante; it meant a lot to me.
I think Jason Harris has handled himself well in this matter. While we may not have control over a situation (even when it is unfair), we still have control over our reactions. And that, in turn, gives us control over the situation. In this entire ridiculous matter, he has shown himself to be a class act.
Under the guise of political correctness, what we have here is a confederacy of dunces, as Jonathan Swift wrote: "When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him."
So that's my say. If you'd like to toss your own two cents into the pot, write to Ally Dyrness, an editor of The Olympian, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whipcracker Adam Winrich aims the camera at some of his practice sessions, cutting flowers, snuffing candles and splitting soda cans in this (fairly) recent video. So enjoy! It's a good watch!
Adam asked me why I chose to features this video. I answered,
"I picked this one because:
- it reflects well on whip cracking as an art and a sport.
- it is short - 2 minutes which holds the viewer's attention before boredom sets in.
- not a lot of talking.
- it has variety.
- it has humor.
- it shows good whip cracking skills.
And perhaps the biggest reason...
So enjoy! It's a good watch!