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April 21, 2010

Thunder’d

Sights, sounds and smells from the annual fireworks display

The two space-pirate women are engaged in battle, twirling and jousting between the narrow corridor of RV-campers and their milling inhabitants, swinging oversized rubber swords with the might and finesse of a haphazardly choreographed B-grade action flick.

“Have at you!” the brown-coated warrior screams. “Take that!”

Despite the constant roar of fighter jets overhead, it’s the kind of scene that makes you forget you’re at Thunder Over Louisville, much less a resident of a lawful, Earth-based U.S. society.

The space-pirates, aka Divinity Rose and Chris-Rachael Oseland, are members of the Louisville-based flash mob/performance art group Go Go Guerillas. They’re busy canvassing the impromptu trailer park that has formed in just 24 hours atop a surface level parking lot along Witherspoon Street, just a block south of Waterfront Park’s Great Lawn, where already thousands of men, women and children are eating fried food in preparation for the evening’s fireworks display.

As the official starting point of the 2010 Kentucky Derby Festival — aka Louisville’s Two-Week Vacation — the annual air show and fireworks display brings an average of $30 million into the local economy, along with hundreds of thousands of spectators, ranging from families with small children to inebriated, shirtless, overweight men and their cohorts.

Even the normal is weird here: Louisville native DJ Terry and friends Diana and Wayne have converted the immediate vicinity outside their camper into an open-air karaoke stage. But all is not what it seems.

“I love the Derby Festival,” says Diana, who lives a short distance outside Louisville. “We usually watch (the fireworks) from the Indiana side, but this year we decided what the hell, let’s bring the RV.”

On a table adorned with the empty foil shells of what appear to be potato and cheese casseroles and a pair of animatronic, sound-activated breasts, Terry is trying to get the evening’s playlist in order.

“You mean you don’t know who Stevie Ray Vaughan is?” he asks rhetorically. “Wait, who is he again? We should sing some of his songs, maybe.”

Terry stops talking when the robo-tits cease their movement, but after a few seconds addressing the problem, he returns to his laptop, the look on his face one of satisfaction.

“I’m happy to report that the boobs are working again,” he declares.

There is, to borrow a phrase, madness in all directions. For an event that draws an average of 700,000 warm bodies (most of which are staggering come evening) into downtown Louisville each year, the novelty factor borders on insanity. Giant rubber inflatable fighting arenas? Check. Massive, amalgamated hunks of deep-fried meat products on sticks? Why of course. Kids enthusiastically playing with mounds of loose soil? We’ve got that, too.

As the sun begins to set, however, so does the mood on the waterfront begin to change; an eyewitness report from LEO’s editor confirms this: Somewhere in the herd of great and unwashed masses, a plastered (and of course shirtless) man brandishes his genitals before a throng of children as he stumbles down the sidewalk, angrily mumbling something incomprehensible. I seek out a Kentucky State Police trooper, who makes no mention of the offending phallus.

“It’s been just like every other year,” he says. “You get people who have a bit too much to drink, but nothing too bad, no.”

Although the actual fireworks display is delayed by a full 18 minutes, I don’t really notice from my vantage point: A crazed Market Street McDonald’s just blocks from the Ohio River, where rocket-barges are waiting to fire their ordinance into the clear night sky.

Shortly after placing my order and commandeering a booth, a fireworks display of a different sort erupts directly behind me as two pre-teens break out into a fistfight. The mustached manager quickly halts the fight by reverse bear-hugging the smaller youth into submission.

Within moments, two Louisville Metro Police Officers arrive and begin interrogating the diners.

“Did you see what happened?”

“No,” I say. “They were already fully engaged when I turned around.”

“Fully engaged? You mean they were hitting each other?”

“I don’t know, man. They were just being kids.”

The officers linger, threatening the kid — who could’ve been no more than 11 — with jail time, thereby perpetuating some kind of pre-formed anti-authoritarian belief system in his pre-teen heart, which displays itself after the officers leave: The kid is boasting, receiving high-fives from friends and the admiration of a girl who appeared to text the entire incident on her cell phone as it was happening.

Back out on the street, the 700,000-strong crowd heads for higher ground, dragging coolers and pushing baby-strollers as they retreat to their normal lives devoid of space-piracy, dancing tits and urban unrest. Judging by the rate at which they are moving, they can’t wait to get out, either.